WD-40 is one of those rare successful products that defies basic branding conventions. Nobody agrees on exactly what’s it’s good for, since the product has over 2,000 documented uses (among them debugging windshields and removing chewing gum). Few people know what the name means, either (but just for the record, it’s Water Displacement, version No. 40.) Users still argue whether the stuff is a lubricant or not (in fact, it’s a mix of lubricants).
But here’s one thing most everyone can agree on. Not only is WD-40 immensely popular (some 80% of American homes have a can), it’s possibly the most identifiable product in the hardware store. That blue can with a red cap and yellow bib asserts itself better than any brand of paint thinner or extension cord could ever hope to.
And for the most part, it did.
In 2011, WD-40 launched a Specialist line, a collection of lubricants, penetrants and degreasers formulated for professionals. To distinguish it from the stock WD-40 line, the company gave it a different trade dress—a black and silver can with a yellow top. The thinking at the time was that tradesmen (always rushing to the next job and with little time for messing around) would be able to identify the Specialist can quickly on the shelf.
The problem, from a branding perspective, was that the new line didn’t look much like WD-40. (Actually, the can bore a passing resemblance to Raid multi-insect killer.)
And so, nine years down the road, the WD-40 Company decided that it was time to correct that.
“We conducted research a couple years ago and found that our most iconic asset is the blue-and-yellow can with the red top,” group brand manager Felicia Reno told Adweek. “But the Specialist line wasn’t leveraging any of those cues. We thought we could grow it faster if we [did].”
The task of overhauling the new line went to New York-based branding and packaging firm JAM (an acronym for Johnson and McGreevy, its co-founders.) Having worked for a who’s who of consumer products behemoths including Kraft, Arm & Hammer and Bayer, JAM was no stranger to famous name brands. But the WD-40 job was still a delicate one, calling for changing the look of the new line just enough to distinguish itself, but not so much that it didn’t look like WD-40.
“One of the critical elements of this was building off the established equity of WD-40 and their colors, but changing them enough so there would be no confusion at shelf,” Nick McGreevy explained. “They were concerned that it should look like WD-40 blue but also look different. It was a real tightrope to walk.”
The most obvious adjustment was turning the professional line’s cap color back to red to bring it into step with the WD-40 family. JAM also decided to simplify the visible nomenclature, doing away with a few obvious terms (“rust release” and “spray” to name two) to streamline and professionalize the can’s appearance.
The rest of the modifications required more finesse. JAM removed the black background and replaced it with a dark blue, since blue was one of WD-40’s core colors. To denote the Specialist line can as a professional-grade product, however, the shade of blue received extra attention.
By removing the white background and applying the blue directly over the can’s aluminum surface, JAM created a rich cobalt hue suggestive of the kinds of finishes you’d see in an auto body shop.
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