Color is a universal language. We communicate through color, regardless of background, gender, or ethnicity. But does anyone own color? If you’re inclined to say ‘Yes,’ only one entity comes to mind: Pantone.
And while Pantone’s commercial success story is interesting, I want to tell you about their marketing masterpiece, Color of the Year.
But let’s first back up a bit…
What is Pantone, and how did it start?
In 1950, Morris and Jessee Levine founded a small printing and advertising agency. The business was a middling success, but then it fell on hard times. That’s when Larry Herbert bought the agency, renamed it Pantone, and proceeded to make history.
A global standard for color
As an employee at the printing agency, Herbert was subjected to a source of constant frustration. Talking about colors with clients was convoluted and complex.
Here’s what I mean.
Try to imagine a color based on the following description: “I want a vivid red – not too bright, more sophisticated, but not as dark as Burgundy.” I can guarantee you that the color you’re imagining and the one in my head are completely different. And while this may be frustrating when you’re talking about a new dress you’re considering buying with your best friend, imagine ordering 2000 company t-shirts from China and having just a verbal description or a photo to go on…
But Herbert’s agency also made color cards for cosmetics manufacturers. Cosmeticians could point to a piece of paper when presenting a new lipstick to a customer rather than explaining the shade of red. And, as Slate notes, Larry Herbert’s insight was to realize how valuable this type of color reference card could be if he broadened it to include all sorts of contexts and colors.
This was the birth of Pantone. A universally recognized reference for color. It is now used by any industry where color is crucial: graphic design, printing and branding, manufacturing, packaging, interior design, floral and decor, and so much more!
OK, so Pantone created a global system for cataloging color. But what is the commercial viability of that?
Essentially, Pantone sells access to its intellectual property – a consistent library of colors with their associated numbers and ‘printing recipes’ for how to recreate these colors. I can tell my designer to use Pantone 186 C for my next business card run. He will translate this to the printer, who knows how to create Pantone 186 C on his press. Everyone along the supply chain will know precisely what we’re talking about.
Pantone sells a shared language and peace of mind for business users.
While this may sound abstract, creating the color swatches and ensuring consistency is incredibly convoluted. I won’t go into the details here, but Mental Floss has a great piece detailing how color technicians develop a new color (a process that takes six months) and how swatches are produced. Nowadays, this process includes spectrophotometers which add to the scientific feel of it all.
As of 2019, Pantone’s Guide consists of 2161 colors – and these are just the ones used for graphic design. There’s a separate palette for fabrics. I’m saying “as of 2019” because the palette grows every few years:
If you’re working with color, you need to get a new up-to-date Pantone Guide when the company “publishes” new colors. Additionally, since swatches fade and degrade with time, Pantone recommends replacing guides every 12-18 months. The current price of the most popular guide combo is $287. And while Pantone doesn’t publicly disclose sales numbers, this surely adds to… well, a lot of money.
The acquisition deals of Pantone show just how valuable the company is. In 2007, the Herbert family sold Pantone for $180 million to X-Rite, which makes spectrophotometers and specializes in the hard science of color. In 2012, X-Rite and Pantone were bought by Danaher Corp. for $625 million.
There’s a ton of Pantone merchandise now, from mugs and keychains to co-branded Motorola phones and sneakers. The products are now a staple for design enthusiasts. They can be bought online or even in physical stores like the brand’s latest in Hong Kong:
Moving toward the downright esoteric, there’s a Pantone Hotel, whose 61 rooms offer visitors different hues designed to evoke a different mood. There’s also a Pantone Café. Еverything from the menu to any beverage or bite is linked to a Pantone color.
The Color of the Year campaign does a great job of injecting newness into the merchandise products – every year, there’s a selection of products with the trendy hue.
Pantone Color Institute
Pantone Color Institute is the other big revenue driver here. The consulting arm works with brands to guide them through the finer points of color psychology. This includes branding and visual identity, bespoke palette development, workshops, and more.
There obviously isn’t a public price list for this, but consulting can be highly lucrative. It’s exactly why the Pantone Color Institute wants people to obsess over color – like the Color of the Year. The more focus there is on color in the public discourse, the more brands will invest in mindful color usage. This is where Color of the Year comes into play.
How did Pantone Color of the Year start?
“It really started as a one-off event at Pantone,” the company’s Vice President Ron Potesky says, “where some of the management at the time said, ‘Hey, this would be pretty cool. We should come up with a Color of the Year.’ And so it started in 2000 and just continued every year thereafter.”
The first Color of the Year (Cerulean Blue) was announced at a watershed moment – the dawn of a new millennium where everyone was busy making predictions. At the time, it was a simple marketing activity. But the early success encouraged the company to go on.
The Color of the Year is more than a color, though. It’s a temperature reading of the current cultural context.
For example, 2012’s ‘Tangerine Tango’ was a vivid red-orange that energizes. 2017’s “Greenery” was selected to evoke people’s desire to disconnect from technology and unwind closer to nature.
Pantone tries to keep things interesting. In 2021, it selected not one but two colors of the year: the bright yellow ‘Illuminating’ and the dark ‘Ultimate Grey.’ In 2022, it created a completely new color of the year called ‘Very Peri.’ The team said this was necessary because there wasn’t the right hue to truly reflect what the experts wanted to say.
What is the 2023 Pantone Color of the Year?
The current Pantone Color of the Year is Viva Magenta.
Pantone says Viva Magenta is “a pulsating color whose exuberance promotes a joyous and optimistic celebration, writing a new narrative.” It’s an empowering color that gets us into the new year with fearless energy and motivation.
Pantone explains the logic behind the Color of the Year selection in detail: “As a nuanced crimson red tone that presents a balance between warm and cool, PANTONE 18-1750 Viva Magenta is also a hybrid color, one that comfortably straddles the physical and virtual in our multi-dimensional world. It is assertive, but not aggressive, a carmine red that does not boldly dominate but instead takes a “fist in a velvet glove” approach. Exuding dynamism, PANTONE 18-1750 Viva Magenta is a transformative red tone capable of driving design to create a more positive future.”
It may sound like this is a tough expert-led selection. If you’re of a more cynical persuasion, it may sound like a load of BS. So let’s look at the process.
How does Pantone pick the new Color of the Year?
The team behind the Color of the Year platform takes inspiration from a variety of sources – both visual ones like art, fashion, and cinema – and more intangible ones like social, political, and economic trends.
Twice a year, a selected anonymous group of 8 to 12 color experts comes together to discuss the latest trends. These are professionals from various industries, including consultants, agency owners, and leading designers. The team is usually quite international – after all, the goal is to encompass universal trends in a single color.
Slate’s journalist Tom Vanderbilt was fortunate enough to go undercover to one of these meetings and describes it as “a high-concept show-and-tell fused with a cultural anthropology seminar.”
Each meeting is inspired by a theme that can guide the conversation while being broad enough to allow for free associations. The theme could be something like ‘time’ or ‘unity.’ Over two days, the experts pitch a palette concept – “four or five pages of images – kind of like a mood board – with relevant color combinations and palettes,” as Mental Floss describes it. However, the discussions get much broader.
The style of these conversations sounds rather abstract, but it may very well be how people submerged in the world of color speak naturally. Here’s a quote taken by Slate from the actual meeting – can you imagine a real-life person saying this? “Quiet tints of opalescent violet, aqua, and honey are jostled with shrill lemony chartreuse, cerise, and vibrant hot orange.”
I’m almost willing to discard all this; the pretense level is surely high. It seems like Pantone is just trying to over-complicate a process to give a marketing campaign an air of seriousness and objectivity. But I can’t deny it all sounds legit when presented to the audience.
How is the Color of the Year promoted?
The Color of the Year announcement is a marketing masterpiece in itself. Of course, there’s the official press release. It links the color to the cultural zeitgeist and presents the logic behind the choice.
But work starts many months in advance, as soon as the color is selected. “Months before the [annual] unveiling each December, [Pantone] enters into licensing agreements with various companies – from nail polish-makers to hotel chains – in order to ensure that the exact hue materializes in various guises,” Quartz reports.
In a coordinated effort, brands follow the official Color of the Year announcement with their own product releases. The 2023 ‘Viva Magenta’ campaign includes a Motorola phone, six styles of Cariuma sneakers, and a skateboard deck, to name a few.
Bringing in more products in the real world from day one makes the Color of the Year campaign a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suddenly, magenta is all around. People start considering it more. And brands start creating their own limited color editions to satisfy perceived demand. The flywheel keeps turning.
This is also one of the common criticisms of the campaign – by purposefully creating new fads, it’s an example of consumerism at its worst. However, it’s a stellar marketing example.
Year after year, Pantone expands the announcement campaign in new and imaginative ways. In 2023 you can see an official Magentaverse exhibit. This is no minor publicity stunt – the immersive experience costs $1 million to produce! You’ll need to fly to Miami to see it. Still, Fast Company described it as “a cornucopia of multisensory experiences to help visitors explore their own feelings and emotions associated with magenta.” This is a smart way of adding a new, more intellectual dimension that will shift attention away from the purely consumerist connotations.
What is the point?
Each marketing campaign, no matter how ingenious or original, means little unless compared to an end goal.
The Color of the Year is a way to provide direction to both consumers and brands – the core audience Pantone caters to. Designer David Shah told Slate, “People still need a direction. […] People always need confirmation. Even if you’re as strong as Zara, they need a start,” The initiative is a way to prove Pantone is still the utmost authority on color – and this expert position is why businesses continue to trust it. It’s a retention play.
The platform is also a way to put a stronger focus on color and position it as a crucial factor for business success. So it’s a way for Pantone to educate smaller businesses. Laurie Pressman, Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute, says, “The goal of the program is to help companies and consumers better understand the power color can have. We want to teach them how to leverage color’s power and expressiveness to influence perception…”
For sure, Color of the Year is also about engaging the mass audience, too. And it’s a reminder that there isn’t an industry that’s dull at its core. After all, mixing paints is as close to the metaphor for dull work as you can get. It’s about making your work sound exciting. Looking at the craze around Pantone’s annual announcement, they are doing things right. Even critics admit that the campaign can successfully “inject excitement into the otherwise sedate color standards business.”
To engage people in a conversation around color
Pantone is aiming to show us “a color that will resonate around the world, a color that reflects what people are looking for, a color that can hope to answer what they feel they need.”
The Color of the Year program is an ambitious campaign that serves core customers and engages the broader public, putting color at the forefront.
Pantone’s Color of the Year is my favorite example of a branded annual recap campaign. And I hope that by learning more about it, you’ve been convinced there’s no business that’s inherently dull or too specialized to communicate publicly – you just need the right content vehicle!