The fact that Orange, the mobile phone company, has taken Stelios Haji-Ioannou's easyGroup to court over Pantone 151 - its trademarked shade of orange - tells you all you need to know about colour and branding. It's a powerful and jealously guarded part of brand identity.
Increasingly accurate reproduction, more robust competition and smarter consumers mean that brands need to be well-defined if they want to maintain market share. And a positive link between the emotive power of colour and the image of a brand is an advantage worth fighting for. These relationships can't just be ordered up. Although they exist, the links between colour, brand and consumer are far too mercurial to be calculated. This is where the designer enters the fray, as a diviner of colour and a builder of associations.
Of the two main ingredients here, brand is probably the easier term to define. Quentin Newark, Co-Founder of the award-winning design studio Atelier Works, gets the ball rolling: "A brand," he says, "consists of its core elements. Usually these are a symbol, a logotype, and a colour or colours."
These elements combine to form a symbolic representation of the brand, of the experience it holds out to its customers. As Derek Johnston, Landor London's Creative Director, puts it, "A brand is a kind of promise." A guarantee of sorts.
"Colour is integral to any brand," adds Newark before moving on to an analogy which gets to the heart of why colour is so important. "Francis Bacon talked of how paint had 'a direct effect on the nervous system'." Newark asks, "Is it just paint that has that effect, or is it all texture and colour?" Well-used colour is like hot-wiring the emotions: it goes straight to the brain.
All of this brings Derek Johnston to neatly express the riddle that colour presents. "From a personal point of view," he says, "I hold colour quite dear. It's an incredibly important and powerful mechanism." And right there you have a neat little summary of the problem: a mechanistic description tied up with an emotional reaction. It's what brand design is all about - the planned evocation of emotional responses.
The problem of colour and light - optics - has been around for a long time. In fact, when Isaac Newton presented his 'opticks' to the Royal Society in 1672, it was not a novel problem. People have always wanted to understand colour and our various reactions to it. Designers and their brands are just the latest in a long line of enquirers, so not to take advantage of what's gone before would be careless.
So what's been learned? Well, it seems that colour, like light, has a split personality. On the one hand, it has to be analysed and quantified for successful deployment in print and on screen, but on the other, once it enters the eye it becomes a series of neurological and psychological reactions with slightly unpredictable results.
The thing which fascinates Johnston is: "Colour is actually the most abstract thing we see." Our perception of it is essentially a reaction to certain areas of the brain being appropriately tickled by our environment. "It is," says Johnston, "completely abstract".
The idea of 'ownership' is central to the concept of branding. Back when it referred to cattle, a brand was a mark of ownership - it prevented rustling by signifying that a certain cow came from a certain place. Today the tables are turned and the brand is more about preventing the rustling of consumer loyalty.
Brands need to 'own' their identity. "You make colour belong to a brand with repeated bold use," argues Newark, "by sticking with that colour over long years." Note that the big brands take the primary colours, like Coca- Cola being red, the AA being yellow, or IBM being blue. This, says Newark, is no accident: "There are only so many effective colours, so what you tend to find is that the world of branding gets broken down into sectors. You'll find the leading companies differentiate themselves with basically the same core colours, which are easier to get right than caramel and taupe." So a simple colour has the greatest fidelity of message.
Derek Johnston highlights another important element of the equation: "When you bang all this up against a brand or a communication, you get a visceral reaction to colour combined with your understanding of what I would call category codes."
These codes come in two distinct flavours: the commercial and the political. The political ones have been ingrained over the course of centuries, explains Johnston: "The Romans, for example, wore purple as a badge of senate office." Then there are uniforms and flags, which was how you identified your comrades on the field.
What complicates these political categories is the fact that they are also cultural. Colour associations, even at a primitive level, vary between peoples, so colour psychologists have very little stable ground from which to make their predictions. For example, death is associated with black in the West and white in the East. Similarly, yellow was traditionally the imperial colour in China, while in the West we have purple.
These seismic undercurrents are matched today with a new set of codes, as Johnston explains: "The rise of commercialism over the last hundred years, the rise of packaging and posters to advertise products. That's when colour started to become really important in this context." It's the period during which technology has made it possible for colour to be more easily controlled and deployed.
Red, blue and orange
"Colour definitely goes through fashions," admits Newark, "but some colours seem to consistently evoke a certain emotion or response." These are probably the ones which are most closely tied in with our evolution of colour vision in the first place. Red is an interesting one. "Red is used for pleasure and intensity," says Newark. It's also the colour of blood and is often used to signify danger.
"The fact that Coca-Cola owns red is probably no mistake," agrees Johnston. "It's a colour that represents value to nearly every market in the world. It's the most used colour on the planet for branding. It says, 'Look at me, I'm available. I'm friendly and bright'." It's used because it gets the results, perhaps because of its importance to the human brand.
Blue, on the other hand, is often argued to be the best colour for branding because, taken globally, it has the most positive associations. "It's traditionally used for more corporate brands rather than commercial ones," notes Johnston. "The number of times companies have said to me in the past 'Oh we loved all those colours you presented to us but we'd like you to try it in blue'." Blue has gravitas, perhaps through association with water, but it also has depth and, "It's a human reaction to respect darker colours."
Newark takes orange as his example, and the Swiss designer, Jan Tschichold: "In the 1950s he picked orange for Penguin's book covers, big slabs of pure colour representing everyday-ness and affordability." Then, in the 1970s, the warmth of orange, often mixed with brown, was everywhere. "I remember wearing a brown overall for my Saturday job at Sainsbury's, with jolly orange piping on the collar," says Newark.
Then orange had a bit of a slack period before it was picked up again by Orange, the mobile phone people in the 90s. "In a market otherwise full of companies called some variant of Com and Tel, with its perky logo and witty language, it stood out as human and approachable." The thing to note about all of this is that rules and theories don't really work with colour, what works is observation.
Newton and Goethe
This difference of approach has an interesting parallel with the history of colour. Newton's 1672 paper on optics introduced a seven-colour wheel to represent the visible spectrum. Each colour segment wasn't evenly spaced but instead occupied a slice based on the musical diatonic scale. Newton was looking for underlying rules, elegant and all-encompassing.
Unfortunately, his solution was not visually that appealing - it lacked symmetry. So, a century later, when the German poet, scientist and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe approached the subject of colour spectrums, he did so with an open mind. His conclusions, based as much on psychology as optics, gave us a symmetrical colour wheel which uses spectral and complimentary colours to achieve its balance.
When Pepsi Cola came to Landor in the early 90s it was using red, white and blue. It wanted to reinvent itself so, says Johnston, "Coke is fundamentally red, so we decided Pepsi was to be fundamentally blue." Take a look around you and see how the ground lies before you start to theorise. In the end, "It gets right back to that primeval thing. Whose tribe are you in?"
The need for balance is well illustrated by Atelier Works' refreshment of the Royal Institute of British Architects branding. Newark observes that any organisation has a need for more than just its primary colour to avoid being overwhelmingly monolithic. On brochures and other published materials, on the pages of its website, in the interior design, he says, "We had to provide a palette of colours to work."
The approach to this task was very interesting: "Rather than just flip open a colour swatch book and use our intuition, we went to the vast collection of architects' drawings and paintings in the RIBA's library," says Newark. And from these a perfectly suited but highly unlikely selection was made. "Many of the pictures were watercolours, and the resulting colours we chose appear not stark like a pure colour right out of a can or tube, but slightly softened with very slightly chalky quality." Balance is the word.
"That's where the role of design comes in," nods Johnston. "It's about colour contrast, colour balance." There are, after all, no new colours waiting to be invented. We have the visible colours, they can be combined in various ways and have various shades, but there are no new colours.
The rest is aesthetic judgement. "Take pink and purple," begins Johnston. "They've become quite popular because they have an Indian feel to them." In combination, they evoke something of that continent's colour and diversity. "Red, gold and black do the same for the Far East." The conclusion, says Johnston: "The art of the designer is to use colour in combination."
To take things a step further, colour can be combined, not just with other colour but with shape. As far as Derek Johnston is concerned, "Colour and shape is the only way to own anything specifically... Pret A Manger has that colour you can't put your finger on. You can't name it but you see it and recognise it. It's that abstract response."
But Pret has a shape too: "They own that muddy red colour but they also own the white star." Those two things in tandem leave nothing in doubt: that it's a Pret A Manger product and will, within certain parameters, be the same as other Pret products. The colour and the shape are an embodiment of that promise.
See you in court
All this talk of ownership brings us back round to the ongoing spat between easyGroup and Orange. The problem is that easyGroup wants to muscle in on the highly lucrative mobile phone market and Orange isn't keen for that to happen. Competition is already fierce and the various companies involved have staked a claim to their favourite colours - O2 is blue, Orange is orange, T-Mobile is magenta and so on.
In the US, thanks to Qualitex Co. versus Jacobson Product Co. (a 1995 decision of the Supreme Court) it is clear "that colour alone can meet the basic legal requirements for use as a trademark." Here in the UK, however, we're less sure about the whole subject of owning colours. That may even be true at Orange, but it must protect its brand at all costs.
"It was very clever of Orange to have taken a colour which wasn't very popular and say, 'We'll own that'. It's clever because it's not blue or red," observes Johnston. This approach has been copied too: "I know T-Mobile took bright pink for the same reason. It was opposite to the way people were thinking about colour."
Colour can be playful, but in the world of branding it's also very territorial, so if you're going to court, it has to be about a specific shade of orange, in this case Pantone 151. The question is, if easyGroup used Pantone 151 on its products, will it be riding home on the goodwill which Orange has generated with its up-front choice of colour? When you think about it, that would be a tough call. According to Pantone, they are using different shades.
So when you're working up a new brand, is it just a question of picking one of the remaining most-popular colours? Is it just a simple process of elimination, or can we expect designers to start branching out in terms of tone and feel?
As with most of these things, there are arguments for both sides, but at the moment, the primary simplicity angle seems to be sharpest. Colour scientists, such as Johan Lammens at HP tell us that it's not the ability to print gentler tones that has prevented their adoption by brands (this has been possible for some time) but rather the fact that primary-type colours just have the strongest impact on the audience.
If this is right then Landor made the right choice when confronted by a troubled Siberia Airlines: "Who in their right mind would want to get on a dirty old plane with Siberia Airlines on the side?" asks Johnston. The primary task was to find a way of turning flying Siberian into a bright delightful experience, "So we decided the brand was going to be about really vivid, bright lime green." S7, as it was re-christened, had to buy a few new planes, but the fuselages of their entire fleet is now lime green. "It looks great in the snow," laughs Johnston. The obvious, safe choice would have been blue, but with its red brand mark, "S7 goes against all the conventions in that marketplace. It makes a bold, confident statement." May we see your boarding pass?
The new black
Colour is incredibly important to us as human beings. It's the first thing we see as babies, even before we're able to make out shapes properly, so of course it's going to be important when we get to this late stage in the development of free-market capitalism. Colour is one of our chief methods of differentiation, but you can't help but feel it's being under-used in the mad scramble to put everything on red, or vice versa.
Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but perhaps, as technology continues to evolve and our tastes become more refined, the 'wow' factor of Coke's red will become 'too much' for us and we'll start looking for tone and depth in our brands. Don't expect any rapid change though - this isn't fashion.