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The Custom Color Treatment: How Brands Up Their Game with Specially-Formulated Hues

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 08/10/2020 | 7 Minute Read

One announcement we’re always especially excited to share with our readers is the Pantone Color of the Year. Getting to see that carefully curated and expertly selected hue for ourselves—and understanding the reasoning behind the color—is a highlight for pretty much every designer. 

But the Color of the Year is just one of the many colors Pantone creates and identifies year-round.

“We work with approximately 100 clients per year across a range of industries and market segments on the development and/or creating of a unique custom color,” said Laurie Pressman, Vice President at the Pantone Color Institute. She added that Pantone sometimes spends months nailing down precise shades for clients.

So, why go through all this time and trouble to select something that isn’t just, say, green, but kale salad green?

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“At its base, color is a language,” Laurie explained. “With about 80% of human experience filtered through the eyes, visual cues are vital in getting a message across. Nothing does that better than the thoughtful use of color.”

Visually, brands get recognized for other reasons than color, but it’s that just-right hue that can attract the attention of consumers first, while also broadcasting the ultimate meaning behind the product or service. When brands use a distinctive color, Laurie said, it becomes a calling card, like that Coca-Cola red or Home Depot orange. You can recognize the brand in mere moments.

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“Color is the first thing we see, and the first thing we connect to,” Laurie added. “It only makes sense for a brand to want to leverage the powerful language of color as a tool for expression, communication, and influence.”

The Process

The process for each client varies depending on whether Pantone is creating a new color, matching a pre-defined color, or recreating a standard for something they previously created for a brand. But once the color is defined, there are some similarities.

“In our ink lab, color development begins with our color scientists taking a physical measurement of an agreed-upon material sample or using existing colors in our many different Pantone color languages as a foundation,” Laurie explained. “From there, we may need to iterate to come up with the exact right formula to achieve such effects as adding a metallic finish as well as deepening a color or increasing its vibrancy. These adjustments are achieved by modifying the ink formulation.”

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An ink formulation is a combination of base inks, and their proportions are adjusted to achieve a wide range of colors. Even the way colors get laid down—thick or thin—can affect the appearance. Color scientists give thought to the consistent reproducibility of the hues across different materials, such as if it’s better suited for cotton versus synthetic materials or better for coated or matte paper stock. They also consider whether the client will use CMYK or RGB, which is more common in the digital space.

“Helping brands understand color reproducibility as you transition from the digital to the physical world across all our physical formats is understandably a rapidly growing part of our business,” Laurie commented.

The Brands

Pantone has worked with countless clients across a variety of industries—from consumer goods to nonprofit organizations. We’re taking an up-close and personal look at a few of their recent projects to learn more about how a meticulously selected color can benefit a brand.

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The Macallan Edition No. 5

At first glance, a delicate purpley-pink may not be the first color you’d choose for a Scotch whisky. But this color tells the story of the whisky-making process, which itself is quite involved. From the selection of the oak casks to the final rich tasting notes, Pantone wanted to showcase and celebrate the type of expertise The Macallan puts into their whisky.

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“Although dynamic red and quiescent blue could not be more opposite in temperament and messaging when they are blended to form another hue, the resulting purple can be quite magical,” Laurie said. “As the rainbow’s most complex color, the purples naturally felt like the ideal shade range to highlight the equally complex process involved in the making of The Macallan whisky. The purples are a color family known for being creative, non-conforming, intriguing, and innovative and, at the same time, a color family associated with prestige and heritage.”

Pantone opted for a red-based purple, which represented the passion and excitement The Macallan has for whisky. It not only is a mesmerizing hue, but it complements the natural tawny color of the spirit.

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United Way

Pantone worked with TAXI, the United Way Canada’s design and advertising agency, to create something for the nonprofit that was unignorable—quite literally. Something that would capture people’s attention and increase their awareness of prominent social issues that people often overlook. Rather than going with yellow, the color with the highest visibility and easiest for the human eye to see, they wanted something closer to the orange family. 

“[Creating] something in the coral family gave us the ability to deliver the message in a less expected color choice, a color choice whose innate ability to persuade would draw people in and thereby encourage them to stop,” Laurie explained. “A family of color that was on the upswing so positively accepted in our social culture, but not yet so prevalent that you would pass it by because you had felt you had already seen it.”

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They aptly named the color Unignorable; it’s bright and captivating yet has all those warm and sunny elements to it that make it feel approachable. Laurie added, “An engaging coral orange with a golden yellow undertone, the unique Unignorable color we created displays an animated luminosity that positively glows. This instantly captivating brightly colored hue irresistibly captures you with its stimulating spark of light.”

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Dear Evan Hansen

The Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen is a coming of age story, and Stacey Mindich, the lead producer, wanted to express the main character’s youth and journey through adolescence with color. 

When the show first started, the team used a range of different blues which they matched throughout the production. Pantone came in to create something consistent and recognizable, a color that conveyed the show's message of hope and optimism.

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“In the beginning, the show had started to brand itself,” Stacey told Pantone. “In some ways, it was a ‘happy accident’ that the main character’s polo shirt was a blue that matched the logo. After receiving many great reviews and winning the Tony Award, we felt more confident the show would run for a while, so we started doing different ads, bus wraps, pole banners in Central Park, even an aerial banner over the beaches in the Hamptons. It felt crisper to just have this one blue, especially as more and more people were telling us it was Dear Evan Hansen Blue, and that when they saw it, they immediately associated it with the show.”

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“The color of Heinz Tomato Ketchup comes exclusively from the color of the Tomato Paste,” Laurie said. “A full-bodied, flavorful red hue, Heinz 57 Red captures the rich depth of the cooked ripe Heinz developed tomatoes used by Kraft Heinz to make their signature ketchup, thereby emblematic of the highly esteemed Heinz ketchup brand name and the distinctive and recognizable taste of the ketchup product that lies within.”

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In honor of Heinz’s 150th anniversary, Pantone needed to find a red that would not only symbolize the brand but pay homage to the mouthwatering, juicy color found in Heinz ketchup and tomato paste. The Kraft Heinz Agricultural Research group develops the tomatoes used in these products to get utilized once they’re brilliantly ripe, so the color needed to be appetizing and intense. The custom color Heinz 57 Red expresses the precise care the brand puts into making the items they sell and emphasizes the use of only the best tomatoes in their ingredients.

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Before you read the text on packaging or process what an image means, you see color first. It’s not just about catching the attention of consumers, either—it’s a way to convey the message behind a brand in an instant. Thinking about the deeper meanings of colors, the process of making a product, and how that can get tied to particular hues, or the actual experience that’s offered and the feelings it evokes opens up possibilities for brands to not simply exist beautifully, but meaningfully, too.

“While color is only one of many elements employed in packaging or on a website, it is also one of the easiest and most effective ways to highlight to a consumer the unique qualities and promise behind the brand,” Laurie said. 

“The color a brand chooses to present itself is the most tangible representation of who they are.”