Pantone shows you can’t build a brand by being bland

Jan 2, 2018

There are countless companies in the world that do great work in their niche, but lack broader brand awareness.

The northern New Jersey-based company Pantone used to fit in that category.

Pantone’s origins date to the 1950s. A young chemistry grad, Lawrence Herbert, was working at a New York City advertising agency when he created a way to identify, match and communicate colors. That solved a major problem in the advertising and graphic arts world. In 1963, Herbert bought the agency’s printing division and renamed it Pantone, meaning “all colors.”

Pantone’s technology eventually made them a go-to source for professional designers and printers. They made millions selling licenses and color swatches, and became a respectable B2B enterprise.

In the late ’90s, they saw an opportunity to be more than that. Using their connections in the industry, they organized a meeting of global color experts, and on April 26, 1999, they made this grandiose announcement: “The official color of the millennium is Cerulean Blue.”

Every year since, they’ve declared a color of the year. The press covers these announcements surprisingly seriously, partly because Pantone isn’t shy about touching on politics and cultural issues in the elaborate backstory they provide to explain why they made their selection.

The color of 2018 is ultraviolet, because it “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future,” something they say the world desperately needs right now.

Pantone has colorful explanations for its selections.

All that attention propels Pantone into the larger zeitgeist. It also helps sell more swatches. And it’s definitely elevated Pantone’s brand.

“They’re completely rebranded,” said one design professor. “They used to be more of a reference. Now they have a point.”

Long story short: to build a bigger brand, you need to think bigger and act bolder, and Pantone’s just one colorful example.


This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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