Brands should own colours – but a trademark isn't what they need

Colour trend expert Alison Rodwell explores the brands copyrighting colour.

The recent dispute between the parent company of T-Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, and a small insurance company has created hot debate over the trademarking of colour. T-Mobile challenged the use of its trademarked colour ‘Pantone Rhodamine Red U’, otherwise known as magenta, and everyone is asking if colour can really be ‘owned’. But perhaps we should first understand why a business would be willing to go the lengths of trademarking? 

Let’s start with what we know: colour is critical to brand identity. A recent study showed that signature brand colours can have a tremendous impact on brand awareness, with 80% of consumers being able to identify Starbucks by its characteristic green straw alone. And creative teams agree; 44% of designers who took part in our James Cropper Progressive Palettes report said that colour is essential to creating effective brand stories

While going to the lengths of trademarking might not be for everyone, you can understand the need to protect colour’s role in brand awareness. Take renowned crystal-maker Swarovski, luxury jewellery brand Tiffany & Co., and the emporium of British luxury Smythson, for example. These brands have been uncompromising with their colours; preserving precious brand equity. They have made global uniformity of their brand colour a fine art by carrying relentless precision around the globe, delivering stores, packaging and products that carry a colour which single-handedly makes them some of the world’s most identifiable brands. 

Looking further at what colour means to brands, almost half (44%) of designers we surveyed believe that colour is essential to storytelling. By harnessing colour’s ability to evoke emotions, such as trust, happiness and quality, colour palettes can be a strategic way for brands to tell their story, using no words at all.  

Take a look at James Cropper’s signature colour story, for example. In the middle ages, Kendal was home to a thriving wool industry, where one of the key materials used was a hard-wearing wool-based fabric called ‘Kendal Green’. As one of Kendal’s longest standing institutions, chairman Mark Cropper felt it essential that our company’s signature colour had an authentic provenance. Our colour lab sourced the original pigments which were used to dye the fabric and were able to replicate that beautiful shade of green in paper to bring it back to life. Both unique and true to our roots, this colour now feels as personal to us as a fingerprint. 

The reason behind Deutsche Telekom’s decision to trademark ‘Pantone Rhodamine Red U’ is clear; colour really captures consumers’ attention and allows brands to communicate their stories through even a single hue. However, colour is universal, and it could be argued that it can’t really be owned by one business over another. Brands with a relentless drive for a progressive palette across all touchpoints will naturally build and protect the brand equity that colour provides. Eventually, brands will become recognised by the colour that, in the eyes of the consumer, is theirs.

Alison Rodwell is colour trend expert at James Cropper.

Related: What's influencing the colours designers choose? A new report has surprising answers

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