The Colour Conundrum

The Colour Conundrum

By Kurt Bradley

Colour - there’s no silver (blue, purple or burnt orange) bullet to the consistency conundrum.

In brand and advertising, colour is of course a powerful tool for communication. It's often the visual cue that speaks loudest about a brand's personality, values, and aspirations. However, colour is a complicated beast. We’ve seen occasions where colour confusion brings project progress to a halt. Which is why it’s important to acknowledge that colour isn't a static entity, it is fluid and shifts across different executions.

Brands take different approaches to colour. Some brands (such as fashion brands) have a flexible colour strategy, choosing a neutral colour palette or black and white for their brands, great examples are Balenciaga or The Row. This allows brands fluidity with their use of colour and moves with trends, products or even seasons. These brands rely on staying at the cutting edge of colour trends which are always changing. This constant flux is typified by Pantone releasing an annual 'colour of the year', with the international colour giant connecting the wider cultural zeitgeist to a certain colour that captures societies current mood.

Other brands use an identifier strategy, where colour is so strongly and consistently used it becomes difficult to distinguish the colour from the brand itself. This can be highly effective and is widely used, think Pak n Save, Coca Cola or Tiffany & Co. I don’t even need to tell you what colours they use. 4AM recently ran a campaign for our client Emborg, a premium everyday cheese brand. Their purple brand colour is used to great effect, giving a distinctive block of colour to the advertising, packaging and provides a strong colour block on shelf. Very distinctive, excellent for recall and navigation.

To achieve this it is crucially important to execute brand colours with consistency, this is something most marketers and even laypeople understand. However, while on the quest to maintain the perfect hue, it’s very easy to get tied in knots over inconsistencies, which causes unnecessary frustration and project inefficiencies.

The truth is, colour varies across different media—print, digital, papers, fabrics, coated, uncoated, toner, inkjet, you name it. Factors such as screen settings, software colour profiles, lighting conditions, material selection all influence how colours are perceived. While this variability may seem frustrating, it's a reality that even the biggest brands eventually learn to accept.

So what to do? Just give up? Of course not. First of all, trust your designer or creative agency. Chances are they are pretty well educated and able to advise on these issues. That said, it’s also good for clients to understand some of the basics.

Ensure your brand has a robust set of instructions for how to use colour across digital and print. And ensure you have a copy for reference and to provide any suppliers. The basics should cover
PMS (Also called Pantone or ‘spot’ colour)
RGB (for digital screens)
CMYK (most print applications)

The Pantone Matching System is as a global standard for identifying, aligning, and managing ink hues. Originated by Lawrence Herbert in 1963, its purpose was to address the challenges linked with achieving precise and uniform colour reproduction across various printing techniques. Pantone colours are specific inks, not something mixed up, making them very accurate in reproduction. Most creative agencies will have a pantone book for you to reference.

The most common method of print, what you’ll see in most magazines and billboards, is CMYK printing, also known as four-colour process. However, its reproduction of colour is not as accurate due to its reliance on machinery to blend four inks (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key/Black) for colour, unlike Pantone, where a single colour is selected directly from a pot.

All screens and digital displays utilise a colour reproduction method known as RGB, where every on-screen element is composed of different intensities of red, green, and blue illumination. As screens use light to create colour, they are often more vibrant than what can be achieved with CMYK print, which is where a lot of frustration can occur. We so often first see designs or images on a screen and want to reproduce that experience in print, unfortunately, that is not always possible.

Finally, build testing into your program. Although I’ve argued that projects can lose momentum when trying to attain colour utopia, committing to printers proofs and testing in various environments is always recommended. It can put pressure on schedules and usually incurs a small cost, but it is always worth it.

Colour management can be challenging, often overwhelming. While it's crucial to have target brand colours we work hard to consistently achieve, it's equally important to embrace the inherent variability of colour across different media and not lose time chasing the wind. As a marketer, none of your customers look as closely at your brand as you do. Be diligent, work hard at consistent colour reproduction, but also take confidence in the knowledge that if we get colours close to correct, your message will still resonate, regardless of the shade of blue, purple, or burnt orange.