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3/1/2004 | 7 MINUTE READ

Color Matters

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When it comes to color, automotive paint suppliers don't just forecast the next big trends...they create them.


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Satin jade, pearl red, light almond, cajun spice, campanella white, silver birch… they bring to mind images of a child’s box of crayons or Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting.” But the truth about these colors like these is that—in spite of their playful names—they serve as a foundation of the international automotive industry.

Outside of getting dressed in the morning, few people think consciously about color on a day-to-day basis. Yet, color plays a decisive (if underrated) role in many of the buying decisions that people make. That’s particularly true in the automotive world, where consumers have actually been known to change brands if they can’t get the color they want.

For some, choosing the color of their next vehicle is simple. For others (including this author), it can be an agonizing, time-consuming experience fraught with over-analysis. But regardless of how easy or difficult their color decisions are, few consumers realize that a vehicle’s color options are the product of years of careful planning and forecasting.

Establishing Trends

Fashion. Many people assume that colors trends in the automotive industry are—like many other industries—influenced by fashion. That’s only about half-true, says Lorene Boettcher, manager, Global Design and Color Marketing, Automotive Coatings for PPG. “Because we’re so far out (three or four years in advance) in developing colors, other industries do look at what’s going on in automotive, and that includes the fashion industry,” she says. “We look at fashion, but fashion also looks at automotive.”

“In a sense, the fashion industry isn't concerned with what’s going to happen 24 months from now,” echoes Bill Michael, director of Global Color Technology at PPG. “They are really looking to the next season or two, whereas our customers are designing cars for three or four years out.”

Even when the automotive industry does look to the fashion industry for ideas, color trends undergo considerable scrutiny. “We look at both home interiors and fashion trends. If we find that fashion colors are moving into home interiors, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s a stable trend,” said Ms. Boettcher.

Vehicle type. Another major factor is the vehicle itself. Just as a red shirt isn’t going to look good on all skin tones or body types, not all cars are going to look good bathed in red paint. A vehicle’s design, target demographic, even its name can influence color options. “We ask ourselves, ‘what new vehicles are emerging on the market four and five years in advance. Are they hybrids? Are they cross-overs? Do we need to rethink what a luxury car blue is versus a truck blue?’” Ms. Boettcher said.

From the top down. Trends can also be established from within the automotive industry. As certain colors become popular with luxury vehicles, they tend to migrate down into other segments, such as sports cars or compact cars. “The luxury market can serve as a sort of proving ground for some colors,” said Robert Daily, color marketing manager at DuPont Company Automotive. “Where there are new technology advances that enable us to create new colors, many times they show up on the luxury cars first.”

Cultural influences. While some color associations and lifestyle trends (e.g. the use of silver or gold to convey luxury or sophistication) transcend borders, the interpretation and application of hues can vary dramatically from one region of the world to another. “If you look at the use of orange,” said Ms. Boettcher, “you’ll find it in every single region [in the automotive color palette], but it is interpreted differently via the use of different chroma levels, different use in special effect pigments, etc.”

Silver’s Streak

According to studies conducted by many of the leading automotive paint suppliers, silver remains the leading vehicle color in North America and the world. The sophisticated and high-tech look of silver, its ability to accent-uate a vehicle’s design and advances in

coatings technologies that drive the creation of new interpretations of silver will help maintain its popularity for several years,” said Ms. Boettcher. Some of these new interpretations could include the use of blue, gold and red influences, achieved by incorporating fine to coarse metallic flakes into the paint in order to add sparkle effects. “The popularity of silver has a lot to do with where the economy is right now,” said Charlie Magee, color marketing manager at The Sherwin-Williams Company Automotive. “People are feeling more financially conservative right now, so they tend to go for those type of monotone

colors.White and black have always been major players in the color market, but we’re able to do so many more things with silver now and get so many different looks to keep it conservative, yet with style and grace.” (For more on silver, read the side bar article).

Black also remains extremely popular in North America. Though its prominence is due partially to the existence of fleet vehicles, black has also become a more engaging color in the eyes of the consumer. “Going back 30 years or so, black had always had a funereal connotation to it,” says Daily. “But in the 90s, black became something of a ‘power color.’ We saw black being used a lot to provide computers and electronics with a sleeker look. Around that same time, a lot of new SUVs and pick-up trucks were being designed and most of them happen to look great in black.”

Big Blue

One of the next big color trends in North America for the 2007 and 2008 model years, according to Ms. Boettcher, is the emergence of vehicles in brilliant shades of denim blues. “We focused on the North American culture and what types of influences were most important to the region. And when developing the blue area, we really honed in on authentic shades of denim, particularly because it is such an important fabric to the culture,” she said. “Denim has certain textures, shades and secondary color influences. We really looked at the feeling and emotion that denim conveys. It’s not just blue. It’s blue that we can identify with that relate to our everyday lives, and it reminds us of things that bring comfort to us.”

Some of the denim-inspired coatings feature coarse flakes of orange and gold, intended to mimic the stitching found in blue jeans. The group employed the same philosophy that it used in creating its blues to develop a series of colors such as yellows, browns, oranges and golds.

In addition to its denim blues and natural colors, PPG designed a series of blues influenced by water and blues tailored specifically to the high-end luxury market. Different techniques were used in order to convey different types of images for different types of vehicles. “In the past, what has happened in the marketplace is that the car company has been restricted to using one type of blue or green and has had to share and commonize it across all vehicle lines,” said Ms. Boettcher. “From a color marketing standpoint, that very well can be a handicap in conveying a certain brand image. When it comes to evoking emotion or conveying a message to the consumer, that message is diluted.”

Ninety years after Henry Ford quipped that one could get a Model T in “Any color you want, so long as it’s black,” paint suppliers continue to push the envelope when it comes to color trends and technologies.

Many of them agree that future trends will likely include a wider range of color options, expanded use of special effect pigments within the natural and neutral color families and more two-tone color schemes (primarily for use on crossover trucks and SUVs). Regardless of what direction the industry goes, it’s safe to say that color will always play an integral role in the automotive industry.



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