colour & design surgery…how are paint colour names chosen?

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller

This is part of the colour & design surgery series, answering questions from clients and readers.

This month is slightly different as I’ve had a burning question myself …

Have you noticed over the years how paint names have been getting more emotive, fanciful and sometimes just plain silly…?  I was really curious how paint companies choose their colour names.  Given that I work with the personality, whether that is a business or a person, I suspected this may be part of the story with paint companies too.

So I decided to get the insider story from Lynne Stainthorpe, Director of Big Idea.  Lynne has been marketing paint brands, products and colours for a number of years, and in that time named and launch hundreds of paint colours including quite a few best sellers…

Question: “How are paint colour names chosen?”

Answer: Lynne believes the colour names start with the Paint Brand. Paint brands have different personalities, brand values and tone of voice – and the colour names need to fit with customers’ perceptions of the brand they know and trust.

the process
Whether brain storming as an individual or in a group, start with the actual colour sample and brainstorm a list of words, from a basic description to more creative options. Inspiration comes from:

  • Describe the colour e.g. Lemon or Purple
  • Add more definition to the description – this could be functional or emotional e.g. Dark or Precious
  • Capture the mood the colour creates e.g. Sunny or Fresh
  • Explore connotations from nature – flowers, oceans, winds, deserts, animals etc. can be evocative e.g. Blossom, Aegean, Mistral, Sahara, Elephant etc.
  • Explore associations with places – from holiday destinations to international cities that could have allure e.g. Tuscany or Tokyo
  • Explore appeal to the taste buds – from food and drink to spices e.g. Coffee, Sorbet or Vanilla
  • Or perhaps appeal to the sense of touch – from natural materials to fabrics e.g. Driftwood or Satin
  • Create a personality or event e.g. Babe or Celebration
  • Evoke the interplay of colour and light e.g. Shimmer or Glow

The brainstorming continues until a combination of words is achieved that fit both the colour and the brand – with a positive and enticing name!

Reading this I began to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into picking a name.  But just because you come up with a name you think is the next big thing doesn’t mean it’s job done.  Lynne says the next step is to check the name is available as often paint brands register or trademark names. And also test and measure reaction to the colour name.  So it’s ideal to have a few name options in mind.

Lynne gives examples of three very different paint companies with very different personalities and their paint colour names that match their brand personalities.

Their ready-mixed colour names strongly evoke nature. This fits the inspirational nature of the brand personality and its dominance of the ‘Natural Hints’ sector.  Dulux has a heritage of using natural-based colour names that appeal through a mix of description and evocation.  Randomly opening the Dulux colour card to see Soft Peach, Apricot Crush and Totally Nutmeg!

lawrence llewelyn-bowen
By contrast Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen paint colours have fun and irreverent names that match both his outgoing personality and a smaller more saturated colour palette – Up Pompeii, Mrs Whippy and Pinch of Posh sit alongside Plummy Accent, OK Coral and Blue Sky Theory.

farrow & ball
Their colour names evoke an era of Town and Country life, grand houses and fine living. Names like Carriage Green, Cook’s Blue and Orangery again fit both the colour palette and the brand’s positioning.

I found Lynne’s explanation fascinating. And my hunch was right. By being clear on their brand personality, they are able to appeal to their target market using emotive names they will resonate with, and ultimately purchase – after all, that is their sole objective.

About the Author
Lynne Stainthorpe, Director Big Idea, is an expert on colour marketing, having worked on paint ranges in Europe and Asia.

Twitter: @bigidealynne

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  1. Jennie HK on September 16, 2011 at 11:04 am

    How interesting! I had always wondered about that and that makes perfect sense. Personality and being authentically true to it makes you stand out from the crowd, which is exactly what Lawerence Llewelyn-Bowen has done. Great example Karen

    • admin on September 17, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Hi Jennie,
      Pleased you enjoyed the article. It’s a fascinating insight into how a brand communicates its authentic personality.

  2. Emily @Tempting Cake on September 16, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    As a keen amateur interior designer, I’ve often wondered about the inspiration behind paint names such as Elephant’s Breath and Dusted Fondant, so thank you for this insightful article.

    • admin on September 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

      Hi Emily,
      It’s fascinating to see just how much research goes into a paint name. The paint companies rely on the positive emotion the name evokes in the customer to make the sale. Once again psychology at work.

  3. Room to Bloom - Ursula on September 19, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Great post Karen – I’ve always wondered too. One name comes to mind that always made a colleague interior designer fall over with giggles (it was one of her favourite colours): Elephant’s Breath by F&B. In the context of the explanation above it makes much more sense, but still seems a peculiar choice evoking not particularly pleasant associations…

    • admin on September 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Ursula,
      I know what you mean. I laughed when I saw F&B’s Dead Salmon. These names certainly got them a lot of press coverage. Maybe that was their intention, creating publicity ….

  4. debbie on September 20, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    What is it about “Elephant’s Breath” that seems to have got to everyone! Brilliant marketing! Even Tabs, out Teen blogger at singled it out (along with dead salmon!)…

    Colour names seem far too frivolous though to me – shouldn’t we be looking for things that reflect the times we live in – maybe double dip delight or recession red?! What do you think Karen? Debbie

    • admin on September 21, 2011 at 8:34 am

      Hi Debbie,
      Yes, I’m in agreement with you – brilliant marketing. It’s a very clever way of creating your own publicity. Colour names, like trends, reflect the times we live in. So perhaps the frivolous ones help to ‘lighten’ the economic gloom. I do love the idea of a recession palette…. optimistic yellow, golden handshake… Shall we create one 😉

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