Strategies & Insights

Diving for Pearls

Posted: September 15, 2012 by
Patrick Henry

A computer monitor displays 16.7 million hexadecimal colors. A four-color printing press can build 10,000 to 20,000 colors from CMYK. The Pantone Goe color-specification system whittles the gamut down to the 2,058 colors that Pantone believes designers are most likely to ask for.

But no matter how tightly it is compressed or how neatly it is systematized, color remains a thing of the creative imagination—subjective, esoteric and even a bit mysterious. Design pros often have different takes on color use and trends, but one thing all package designers can agree about is that no one can overstate the importance of color to the success of branded packaging.

Kelly Kovack, partner and principal, Brand Growth Management, LLC, and chair of the beauty forecast committee, Color Association of the United States (CAUS), notes that color is “the only design element that can bypass the cognitive process” by appealing to action-triggering emotions.

This is also taken as fact by Christine Ray, owner of Maximo Branding, who says (citing Lucas Conley’s Obsessive Branding Disorder as her source) that shoppers are willing to pay up to 200% more when their decision is based on emotion rather than reason.

“That’s the way we design,” Ray says. It’s also why Tom Kane, design director at Murray Brand Communications, says it’s essential to make sure that the packaging has “a big chunk of color” to block the brand on the shelf and distinguish it from the competition.


Get it—then keep it

Choosing the right color also means preserving its visual integrity throughout all of the ways in which packaging color can be reproduced. Unwanted shifts in branded colors send equally undesirable vibes that confuse consumers and undermine brand identity, according to Ian Schofield, vice president of sales and marketing, Sun Branding Solutions. The problem can be especially acute for global brands faced with keeping color consistent at production sites around the world.

PantoneLive is offered as a universal reference base. The color service, operated by Pantone and X-Rite, is a cloud-stored repository of spectral color data from which brand owners, package designers and others can obtain digital swatches of the colors they are working with.

The color definitions, derived from many thousands of combinations of inks, substrates and printing processes, are said to enable brand owners and designers to reliably predict how their colors will look in actual production, with negligible variation from job to job. PantoneLive incorporates Sun Chemical’s former SmartColour library, a massive catalog of digitized ink-substrate interactions.

Without an unambiguous method of color communication, Schofield says, “if you sent seven yellows to seven different people, you got seven different results back.” With PantoneLive, on the other hand, “you don’t have to wait for a swatch. Now, we have a cloud-based system that everyone can trust.”

Armed with new quality-assurance tools, color experts can be more confident in their recommendations of what will work best, chromatically speaking, for their packaged-goods clients.

The fall/winter (2012-2013) CAUS forecast for beauty products anticipates a greater use of saturated colors—for example, deep blue, aubergine and dark green—as well as a preference for what Kovack calls “the subtle, sexy darkness” that can be obtained with shades of dark grey and black. These luxury-connoting colors, she says, may be picked up in packaging elements such as typography, serving as “a tool to help navigate the brand.”

“At the moment, we are probably living in the more saturated world of colors,” agrees Joel Templin, co-founder and creative director, Hatch Design. “Metallic colors, when used at the right time or for the right product, can add to the premium quality of something,” he says.

Retro eye candy

“Oranges and hotter pinks have gained momentum as they have been fashion favorites,” observes Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, a think tank for color applications. “The fashion-forward colors has a retro feeling, especially when used in tandem. They are highly visible physiologically, so they are great attention-grabbers.”

Adapting these colors for packages, she adds, “helps them to build a recognition factor—makes them look very on-target.”

“Right now, we see a plethora of white pearls and silver in hair care products,” says George Iannuzzi, marketing development manager, EMD Chemicals. He also is a spokesperson for the Color Marketing Group, a forecasting organization for color-design professionals. Pearls and silvers, Iannuzzi says, can be good choices for mature packaging designs in need of a fresh look.

Food products that come in flavors naturally gravitate toward packaging colors that the eyes can taste as chocolate, raspberry and so on, Kane says. These colors can be brightened and energized as the brand owner desires—or, with the addition of a little grey, they can be muted to convey a more natural look.

Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., a maker of products for dermatology, has been under the branding guidance of Christine Ray and her husband, Joe Ray, the founder of Estudio Ray (the predecessor to Maximo Branding), since 1995. This client, Christine Ray says, stays mainly with a safe and trusted palette of the primary colors blue, yellow, green and red. “They’re Rx, and they don’t have to stand out on the shelf,” she explains.

For another client, Dawn Foods, the Rays used red, purple and gold to rebrand a line of products aimed at the Hispanic market, including its Mi Panaderia bakery assortment. The visual goal, Christine Ray says, was to be appetizing: “Red stimulates appetite, gold implies premium, and purple is a nice contrast and eye-catching.”

Schofield notes that the need to control overhead may cause some brand owners to opt for less complex packaging. When they do, they tend to standardize on colors that are less costly to reproduce. “A purple is much more expensive than a blue,” he says, noting a trend away from vivid colors to tamer shades in some categories.


Toughest of all to call

Predicting color trends is a game that design professionals play much more by instinct than by certitude. At Murray Brand Communications, Kane and his fellow design director, Brad Berberich, look for clues wherever they can find them: at branding- and design-focused websites, in supermarket aisles, and in paint and similar categories where the color is the product, or very nearly so.

There are so many influences to consider, Berberich says, that it’s extremely difficult to predict the emergence of this shade or that hue as the next wave of anything in packaging design.

Nevertheless, most color pros are willing to hazard a guess or two. Kovack says to look for palettes that have been inspired by technology, as well as holographic elements, unique textures and other techniques that reflect the manipulation of color and images in packaging. Similarly, Iannuzzi says, “we see a huge push to clean white pearls and silvers by using synthetic mica-based materials.”

Ray thinks that metallic foils, embossing, UV coatings and other special effects will come into wider use as they become easier to specify and produce. Thanks to advances in press technology, she says, “you can print better now.”

Templin expects to see colors become a bit quieter, maybe more muted. Consumers are being bombarded with information at every turn, he says, “and everyone is yelling at the same level. Maybe things will adjust for a bit of a visual relief.”

As color returns to the cheeks of the general economy, Schofield says, so will it come back to the design schemes of packages that have been toned down for reasons of cost. In meantime, he notes, those keeping an eye on color trends should remember that “health and beauty always lead the way.” Colors in style for those products eventually will find their way into packaging.

According to Schofield, private labeling is another segment for trend-watchers to keep tabs on. He says that owners of house brands, eager to set their lines apart from nationally branded competition, can afford to be more adventurous in their choice and use of packaging color.

At the Pantone Color Institute, Eiseman and her team are developing the next Pantone forecasts for home, interiors and fashion. Deriving predictions for packaging will have to wait until all of the evidence is in. “We are still working on it—doing our research, but we aren’t there yet,” she says. “Stay tuned.”


For more information, visit

Brand Growth Management,

Color Association of the United States,

Color Marketing Group,

EMD Chemicals,

Hatch Design,

Maximo Branding,

Murray Brand Communications,


Sun Branding Solutions,

Sun Chemical,