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Marissa Mayer on Yahoo’s 20-Year Love Affair With The Color Purple

Yahoo doesn’t just like purple. It bleeds it, and always has.

Marissa Mayer on Yahoo’s 20-Year Love Affair With The Color Purple
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks at CES 2014 before a purple backdrop [Photo: Britta Pedersen, DPA, Corbis Images]

Once upon a time, circa 1995, Yahoo cofounders Jerry Yang and David Filo were setting up the company’s first office. It was a pretty drab place, so they decided to redo the walls. Filo headed out to pick up some paint.

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A notoriously thrifty type–his official title is “Chief Yahoo,” but his colleagues have been known to call him “Cheap Yahoo”–he found that a nearby store had vast quantities of lavender paint for very little money. He bought some to spiff things up. And thus began the bond between his startup and the color purple that continues to this day.

That’s the official story, anyhow. The 2006 book Brand From The Inside, by former Yahoo human-resources chief Libby Sartain and Mark Schumann, told a slightly different tale. It still involved David Filo buying cut-rate paint. But in that version, he thought the paint in question was gray. It was only once the stuff was up on the walls under harsh fluorescent lighting that it looked purple.

Whatever its origins, the link between Yahoo and purple, now two decades old, remains symbiotic. I was repeatedly reminded of that when I recently visited the company to research Fast Company‘s May cover story on its mobile initiatives. I spent hours in purple-accented conference rooms chatting with Yahoo employees who were wearing at least a dash of purple–purple socks in one instance–and who were prone to bringing up the color as they talked about what makes Yahoo, well, Yahoo.

Among the people who mentioned purple without prompting was president and CEO Marissa Mayer. I asked her about what’s kept some Yahoo staffers at the company for the long haul, through the bleak era when it churned through CEOs and seemed to be trapped in a never-ending PR crisis. “The people who have been here for 15 years are here because they love it,” she told me. “They’re here for the users. They’re here for the products. They’re here for the brand. We have this phrase at Yahoo: bleeding purple. They are really just purple to the death.”

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The legend of David Filo’s cheap paint tells us how Yahoo came to identify with purple in the first place, but it doesn’t explain why the association has been so deep and enduring. For non-employees, it can be difficult to understand and therefore tempting to scoff at.

Purple, Mayer says, captures Yahoo’s whimsical sensibility. It’s “something that unites us. It’s something that’s really recognizable and defining for Yahoo. We have a punctuation mark, our exclamation point. If you see an exclamation point on the web, you think of Yahoo. We own a piece of punctuation. We own a color. We own a sound, yodeling.”

(Yahoo, incidentally, does indeed care about yodeling, first associated with the company in a 1996 TV commercial, almost as much as it does about purple. In March, it marked its 20th anniversary with a party at its Sunnyvale, Calif. campus called Yodel 20. The bash was highlighted by a record-breaking group yodel by a sea of 3,400 Yahoo employees in–wait for it–purple T-shirts.)

The Red Years

The Yahoo logo as it appeared, in red, for many years

From early on, purple was Yahoo’s internal signature color–a fact you could hardly miss if you visited the premises, where it was everywhere. (The company literally rolls out a purple carpet to welcome visiting dignitaries from companies it partners with.) But though the company first came up with a purple rendition of its logo in 2005, the iconic logo on the Yahoo.com homepage was red. The company has said that it made that choice because red was one of the few colors that would render consistently across different browsers in the web’s early days.

A poster for a commemorative purple T-shirt recently offered at Yahoo’s company store, featuring its “Y Guy” mascot of the mid-1990s

Yahoo stuck with a red logo, however, long after browsers became perfectly competent at displaying purple. That only changed in October 2009, during the generally ill-fated regime of Mayer’s predecessor Carol Bartz, when the company finally rolled out a homepage redesign with a purple logo.

“It doesn’t make sense for your internal and external colors to be different,” says Mayer of the switch. “You want to be your authentic self, The company identifies as purple. That was a decision somebody made before I got here, but I think it was absolutely the right decision.”

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The Perils of Purple

It might be the right decision for Yahoo to cherish its relationship with purple, but that doesn’t mean it it’s always easy. Especially for Yahoo CEOs, who are expected to at least feign passion for the color. In 1998, Businessweek asked Tim Koogle, the company’s chief at the time, to spray-paint his hair purple for a photo shoot. (He declined.)

Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in front of a variant Yahoo logo–yellow, with purple background–in 1999Photo: Yahoo

Carol Bartz, despite standardizing Yahoo on a purple logo, was reportedly not a fan of the color. But she sent a memo to the company at the end of her first week saying she planned to spend the weekend “shopping for something purple.” And after she was sacked in 2011, she explained her (futile) hope to stay on the company’s board by saying: “I have way too many purple clothes.”

As for Mayer, she makes it clear to me that purple isn’t her favorite color. That would be yellow, which also happens to have a long history at Yahoo. Some versions of the Filo-buying-paint story even state that he got both purple and yellow paint, and the company has used a yellow version of its logo at times.

But she adds that she’s always been fond of purple as well, because it is her mother’s favorite color: “I’m constantly shopping for purple things for my mom.”

Still, even if you’re a Yahoo CEO with a sincere appreciation for purple, things can get out of hand. “It was once written up that my favorite color is purple,” Mayer says. “But it’s actually like this urban legend on the web.” (The legend even predates her Yahoo tenure: a 2008 San Francisco magazine profile, published years before she left Google, claimed she was “infatuated with the color purple.”)

Mayer segues into an anecdote: “The funny thing is, now whenever anybody gets me gifts, they get me purple things. I went to this one women-in-technology event a couple of years ago, and they were like, ‘We have this amazing surprise.'”

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Pre-Yahoo, Mayer genially celebrates Google’s birthday with cupcakes at a TechCrunch conference in 2008Photo: TechCrunch

Due to a long-ago magazine profile of her–perhaps that same San Francisco one–Mayer says that people mistakenly believed she was a cupcake fanatic. “I’d just made a business observation,” she remembers. “I said I valued that I’m really good at spotting trends. And [the reporter] said, ‘Well what’s the next trend?’ I was like, ‘Cupcakes!’ And then cupcakes did explode as a business, so I was right. But then it got watered down into just, ‘She must like them a lot.'”

“[At the conference] literally it was like ‘We have this great surprise for you!’ And they flung this door open, and it was a room bathed in purple, with cupcakes. I was like, ‘Noooooooo!‘ I was very gracious about it. But it was like all the incorrectness of the web in a room.”

One Purple to Rule Them All

Mayer’s personal tolerance for purple may have its limits, but after arriving at Yahoo in 2012, she quickly moved to ramp up the connection between the company and the color. According to Nicholas Carlson’s 2015 book Marissa Mayer And The Fight To Save Yahoo, she scrapped a Yahoo Mail launch at the 11th hour to replace its blue-and-gray color theme with purple and yellow. Apps such as Yahoo Weather played up purple, a decision that wasn’t to everybody’s taste.

At Yahoo, the carpet you roll out for guests is purple, of course.

Mayer was also struck by the fact that Yahoo, for all its love of purple, had been erratic about exactly which purple it used. She wanted to settle on one that was, definitively, Yahoo’s.

One famous Mayer story from her 13 years at Google involves the time she scientifically tested 41 shades of blue with users to settle on the right hue for the links on Google’s search pages. This time around, her approach to picking exactly the ideal shade of a color was surprisingly personal.

“I personally prefer blueish purples to reddish purples, and when I got here, the purples were all over the map,” she explains. “Some of them were downright magenta. They were almost never blue.”

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Yahoo’s new logo in its new purple

In September 2013, Yahoo unveiled its first all-new logo in 18 years. It did not, ahem, receive unanimous raves. Much was made of the active hand the CEO took in creating the new design, including angling the exclamation point by precisely nine degrees.

Very little, however, was said about the fact that the logo was now a blueish purple–the sort that Mayer likes.

Yahoo’s old official purple (left) and the more bluish hue of the Mayer era

Mayer-era Yahoo purple is–to my eye, at least–a little less flamboyantly idiosyncratic, a little more tastefully adult. It’s formally known as Pantone Violet C–a rare Pantone color, she points out, with a name rather than a number. (Yahoo celebrated Violet C’s importance in true Silicon Valley fashion: it named a conference room after it.) If we’re talking hexadecimal, as one does when specifying colors for the web, it’s #400090.

Although Mayer tells me that she works hard to focus her energies on matters critical to Yahoo’s future and avoid micromanaging–more on that in our cover story–she doesn’t hesitate to talk about her concerted effort to get the company to stick to this one purple.

“It’s interesting, because all of our facilities guys have to go get Violet C paint,” she says. “And when you’re ordering T-shirts for the company store, you’ve got to go ‘OK, there’s three different shades of purple from this vendor. Which one’s closest to Violet C?'”

“I think I’ve helped get us to one truer shade,” Mayer adds. “A specific shade of purple that’s really ours.” Maybe we outsiders can never truly comprehend why that matters. But when I realize how much time Marissa Mayer has just spent talking to me about Yahoo and purple, I can’t dispute that it matters to her.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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