The Big Money Behind Naming A “Color Of The Year”

Pantone isn’t the only company to anoint a “color of the year.” Color trend forecasting has become a crucial marketing tool for everything from paint manufacturers to cheerleader uniform makers.


How many top colors can you cram into a single year? If paint marketers can be believed, 2018 will be the year of warm greige (Sandstone Tint 441-2DB, by Dutch Boy Paints), midnight blue (Heron 27-18 by Pratt & Lambert), marine teal (Oceanside SW 6496 by Sherwin-Williams), spruce blue-green (In the Moment T18-15 by Behr), and spicy red (Caliente AF-290 by Benjamin Moore).


But paint manufacturers aren’t alone in declaring a color of the year (let’s call it “COTY” for short). The concept has spilled across multiple product categories. 2018 will also be the year of Sand Dune (for roofing, by Owens Corning), Gold Rush (for flooring, by Shaw Floors), and Dusty Rose (for dance and cheerleading costumes, by manufacturer The Line Up). Meanwhile, Pantone–whose color palettes are a design-tool staple–will announce its 2018 color of the year in early December. What’s behind these efforts to set an annual color trend?

The short answer: Naming a COTY is good for business. At a time when shopping has moved online and marketing has shifted away from traditional newspaper and television ads toward social-media friendly campaigns, home improvement brands (and the odd cheerleader uniform maker) have had to rethink their promotional strategies. Announcing a color of the year is a simple, inexpensive way to get attention and push some product.

Interestingly, as several sources told us, COTY isn’t always about selling more of that year’s shade; the announcement tends to boost both site and store foot traffic and sales across all shades. “The color of the year itself has sold well above the per-color average . . . and sales of [our] entire color range continue to trend upward,” Kyle Sanchez, director of marketing at the fabric manufacturer Robert Kaufman Fabrics, says. The fabric brand also “saw room for incremental sales by adding a new, non-competing color to our existing range,” Sanchez says–COTY as product launch tie-in. O’Neill of Benjamin Moore declines to track its 2018 COTY, which just launched October 10, but notes that for last year’s pick Shadow 2117-30 “chip pulls (the total amount of color chips pulled in our stores . . . increased 575% YTD.” Pantone, for its part, sees COTY as a kind of brand ambassador. “Currently, Pantone has 95% brand awareness among designers and design-minded customers, due in large part to the Color of the Year program,” says Laurie Pressman, VP at Pantone Color Institute, the company’s color-forecasting division. Brand awareness stats are top secret among major brands, but 95% likely rivals Apple among global tech consumers.

Declaring a color of the year as a marketing play started in the late 1990s–Pratt & Lambert, a paint manufacturer geared to the interior-designer market, claims their program dates to 1996. But the concept went mainstream in 1999 when Pantone declared Cerulean (Pantone 15-4020 TC) not merely the color of the year, but of the new millennium. The announcement rocketed the Pantone Color Institute to prominence and eventually established Pantone as a household name. Today, Pantone’s consumer licensing brand, Pantone Lifestyle, runs on branded products featuring the color of the year.

COTY rollouts often follow a familiar pattern. There are social media blasts, online videos, in-store brochures and signage, marketing partnerships with sites like Houzz, and regional events. And announcement timing is everything. Dating its COTY program to 2007, Dutch Boy Paints bumped their announcement earlier than usual this year, to September 1, with positive results. “We were among the first paint brands to announce their news and saw a definite uptick in interest and earned media coverage,” says Rachel Skafidas, color and design manager. Sherwin-Williams’ program gets them play all year long. They announce a Colormix palette every June and then select one of those shades as its COTY later in the year; they also name Colors of the Month. Paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore times its COTY announcement to coincide with the New York Fall Design Market in October, allying its brand with high fashion. (Their COTY program started in the mid-2000s but kicked into higher gear in 2013.)


Sherwin Williams’s color of the year [Photo: courtesy Sherwin-Williams]
Many brands have come up with creative ways to market their color of the year: Owens Cornings partnered with HGTV’s Good Bones to promote their color-picks. Behr built a pop-up trend home inside N.Y.C.’s Grand Central Station to showcase its 2018 pick and debuted a 360° virtual reality experience as well. The Line Up launched its own COTY, Dusty Rose, for the first time this year as a pure SEO play: “Our trends posts are the most popular with our readers, and drive the most traffic to our blog (almost 10x as much as other posts like Team Spotlights),” notes Trista Erickson, Director of Marketing.

“Dusty Rose” [Photo: courtesy The Line Up]
COTY helps brands that don’t have the sex appeal of say, Apple, appear design-savvy. It suggests a company is a tastemaker. “Roofing is, frankly, a commodity building material when it really should be considered as a design element of your home,” says Sue Burkett, strategic marketing manager of Owens Corning; their COTY program launched in 2016. “A roof can be 40% to 50% of what you see of a home from the driveway. Yet when you [shop for roofing] in a big-box store, you won’t find it in a bright aisle with lots of beautiful pictures. It’s back in the dark aisle with the cement, fencing, and lumber.”

COTY isn’t just a marketing play; it’s meant to redound to the benefit of the consumer. For one, it provides a convenient entry point for consumers drowning in choices. “Selecting new flooring is overwhelming for many consumers,” Debbie Houston, creative director at Shaw Floors (whose COTY program launched in 2014), says. “We want to help people feel more confident in their selection any way we can.” It can also help consumers who typically play it safe. “Most DIYers . . . gravitate toward the same neutral colors year after year,” says Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr, a paint manufacturer that launched its COTY program this year. The company’s color of the year announcement with associated palettes helps DIYers “consider colors they may not have found on their own or felt confident enough to pick for their next paint project.”

Behr’s “In The Moment” [Photo: courtesy Behr]
COTY picks also give interior decorators and contractors conversation fodder with customers–crucial for manufacturers that rely on resale networks. “Roofs are sold on performance and toughness,” says Burkett of Owens Corning. “But color and style are important, too. . . . Naming a color of the year helped our contractors have a [design] conversation they weren’t equipped to have.” Interior designers can use a color of the year pick to reengage a prospect; encourage a client to green-light a project; or simply chat up their clientele. “Our color of the year news can be an entryway into our brand, the tipping point to make a purchase, or a subtle reminder that we have more than 1,500 different colors” to choose from, says Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin-Williams. A relatively early entrant to the COTY game, Sherwin-Williams began its program in 2011.

Of course public conversation around COTY includes fans and detractors, who enjoy grousing about the silliness of foisting a new color mandate on the public every year. All publicity may be good publicity, but COTY marketers have learned to incorporate contrarian views over time. “There’s nothing more frustrating to a consumer who just updated their home with the color of the moment only to be told something else is the hot new thing,” says Houston of Shaw Floors. “Our [color palettes] build on each other, complement each other, and tell a comprehensive story.”


ShawFloors’ “Gold Rush” color of the year [Photo: courtesy Shaw Floors]
Ellen O’Neill, director of strategic intelligence for Benjamin Moore, asked point-blank whether annual color picks were too frequent. “Were we encouraging consumers to repaint their interiors every year?” she says. “Our paint product . . . usually has a shelf life of at least 10 years–why go through the expense and the disruption of an annual paint project?” In response, Benjamin Moore shifted messaging to a wider-angle message “to report on all the current color influences we recorded through our travels and research each year”–an anthropological survey of the color moment.

As the party arguably most responsible for putting COTY on the map, Pantone offers a persuasive counter to its naysayers. Pantone Color Institute executive director Lee Eiseman says its color of the year should never be considered an edict. As she explained to me in a Communications Arts Q&A and reiterated in subsequent conversations, it’s just a color “that addresses the zeitgeist . . . a suggestion of where to go. It gives creatives a challenge: How would you use this color, combine it, what’s your take on it?” In short, it’s a conversation starter–and, as everyone knows in the social-media age, conversation is capital.

About the author

I write about design and culture for Slate, Business Week, The Believer, Fast Company, GOOD, I.D. - oh, I'll stop