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Yellow is Number One

“Yellow wakes me up in the morning. Yellow gets me on the bike every day. Yellow has taught me the true meaning of sacrifice. Yellow makes me suffer. Yellow is the reason I am here.” — Lance Armstrong

“Yellow wakes me up in the morning. Yellow gets me on the bike every day. Yellow has taught me the true meaning of sacrifice. Yellow makes me suffer. Yellow is the reason I am here.” — Lance Armstrong

Much of the world may not know exactly why “yellow” does all that for Lance Armstrong (it’s the color of the Tour de France winner’s jersey), but just about everyone is aware that he has parlayed it into marketing juggernaut. Originally, Nike manufactured a grand total of 5 million LiveStrong wristbands, but Lance thought they had made a mistake. “I figured we’d be shooting them at each other for years,” he told USA Today.

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Instead, Nike sold about 50 million of those yellow bracelets within a single year and has now launched a really cool-looking line of clothing and shoes featuring that trademark yellow band. So, never you mind that Pantone has anointed “Moroccan Blue” and “Glazed Ginger” (i.e., brown) as this year’s colors. It matters not that sales of light-brown and blue cars are up. The color of marketing is yellow. Sorry Seth: It’s the new purple.

Yes, yellow. As in Yellow Pages. Mello Yello. The wimpy color that means “slow down” when you’re in traffic and “back down” when you’re in a fight (“The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” quoth Bob Dylan) has a game going these days. Thanks, in no small part, to Lance Armstrong. It’s amazing how a back-bench hue like yellow could become cooler than blue and bolder than brown with a doubtful push by an incredibly famous bicycle guy with a great story to tell, not to mention a certain proclivity for obscure verse.

According to Pantone, it usually takes so much more — and so much longer — for a color to rise to the top. It took blue and brown about five years, in fact, to make it to the top of Pantone’s list of colors. And that was record time. The color brown, Pantone says, was put on the “fast track” by UPS and Starbucks. Blue, meanwhile, has always been a popular color but was helped along by its prominence in the operating platforms for both Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s iMac.

And here I thought Microsoft’s color was black and Apple’s was white.

The ostensibly unlikely combination of blue and brown, in any case, is at least partly credited to the resurgent popularity of Johannes Vermeer, who was a really good painter as well as the inspiration of a pair of best-selling novels and a fairly recent hit movie. An impressive guy, Vermeer, but frankly he’s no Lance Armstrong. If you need evidence of that, take a look at who is buying which color cars these days.

Saab may be moving a good number of those “smoke beige” 9-5’s, and Volvo’s customers may be loving that “Barents blue” S-40. But those wheels can’t possibly compare to the thrill of owning a “screaming yellow” Ford Mustang, a “liquid yellow” Mini Cooper or even a “ballistic yellow” Hyundai HCD-8. If you’re really going for it, check out that “speed yellow” Porsche or, best of all, the “just-mad-about-saffron yellow” Lotus Elise, like the one Randy Chase owns. “It’s hard to drive down the street without people yelling at you,” says Randy, who adds that he actually picked the color because the car sat so low to the ground he thought he might get run over if the color didn’t pop.

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OK, it’s true that yellow is only the 10th most popular color for sport and compact cars, according to the Dupont Automotive Color Popularity Register. But dealers like it because they’ve seen it trigger impulse sales. As Lauren Boettcher of PPG Industries told Lisa Kalis of The New York Times: “Carmakers are needing to redefine their brands. There’s no better way to do it than with bright yellow.”

The notion that a yellow vehicle is a noticed vehicle is not lost upon DHL, the shipping company. If you’re near a window, take a look outside and tell me if you don’t see one of DHL’s yellow trucks. If you don’t, wait five minutes and I’m sure you’ll spot one. Those trucks, suddenly, seem to be everywhere, even though obviously they are not. Talk about ROC (Return on Color).

If you think back, you may remember that DHL’s trucks used to be white with kind of a maroon logo. But you never, ever, noticed those trucks. They just blended in like white noise. Now that they’ve been repainted a hot, Kodak yellow with an equally eye-popping Budweiser red logo, DHL’s trucks are harder to miss than a jug of Tide at your local bodega.

That’s really, really important for DHL because it just entered the U.S. market in a big way after acquiring Airborne Express. Even though DHL is the number one shipping concern outside the U.S., its yellow is a distant third behind Federal Express (orange, purple, green or gray) and UPS (brown) stateside.

I asked Karen Jones, DHL’s veep of advertising, about the color choice, and whether it was a direct response to UPS’s now-famous “Brown” campaign. Surprisingly, she said it wasn’t. “I hate to burst anyone’s bubble,” she says. “But yellow and red were the colors chosen by our headquarters over in Germany. We really can’t take any credit for it here in the U.S.”

Karen did say that the colors were selected “to convey energy and entrepreneurialism … for the boldness and assertiveness and confident tone” of DHL. Then she added: “There’s a joke internally that Dick Metzler, our CMO, used to like to say, which is that ‘Yellow is number one and brown is number two.’ But that probably doesn’t bear repeating.”

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Sorry, Karen. I couldn’t resist.

What’s impressive, though, is not so much that DHL is on-trend with its color choice, but that, like Lance Armstrong, it staked its entire identity on a color. In a nation where states are classified as red or blue and where every team, school, and horse farm has its colors, it’s really quite remarkable that so few brands have color coded their marketing strategies like DHL and Lance Armstrong.

How many can you think of? JetBlue. Too easy. Big Blue. Does anyone still call IBM Big Blue? Tiffany Blue. American Express Blue credit cards. That’s not many right off the top. And all of them are blue! I’m sure you can think of others (Red Envelope — but you know, that’s really just Tiffany’s blue, except in red). I can’t think of any more right now and that speaks to the potential. A whole spectrum is up for grabs.

Yellow wakes me up in the morning.

Who knew?

Maybe there’s hope for Microsoft and Apple after all.

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