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Showing Your True Colors: Cars, Colors and Personality

Car Colors

The world's eyes have been on the new car trends emerging during the Detroit Auto Show. One of the surprise trends? Bright blue cars. As Chris Woodyard in USA Today put it, "For years now, auto shows have bedeviled photographers by showing new models in colors that designers lover, but which make blah images — white, medium gray or silver. But this year, bright blue seemed to be the new gray — the "in" show color. The Porsche Targa, Lexus RC F, BMW M3, VW Passat high-efficiency model, Chrysler 200 and half the Audi stand featured cars in Smurf-like blue."

Vehicle styles change, and so do the colors they are available in. The first cars were painted black, white, olive green and, in exceptional cases, Capri Blue. Then in the 1970s, manufacturers began offering more bold colors like Fluorescent Orange and Neon Jade for individualists who wanted to set themselves apart. In the late 1980s and especially in the 90s, discreet shades of gray were predominant. Over the past few years, however, cars in more conspicuous colors have increasingly been spotted on our streets and roads.

Nowadays, if you want to buy a car with a “Curry” paint job, you’re probably in for trouble. Not only because you will have to justify your selection to your friends and relatives, but also because it’s a shade one doesn’t see much anymore – and if you do find a car in that color, it won’t be called "Curry". More likely it will be "Dakar Yellow" or "Mustard Yellow."

"The colors manufacturers offer, and especially the names they use for them, reflect the current positioning of the various brands,” said Richard Veit, managing director of Interbrand. “They correspond to the respective brand personality and are part of the verbal identity of the manufacturer brands.”

Why is that? And what does the designation of a color have to say about the interplay between brands and their target groups?

Some brands exhibit more adventurousness in the wording they use, e.g. in response to quick-changing trends. For example, 40 years ago Opel offered "Cosmic Blue," followed in the 80s with "Smoke Blue." In the 90s they even floated creative terms like "Lifestyle Blue." Today, Opel has come full circle and is offering colors like "North Sea Blue" and "Ocean Blue," which at least have the advantage that people can more or less imagine what they will look like.

Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, places more store in continuity. Back in the 1970s you could already buy the 350 SL in Manganese Bronze, or from 1980 the 380 SL in Lapis Lazuli. Today you’ll find shades like "Cubanite Silver," "Cavansite Blue" and "Sanidine Beige." The colors of the minerals may not be familiar, but they all impart an impression of superior quality and underscore the high standards typical of Mercedes products – and of the company’s brand communication.

Another brand that has resisted major changes to its color designations is Ford. Some names have changed, and shades like "Forest Green" have been replaced with "Ginger Ale," but in place of the "Tile Blue" that was once popular you will now find the hardly more specific "Atlantic Blue." Ford continues to prefer designations that invoke pretty clear images, it’s just that the terms have been modernized a bit.

When Audi began making inroads into the premium segment, it started using more elegant color designations. A good 20 years ago you could choose a "Stone Gray" paint job for the Audi 80; in the 1990s there was the sleek "Diamond Silver," and today the A7 is available in discreet "Oolong Gray," named after the Chinese tea.

Depending on the model, the VW brand offers both simple and elegant color designations. For example, while the VW Crafter van is available in robust “Steel Blue,” it’s hard to imagine an “Avocado Green” Phaeton. Indeed, that model is only available in subdued colors with names like "Beryllium Gray" and "Campanella White."

Geographical names are always popular designations for car colors. BMW for example used terms like “Fjord” and “Riviera” in the 1970s, followed by such shades as "Biscay Blue" and "Ascot Gray" a decade later. Today the brand sports elegant hues with mellifluous names such as "Havana Metallic" and "Valencia Orange." Thus BMW maintains consistency while responding to current trends. The sound of the color’s name is more important than specificity – incidentally a tendency that is also apparent with Kia and Toyota, which have chosen the names of relatively obscure places for their "Zilina Black", "Kiruna Silver" and "Pianosa White."

Then there are the flights of fancy characteristic of expensive brands like Aston Martin and Jaguar, which offer "Viridian Green" and "Italian Racing Red." But not all exclusive brands select highfalutin designations, as evidenced by Maserati, whose Italian sports cars come in minimalistic Nero, Bianco and Grigio. Maserati clearly sets itself apart from its competitors in this regard.

Chevrolet presents a good example of how color designations can be adapted for potential target groups. Buyers – mostly female – of the Spark model select from emotionally appealing colors such as "Honey Mellow Yellow," "Secret Lavender" and "Bluebell Blue" – names that are reminiscent of nail polish colors like "Raspberry Fields Forever" and "Clubbing with Dracula."

Some automotive brands have made big changes in the names of the colors they offer, while others have not. As the example of Audi shows, color designations often give an indication of the direction the brand is going.

The colors themselves are also subject to trends, and some colors – as well as color designations – rotate in and out of popularity with time. Back in the day, the Audi 80 came in "Tornado Red," and now you can buy a VW Beetle in the same color. The selection of available paint jobs is always a featured element of brand communication, and is an important component of the brand’s overall identity.

No matter what trendy colors the future holds in store fur us, you will likely find yourself choosing from names such as "Aviator Blue", "Mangaro Brown" and "Unicorn White". Just be glad there’s no more "Curry" on offer.

Stefanie Roshop, Kai Klopsch, Eva Kuhlmann and Julien Dolenc are members of the Naming Team at Interbrand Hamburg.

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