How Pantone Picks Its Color of the Year

Annual Program Began as Marketing Initiative in 2000

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Pantone illustrates the Color of the Year.
Pantone illustrates the Color of the Year. Credit: Pantone

A 75,000-square-foot factory in Carlstadt, N.J., bears a striking resemblance to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, though the facility is producing color, not candy. It's the headquarters of Pantone, the 53-year-old global expert on more than 10,000 hues. There, dozens of white-coated lab technicians spend their days mixing dyes for fashion and home textiles, and testing shades of ink for brands such as KitchenAid and Sephora. A select few of those shades go on to become the prestigious Color of the Year, a marketing initiative implemented by Pantone in 2000 that has since evolved into a significant cultural and media event for both consumers and brands. And in 2016, for the first time, two hues -- the periwinkle Serenity and the pink Rose Quartz -- share the Color of the Year crown.

"The complexity of the logic behind Color of the Year is greater than interior design or fashion -- it's a forecast, a reflection of what's happening in the world," explained Ron Potesky, senior VP and general manager at Pantone. "These colors were seen together almost like two sides of a coin -- they were showing up in many different places together."

While Pantone works with hundreds of firms on a consulting and licensing basis, the Color of the Year has catapulted the company into the pop culture spotlight and created a business opportunity for brands. Though it's hard to say which comes first, the Color of the Year designation or the hue's appearance across all categories of retail, it's safe to say that by the end of the year, many consumers are buying the shade.

The significance of Color of the Year today is in stark contrast to 2000, when the enterprise was developed almost as an afterthought, a way of tapping into some of the millennium mania then sweeping the nation, according to Mr. Potesky. That year, just a few people got together late in the year to develop the concept. These days, the 20-person Pantone Color Institute begins its global research and reflection in the spring and spends the ensuing months choosing the winning hue. They look for common threads in street art, at trade shows and on catwalks. This year's pastel shades were chosen for their calming effect in an age of technological overstimulation. As a plus, the colors also offer a gender blurring that could be ripped from the headlines of current events.

"Color is a language and two colors was unusual but made sense," explained Laurie Pressman, VP of the Color Institute. "Some might say this is marketing, but for us, it's coming from a purist view. We're not sitting here wondering how the public will react and if it will sell products."

Either way, it's a buzz-building endeavor that often leads to an emotional response from consumers. Mr. Potesky recalled getting a call laced with expletives from an angry, orange-averse woman in 2012 during the reign of the polarizing Tangerine Tango.

Pantone, which X-Rite, a color software company, bought for $180 million eight years ago, has worked with Manhattan-based advertising agency Sub Rosa since 2013 to market the year's color. Mr. Potesky declined to say how much the company spends on advertising. It's Sub Rosa's job to spread the word, primarily through the press and creative community, since Pantone has no media buy related to Color of the Year. For Serenity and Rose Quartz, Sub Rosa created more than a dozen images depicting a model wearing a wrap shawl of blue and pink ombre.

"If you're not paying for advertising and expecting the media will perpetuate the conversation around it, we want to be able to give them things they're excited about and tell enough different stories," said Natalie Sims, a design director at Sub Rosa.

Much of the marketing comes through brand partnerships, with companies such as coffeemaker Keurig releasing limited-edition merchandise. In some cases, the trendy colors are outperforming even core colors like white or red.

"The announcement and coverage around Color of the Year helps drive traffic to our website and creates tremendous buzz for our partnership," said Ranjan Damodar, VP of Keurig Hot Systems.
For high-end jewelry company Sloane Street, using the Pantone color is a way to fulfill a promise to trend-seeking customers. "Women are more savvy -- they know what the Color of the Year is and they're looking for it," said Frances Gadbois, Sloane Street's founder.

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