Surfboard Yellow, Gentleman's Gray, Mizzle: How do paint companies name their hues?
Several years ago, I painted a bathroom in my house a rich, smoky blue. Everyone who sees it asks for the color name. When I answer, "Benjamin Moore's Gentleman's Gray," the questioner inevitably looks perplexed and assumes I have conflated two colors, because there is nothing gray about the shade. Even on Benjamin Moore's website, the color is described as a "blackened blue" that "leans toward classic navy." Why did the company choose a somewhat misleading name?
The name, though not entirely descriptive of the color, does conjure the image of a man impeccably dressed in a tailored three-piece suit — an image that aptly matches the richness of the hue. Hannah Yeo, Benjamin Moore's color and design expert, says names play an important role when people are making color selections. "While color descriptions such as 'light blue' are helpful to narrow down colors and are quite straightforward, we also look for names that evoke positive associations, experiences, and are inspiring," Yeo says.
Sue Wadden, director of color marketing for Sherwin-Williams, said that in some cases a color name can be a tiebreaker. "In the past, all a name needed to do was describe a color — for example, bright pink. Today, however, we want consumers to connect with colors. So instead, that color might be called 'Vivacious.'"
Charlotte Cosby, head of creative at Farrow & Ball, says inspiration for their color names comes from all over. Cosby travels extensively for work, so she gets lots of name (and color) ideas from the places she visits, but just as important is the inspiration she finds in the landscape and dialect of England's Dorset County, where the company is based.
Farrow & Ball's naming process is organic, Cosby says. "Even when we are not working on new colors, if we encounter a great name, it gets filed away for when we are." Sometimes, she says, the color comes before the name, and sometimes the name comes before the color. An example of the latter is Farrow & Ball's Mizzle. "Mizzle," Cosby explains, "is the word we use in Dorset to describe the weather when it is both misty and drizzling." Stored on a someday list, the name was eventually matched and attached to a hazy shade of gray green.
Although many of Farrow & Ball's color names pay homage to the past, Cosby says, "We always opt for names that we hope will delight and intrigue the people who pick up our color cards." In fact, Cosby says, the names become a huge part of the identity of the color and often help with a color's popularity. "Elephant's Breath is always a favorite among our fans. It's a gorgeous gray with a magenta undertone, very beautiful in its own right, but its unusual name definitely helps its popularity."
California-based paint company Behr frequently turns to its landscape to name colors, says Erika Woelfel, Behr's vice president of color and creative services. "Colors like Surfboard Yellow and Beachside Drive reference a sunny, oceanside culture, while Vintner is a nod to the lush Napa Valley wine region," Woelfer says. However, Woelfer and her team try to keep their paint names as universal as possible so they appeal to a wide audience; Behr paints are available nationwide at Home Depot. "We put a lot of research into our paint color names, knowing they often sway consumers toward one shade or another," Woelfer says. "We choose names based on the imagery and mood each color evokes, with the goal of making the color selection process easier and more personal for our customers."
Behr colors fall into four categories: visual names tied to color (Red Pepper, Bluebird), geographic names (Aruba Green, Rocky Mountain Sky), emotional names (Charismatic, LOL Yellow) and action-oriented experiential names (Explorer Blue, Biking Trail). Like many of the larger brands, Behr does a good bit of research and has a team that chooses the names.
Nicole Gibbons, who founded the direct-to-consumer online paint company Clare in 2017, says her company's naming process is rigorous and thoughtful, seeking to invoke the feeling of the color, in a fun and relevant way. Clare takes naming cues from pop culture; names such as Matcha Latte and Avocado Toast are timely references to trendy menu items but also immediately evocative of their green hues.
Clare recently launched a campaign that invited its fan base to choose its newest color, with more than 2,000 people weighing in. The winning color: an icy, pale blue that conjures images of icicles and crisp winter days, aptly named Frozen. (The name's connection to a certain Disney film probably didn't hurt.)
Another newcomer to the paint industry is 6-month-old Backdrop. Founded by Natalie and Caleb Ebel, the collection has 50 paint colors with names that are as hip and cool as the company's signature paint cans. Natalie Ebel admits to being inspired by the makeup industry. "If you think of nail polish, I would always remember the name of the polish I would put on my nails, but I would never know what white was on my wall." Essie, the venerable nail polish brand, is famous for its clever and sometimes cheeky color names. Like Essie, Backdrop seeks to find names that are memorable and emotionally resonate with its customers.
Natalie says Backdrop's first color — and one of its most popular — was called Surf Camp. It set the tone for the other color names. The name evokes deep ocean waters; the hue is a deep blue with green undertones. (It's actually pretty similar to Benjamin Moore's Gentleman's Gray.) The brand has gone one step further to reinforce their customers' emotional connection to their colors by creating color-inspired music playlists on Spotify. "The playlists really represent the colors and what they might sound like, so it's a way to interact with the color and our brand even before you are ready to paint."
And like Clare, Backdrop relies on its community: One year before launching, Natalie had narrowed down the palette to 75 colors, which she then shared with a group of 100 (a combination of friends, family and work associates from across the country) via Instagram. That group weighed in, voted and ultimately helped refine the brand's 51 colors and their names, from After Hours to Westside Local.
Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."
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