Can a brand really own a color?

"To me this is an ethical question..."

Last week, T-Mobile sent a letter to insurance startup Lemonade telling it to stop using the telecom company’s trademarked magenta color.

T-Mobile told NPR that it doesn’t want people to be confused by seeing their Pantone Rhodamine Red U shade used for other brands.

Other companies have tried to protect their colors in the past, like Tiffany with its blue and UPS’ brown, so this week, Campaign US dug into this issue. See what branding and design experts have to say.

Can a brand really own a color?


Kelli Miller, Creative Director and Partner, And/Or
To me this is an ethical question… why would a competing brand want to use the same color as a competitor? Is it to trick consumers into thinking they are the more established brand? Is it to piggyback on the more established brand’s heritage and reputation? Or is it simply out of ignorance and poor strategy? I think brands have every right to protect their heritage and trademark their color if it's truly a cornerstone to their visual identity. However, I believe that ownership should only apply to their sector, in the case of T-Mobile vs Lemonade it feels a bit like corporate pettiness as Lemonade is not a direct competitor to T-Mobile.

Scott Lakso, Executive Producer, loyalkaspar
Technically speaking, yes: a number of companies own trademarks for specific colors. Given that color is a critical part of a brand’s DNA, it feels intuitive that a company can claim ownership over the use of a narrow range of non-functional color values within their competitive market, if that color can be demonstrated that the buying public clearly associates that color with the brand. Think Tiffany & Co. and their trademark blue. This makes sense in terms of protecting brands from imitators, such as if another jewelry company leaned into robin’s egg blue. In that case the imitator would clearly be attempting to benefit from Tiffany & Co.’s years of brand equity and performance.

But the gray area in trademark law can result in companies like T-Mobile claiming a wide range of color values – all shades of pink – in all markets. In arguing that an insurance company is appropriating T-Mobile’s brand equity by using a shade of pink besides their trademark Pantone Rhodamine Red U, designers could find themselves on a slippery slope with few colors left to work with.

Orlaith Wood, Senior Writer at Reed Words
Color is incredibly important for a brand. Coca-Cola is red and white – and it’s hard to imagine that ever changing. Why would it, when those triggers are so embedded in our minds? But Colgate is red and white too. And Coke isn’t suing Colgate. Because powerful as it is, color is just one of a set of assets that work together to build a brand.

You’d expect us – a writing agency – to say that words are another of those assets. And we do. Nike hasn’t stuck with ‘Just do it’ all these years because they’re lazy. That line is as recognisable and memorable as Coke red. And Apple’s lean, sharp, wry tone of voice is vital to our sense of that brand. 

Can you own a color? Legally, maybe. And if a direct competitor is trying to look like you, that’s probably worth fighting. But chasing down other brands who happen to use the same (popular) Pantone shade as you seems a crazy distraction from the business of investing in your own brand: colors, fonts, copy and all.

Max Ottignon, Co-founder, Ragged Edge
Brands can and do own colors – even if the courts don’t always agree. And color has been in the dock quite a bit over the past few years.

Louboutin successfully trademarked his red-soled heels last year. And Cadbury has all but given up trying to pin down ownership of Pantone 2865C after a protracted battle with Nestlé. But when we see that purple chocolate bar, who doesn’t immediately think: ‘Dairy Milk’?

Visual identity conversations are often dominated by logos, but they’re not necessarily your brand’s most important visual asset. When you’re walking along a supermarket aisle, the first thing your brain processes is color. It’s the same thing whilst diligently browsing a price comparison website. 

What do you think about as you approach Tiffany’s on 5th Ave, New York City? A delicate serif typeface or pyramids of aquatic blue boxes? And when you think about Monzo, are you imagining the ‘M’ icon or that eye-popping coral card?

In any battle for attention, the odds are against you. To redress the balance you need to make less mean more. And taking ownership of the right color is a chance to stack the deck in your favor. 

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