With a nation simultaneously social distancing, engaging in long overdue conversations and demonstrations about equality, and watching space rockets shoot for the moon, it may seem like an odd time to to talk about swatches of color. Is today a time to reflect back on the much criticized pre-pandemic Pantone announcement of Classic Blue as their selection for 2020’s color of the year?
Yes. Yes, it is.
While one-third of brands use blue in their logos (and that may range from cerulean to sky), I want to suggest that this is the perfect time to use Pantone’s selection as a point of reference to reflect on America’s evolving sense of itself and consequently the way a modern brand story must navigate the tone of our nation in times of challenge, in times of conflict, in times of change.
The Basics of Blue
Color theory often reads blue as a color for stability, for cooling down, for calm. Pantone says it’s a color for connecting while providing an anchoring foundation. “A solid and dependable blue hue you can rely on,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.
When choosing the color of the year, Pantone Color Institute looks at the cultural zeitgeist for clues as to where we are, and where we might be going. “We’re living in this time now where things seem to be, around the world, a little bit, I don’t want to use the word unstable, but let’s just say a little shaky,” said Laurie Pressman, the vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, to the New York Times. “Nothing is absolutely certain from one moment to the next.”
The Critical Response
Some designers felt the safe choice of Classic Blue was not reflective of what we need as a society right now. Dezeen writer Michelle Ogundehin felt it missed the mark, saying, “just because we hunger for something doesn’t make it good for us. I’d argue instead that in this supremely anxious and confusing era where rage and rebellion have become the action of choice, it’s just not the moment to champion escapism.”
Maria Sherman at Jezebel took the criticism even further, calling it “boring as hell”. Over at GQ, writer Cam Wolf agreed, saying, “according to Pantone, it’s time to grab the most boring/reliable stuff out of your closet and drink exactly one (1) beer.”
In the article, “Pantone’s Color of the Year is Awful”, Fast Company author Evan Nichol Brown writes, “It’s an odd choice because in recent years, Pantone has taken pains to make its Color of the Year culturally relevant.”
But, what if it actually is?
Challenging Our Sense of Classic
American culture might actually be entering a Classic Blue phase making the selection prescient. Consider that increasing numbers of Americans feel fatigued by what’s going on in the world, overwhelmed by social media and the news. They have for several years. Now, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltering in place has led to even more exhaustion, as stress over lost jobs and the monotony of staying home has people feeling more anxious. With self-imposed structure and routines being recommended to help combat fatigue, perhaps a reliable, nonaggressive color like Classic Blue feels safe and comfortable during a time of political and personal restlessness.
But in a desire for nostalgia, are communities forgetting that the past was not so tranquil for all? Or that associations with the “boys in blue” may as easily invoke trauma, threat, and harm rather than safety and security? Whose rose-colored past are we centering in this desire for “tradition”? Diverse audiences are often left behind in these whitewashed ideas of what history was like. And that translates into numbers – 72% of LGBTQ consumers feel their representation in marketing is tokenistic and superficial. 75% of Black millennials want to see better diversity in ads, and 70% are more likely to buy from brands that take a stand on racism. From a marketing perspective, this is not a time to tell people to “calm down.”
How Do We (and Our Brands) respond?
Can a country of people drawn to Classic Blue imagine something more from it?
Perhaps Classic Blue can be useful, not as a tranquilizer but as a reminder of resilience. One does not need to be complacent with their stillness. The ocean, after all, is classic, blue and beautiful while also a powerful force of nature.
Brands that are committed to empathy-led content and equity-oriented leadership have opportunities to move forward. Here’s how:
- Don’t succumb to nostalgia; speak about the future. Pressman said to CNN that Classic Blue is the color of dusk. “It’s a color that anticipates what’s going to happen next – what’s the future going to bring as we move into the evening hours?” Let us then think not of hearkening to a past that is painful for so many, but forward, into an uncertain future, as yet unbuilt.
- Let unity be a key to bringing your communities and consumers with you on the journey through challenge, tension, and achievement. In tumultuous times, balance helps us stay strong. A traditional color like Classic Blue can be used to encourage us to unite, to hold steady in the face of troubling times, not in order to stay put but to move us forward, together.
- Normalize the incorporation of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles in your practices and brand. Where Classic Blue brings a level of solidity and comfort, so can active and confident assertion of principles and brand values that align to the story you want to tell. While a number of high profile companies are stepping forward this week, one powerful response comes from fitness brand Peloton (see below), whose letter to its members clearly indicated the strength of their commitment to values and the company’s goal to push forward.
How One Brand Leader is Responding to This Moment
On June 1, John Foley, Founder and CEO of fitness mega-brand Peloton, wrote to the membership not only to reiterate statements made to their staff but to affirm their commitment to equality and equity through action. “We will continue to develop meaningful ways to use our voice, platform and resources to fight injustice. We are outraged and heartbroken at the events occurring across our country. In the fight for an anti-racist world, we have a responsibility to combat hate, discrimination and unfair treatment of our fellow humans.”
Classic Blue cannot capture the intensity of this moment. There is no tone strong enough to envelop the uncertainty and tension implicit in this historic era of mask-wearing daily confrontations with injustice, inequities, and communication silos. It is here your brand and your own well-being must exist, and while Pantone may not have intended Classic Blue to represent more than a desire for comfort, it is our opportunity to bridge our own discomfort as well as our brand’s need to connect to communities and advance together.
By Shane Lukas, Creative Strategist for A Great Idea