The colour of profit

July 17th, 2004

There are people who think official color reassignments are a conspiracy theory. Teresa Nielsen Hayden of Making Light blog has the short answer is that they are a conspiracy, but they aren’t theoretical, and submits as evidence the assigned colors for 2004, 2003 and 2002.

Who does this to us? An outfit, founded in 1962, called the Color Marketing Group. These are the people who wished avocado green and harvest gold kitchen appliances on America, and put the 1980s into those mauve-pink shades that looked so peculiarly horrible on so many of us.

The CMG is a trade organization that houses 1,500 members from varied industries. The set the long-term colour trends (a set of sixteen colors that will be profitably marketable two years hence) as well as short-term predictions (a palette of colours that are supposed to be currently ‘in’) at twice-yearly meetings in Alexandria, VA.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody’s obliged to follow CMG’s lead; but a manufacturer who ignores them is likely to find that all his competitors’ products are in fashionably compatible colors, while his own clash.

How do CMG members choose new colors? As someone explained in Slate back in 1998,

The official line is that they look at economic trends (pastels in bad times, saturated colors in good times) and also examine social trends. What this boils down to is six hundred people sitting around in small groups, trying to figure out the next big thing. Gray, for example, was chosen in part because of the craze for technology and space-age stuff as the millennium approaches: “People associate gray with futuristic things like silvery metallics and anodized aluminum,” a CMG spokeswoman said. And why blue? “Water is a big social issue, what with the current emphasis on designer water and water conservation.”

It all fits together for Teresa:

I knew what was up with the big khaki push. Remember that one? Ads everywhere saying “Hemingway wore khaki”? We’d all been wearing black for several years. We had black levis, good black skirts, black leather or denim jackets, little black dresses?a great installed user base of basic black clothing, plus the colored stuff we wore with it. I hadn’t heard anyone sighing for the return of khaki, and if I had, I’d have pointed them to one of the WASP mail-order catalogues. What’s the big deal with khaki? It gets dirty too easily, and for a lot of people it’s an unbecoming color. But there’s only so much new black clothing you can sell a happy consumer who already has a closet full of black-and-coordinates; so the clothing industry pushed khaki remorselessly.

That would explain the fashion magazines seasonal frenzy, when ‘yellow’, ‘pink’ or ‘green’ are the ‘new black’. Why is this relevant to engagement marketing? Such trend-setting engages customers by fashionista’s fiat, that is, not at all. It may be true that colour fashion changes every season and every season we are being told this colour scheme is the ‘thing’. However, I wonder how many people actually bother to change their wardrobes, interiors and other items according to the latest CMG ‘soothing’ blurb.

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