The Color of Champions

by Blake Howard    August 7, 2012

Has anyone noticed the excessive use of purple so far in the Olympics? Is this good branding or simply annoying?

Some have hailed that London is “staging the ugliest Olympics on record” and others have called the use of purple the “Color of Success”.

Every year the Inter-Society of Color Council (or ISCC) studies color trends and designates (based on data) the hot color trends, including the color of the year. My prediction: Purple will be the 2013 color of the year due to its growing relevance and usage in the marketplace (like the Olympics).

That aside, was it a good strategy for the Olympics to inundate us with so much purple?

First, lets talk more about color.

Color is a big part of a brand mark and even more important across an entire brand’s visual identity system. Choosing a color is hard because it can be super subjective. What I like, color-wise, is probably different than what you like. My closet is filled with neutral blues and grays, because that’s what I gravitate to, but my wife’s is filled with bright (sometimes neon) colors. Neither of us are right in our attire selection (even though she’s way more stylish) because our attraction to color is based on a litany of emotional, political, and life experiences (from various influences like sports teams to popular brands or general trends in the market place – like the Olympics).

To be associated with a single color, from a branding perspective, is both competitively and emotionally good for a brand. Of course, that’s easier said than done and could even be a dying strategy. Traditionally, just like in theater, good color strategy should always have a lead actor, who is the star of the show, and then a few supporting cast members. You can’t have 50/50 co-stars, in my opinion. Look at UPS and FedEx. UPS is abundantly brown, but what color is FedEx? They use an assortment of color that cheapens the power of their brand identity. Traditionally, it is better to own one color than use a hodgepodge palette and own none (jack of all trades, master of none).

On the competitive side, color can help you visually differentiate one brand from another. For example, why are Kubota tractors orange? Because John Deere’s are green. That simple.

On the emotional side, color lets a brand tell one more part of the story. If a brand is really friendly and enthusiastic, orange might suite them well. If a brand wants to be perceived as trustworthy and dependable, the ever popular blue might be the best choice.

Statistically speaking, the U.S. Patent Office shows that the most popular colors for logos in 2010 were:

These stats aren’t shocking. I’ve never met a designer who got fired for using blue. It always tests best in focus groups and is by far the safest (read boring) route. Red is the color of leadership and what brand doesn’t want to be the Leader of their category.

These numbers do, however, show some opportunities to be unique. For instance, purple is a great place to start. The Ally bank rebrand and use of purple is a beautiful brand identity and has proven successful for their business, despite the impossible financial climate for banks right now. So I can see how purple entered the conversation of the Olympics design.

Given the task, I think Purple was the right choice for the Olympic games, in theory, and I have personally enjoyed seeing it everywhere. The problem lies with its flexibility. It doesn’t play nice with many colors and limits the ability to adapt to multiple applications in fun and fresh ways. Wimbledon stadium, for example, doesn’t work in purple (where Olympic tennis is being held). The other issue is over branding. Did Wimbledon really need to have purple banners everywhere? It is Wimbledon! Let it be!

Regardless of my personal preference, which waivers back and forth, the Olympic purple is different and memorable, so you can’t hate on that.

What do you think? Overkill or a smart strategy?


3 thoughts on “The Color of Champions”

  1. I think it helps to remember that the Olympic is not about the US, or the color preferences of the US culture. How does the global community feel about the color? How common is it’s use there?

    From my travels to Europe over the years, pink and purple have remained very common. And that’s just one continent. What about Asia? South America?

  2. The entire London Olympics brand identity is extremely untraditional compared to past games, so it’s only fitting for them to pick an untraditional color for the games. If we take a little step into color theory, mixing red and blue will achieve a purple hue, so naturally It’s a great complementary color to the red, white and blue uniforms that dominate the stadiums- the essential colors that represent most countries. Overall, I applaud the design, and color choice, of this years London Summer Olympics and hope that Rio is just as great!

  3. Great observation, Blake. It turns out purple is one of the traditional colours of Wimbledon. (While I’m no color aficionado, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.) Actually, I first noticed the unusual scheme myself during this year’s grand slam. I’m guessing that since green (the tourney’s other official color) and white (the players’ sartorial mainstay) were too obvious as candidates, purple won the prize by default – and for all the other good reasons you mentioned above.

    Another brand that has relied on purple in the past has been MetroPCS. Unfortunately, their slogan – Wireless for All – has more of a patriotic ring to it (read: red, white and blue), and for me, the dissonance was a bit too much. It looks like they have made a recent effort to reconcile the two but I think they still have some work to do:

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