How Pantone Is Still Turning Color Into Money

The color company grew more last year than at any other time in its 53-year history

Some 210 new colors came into the world last week. Ballet Slipper, Spice Route, Jurassic Gold, and Sea Turtle, among others. These shades always existed in nature, but now they are official—dramatic names and all. One can buy them from Pantone, a small company in Carlstadt, N.J., that literally snatches its products out of the air.

Pantone monetizes wavelengths and pigments the way Coca-Cola bottles water and Manhattan developers buy up chunks of the sky. Technically, it's a kind of biochemical company. After developing colors in a lab, Pantone makes most of its money by selling the shades and corresponding formulas to fabric mills, printers, and designers in a range of disciplines. It’s a simple model, and business has never been better. While Pantone, now a unit of the industrial giant Danaher, does not detail its financials1, spokeswoman Molly Walsh said the company grew more in 2014 than it has in any of its 53 years of mixing ink.

The Pantone Cafe in Monaco.
The Pantone Cafe in Monaco.
Source: Pantone via Bloomberg

That's an astonishing and improbable feat, considering color is basically free these days. The widely available technology to measure, match, print, and dye specific colors has never been better. Talk to Web designers about color, and they will mention RGBCMYKwheels, and a whole bunch of other tools and conventions that can spit out the precise shade they are looking for. Pantone also has plenty of competition when it comes to categorizing color. SCOTDIC Colours, a New York-based brand that specialized in cotton and polyester tones, is becoming a popular alternative in the fashion world. Even the federal government has its own color convention (where else would we get “Air Superiority Blue”?). 

Graphic designers, however, are still clambering for Pantone's 1,755 colors in its "Plus Series," which comes as a stack of paper strips that spread open like a motley fan. Pantone's "Fashion, Home + Interiors" color guides come in a folio of 2,310 fabric swatches, while the company also makes a library of colors baked into plastic cubes to help industrial designers make choices for everything from plastic dolls to patio furniture.

To stop its business from bleeding onto digital platforms and open-source color libraries, Pantone has injected a bit of mystique into its color creation. Of Pantone’s 120 employees, the mix-masters in the ink room now take a back seat to the “color economists” and “color psychologists.” These are the folks that make up the core of 20 to 60 experts canvassing the world at any given time for trends in color. "They're completely rebranded," says Langdon Graves, a professor of color theory at Parson's New School for Design in New York. "They used to be more of a reference. Now they have a point.2"

Consider Pantone's Colorstrology feature. Grape Nectar (Pantone No. 18-1710) was the color of the day on Monday, according to Pantone. Apparently, it stands for complexity, brightness, and responsibility. Tomorrow it will be something different. The feature mixes traditional color theory with a dash of pop culture, psychology, and total nonsense to come up with a brilliant marketing blend.  

It took the group years to arrive at Pantone’s new batch of 210 offerings. Heavy on oranges and pinks, the colors are said to reflect humanity’s growing focus on health and natural foods. There are also a lot of blues, a favorite of tech companies looking for a logo. Mark Calder, creative director at the menswear brand Robert Talbott, is particularly excited about the new blues. “It’s a color that men understand and our customers respond well to it,” he says. “But how do you drive more demand? You have to evolve the blues.” 

A eclair, sold at the Pantone Cafe in Monaco.
A eclair, sold at the Pantone Cafe in Monaco.
Source: Pantone via Bloomberg

Companies that want even more details on what shades are resonating with people can buy one of Pantone’s forecasting books or hire its team of consultants for a custom project. Sure, a print shop team may be able to replicate a version of "mistletoe" perfectly, but will they know how that anemic green makes people feel? Are they aware of the exotic corners of the world in which it is most prevalent? And, most importantly, do they have any inkling of how many sweaters it might sell this fall?

Indeed, fast-fashion brands and shorter design cycles in retail have been a boon to Pantone's business, and its color-of-the-year selections have become self-fulfilling. Who knows if this is really the year of Marsala? But a crowd of designers is rushing to splash the wine-colored shade across their product lines. Pantone has effectively become to pigments what Anna Wintour is to the wider fashion world: part trendsetter, part enforcer.

Then, of course, there is the merchandise: coffee mugs, iPhone cases, kids books, and a pile of other product categories stamped with the generic-looking Pantone color tiles. Most of that business comes in the form of licensing dollars, as Pantone sells the right to its logo. There's even a Pantone café in Monaco that sells "Eclair"-colored eclairs.

The major value of the Pantone system, however, still resides in its standardization. A "Scuba Blue" printed at a mill in Vietnam should be pretty much identical to one coming off of rollers in Vancouver, provided both facilities have purchased the Pantone color portfolio and the corresponding array of proprietary inks.

Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, says Pantone still enjoys a sort of network effect because it launched its system so early and so broadly. When brands file to protect a trademark by color, they typically identify the shade with a Pantone code. Tiffany has its baby-blue boxes (Pantone 1837), Hermes has the orange in its scarves (Pantone 16-1448), and then there's the famous red on the soles of Christian Louboutin shoes (Pantone 18-1663)3.

“Really everyone in fashion refers to Pantone in one form or another,” Scafidi says. “With intellectual property and with manufacturing, you really have to be very specific in terms of your color, and Pantone facilitates that.” As for recurring revenue, Pantone recommends customers buy a new stack of its shades every year. Colors tend to fade, even Pantone's.

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  1. 1 A long-standing tradition that the private company held until its sale for $180 million in 2007 to X-Rite, a company that was in turn acquired by Danaher in 2012.
  2. 2 Graves is a big fan of Pantone, but she uses a different color library in her classes, because it's far cheaper for her students.
  3. 3 Companies can still use those specific colors, just not in the same way. Louboutin red on the tongue of a shoe, for example, is fair game.