• Identity Design

Can a Company Be a Color?

A good nickname only works if someone else gives it to you.

No doubt realizing that brown is the new black, UPS has decided, at long last, to strike. And why not? Some companies have managed to go beyond having just a symbol represent their brands and have also taken ownership of a color. But this is a lot harder to do, and examples are scarce. We all know who Big Blue is. And to a certain audience—mostly kids—orange means only one thing: Nickelodeon. Kodak owns mustard yellow and red—or does Burger King? Or is it McDonald’s?

This is the problem of color ownership: There aren’t that many colors to go around. Undaunted, UPS has nonetheless stepped in to take formal ownership of the color brown. Since the 1920s, UPS livery and uniforms have been brown, influenced, they say, by the colors of the old Pullman cars that represented “class, elegance, and professionalism.” UPS also liked the fact that brown helped hide dirt on uniforms and vehicles.

Over the decades, UPS’s unwavering approach has provided the most consistent graphic personality for any company that exists. Even their logo is secondary in importance to the color. You see a brown truck, or a uniform, or the tail of a plane, and you know what you are getting. You think UPS.

It’s not hard to imagine a time, particularly during the rise of FedEx, when there was a great deal of internal handwringing at UPS over whether being brown was good. It’s not a flashy, particularly forward-looking color (I’m not sure what that means, but you know what I mean). I imagine there have been many pushes to rethink the look of UPS. While brown can represent conservatism and dependability, it’s not particularly snappy. It’s not really cool.

Through some sort of branding judo, UPS is trying to take their seemingly stodgy color and make it hip. They are laying their claim to owning brown. This certainly seems attainable; after all, not many other companies pop to mind that make use of brown. Fair enough.

They also, it seems, are hoping that they can get people to refer to them by the word “brown” alone. That might be a bit of a stretch. Maybe the thinking was to echo the way a subculture takes a word that is perceived as a slur and, by embracing it, empowers itself. (“We’re in town. We’re Brown. Get used to it!”)

They introduced print ads that had two-inch-tall letters spelling out B-R-O-W-N down the side. The copy read, “You want your work done faster, you want it done better. Brown can do that.” The ads had the tagline “What Can Brown Do for You?”

By calling themselves Brown—and hoping we will as well—they may be trying a bit too hard. Advertising that could have seemed jaunty and confident instead seems a bit defensive and strident, like when McDonald’s appropriated the Mickey D’s moniker once they noticed that the phrase was in currency among kids. Or like when Deion Sanders started calling himself Prime Time when no one else did, hoping it would stick. It sounded annoyingly calculated.

So it remains to be seen if people will start to think of UPS as uppercase-B Brown. I bet not.

By the way, BusinessWeek calls UPS Big Brown. That’s better; it’s more human. And maybe it has more of a chance of sticking. Like any good nickname, it only works if someone else gives it to you.

—Alexander Isley

Adapted from an essay that first appeared in reveries, an online marketing journal.

© 2005 Alexander Isley Inc.