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Published in Fast Company, May 19, 2010
Every designer knows Pantone: Their numbered color-matching system identifies that exactly perfect shade precisely, ensuring its fidelity all the way to production. Yet even though it’s a $200 million business, it’s hardly a household name. They’re hoping to change that with consumer products–and today, their latest licensing venture, the Pantone Hotel, opened its doors in Brussels, just off the chic Avenue Louise.
“We’re looking to exude a quiet authority, be more of an insider’s brand,” says Lisa Herbert, EVP of Pantone’s home and fashion division (and daughter of Lawrence Herbert, who created the firm’s core matching system in 1963). “If you have something Pantone, you’re in the know in terms of design.”
The hotel is, for now, the company’s big, branding mothership. Designed by Belgian interior designer Michel Penneman and Belgian architect Olivier Hannaert, each of the hotel’s 59 rooms, which range from $84 to $184 a night, is inspired by different Pantone color palettes. On-site Pantone Color consultants are apparently available for “color consultations and educational seminars on color psychology and trends.” And inside, you can buy any of the myriad products the company has co-created: The “Pantone Universe,” which includes mugs, bath and body goods, clothes, cufflinks, keychains, stationery, bags, and folding chairs. Those products take their cues from Pantone’s style guide, which dictates iconic touchstones such as hang-tags shaped like Pantone chips or chip-windows that stick to garments.
Pantone’s foray into consumer products actually owes something to the Internet. With the rise of computers, digital printing, and design software, companies like HP and Microsoft have paid licensing fees to use Pantone information inside their products since the 1980s. As computers leveled access to design tools, they simultaneously raised awareness of the previously obscure color-matching system. And that created a niche brand: The Pantone name invites you into design’s inside-baseball syntax and serves as a proof of your knowledge.
The company’s first consumer-licensing hit launched in 2007, a Japanese cellphone from Softbank in 20 Pantone colors. That was quickly followed by Pantone-themed products, including mugs, messenger and tote bags, peppermills, folding chairs and stools, eyewear, stationery and storage tins, and sneakers. Their most surprising breakout hit? The Pantone mug. “We learned from that license that it’s not about slapping on the logo so much as embodying the logo,” Herbert observes. Today, licensing now represents 15% of total revenues; consumer-product licensing is the fastest-growing segment of that. (Success has spawned lots of unofficial imitators, like Ignacio Pilotto’s Rubitone, a Pantone-themed Rubik’s Cube or the Pantone Swatch-watch (get it?) designed by Paul Finn of Fitzroy & Finn with Ben Lancaster of Stylo.)
Pantone products are typically large, blank canvases, drenched in color, with tiny fillips of Pantone branding. Still, Herbert says the company is well-aware of the possibility of exhausting what, in small doses, is a witty idea. But their success also depends on producing almost anything that a person could want: Pantone’s hope is to eventually extend their color-matching system across other systems–coordinating, say, the paint in your living room and all the furnishings within it, or your lipstick and every other shade you’d like to match it to.
An early example: Bridal clothier Dessy launched its Pantone Wedding concept last fall, where OCD brides can buy Pantone swatchbooks and coordinate nearly every aspect of their wedding according to a color scheme.
You gotta admire the chutzpah: Few companies can claim to have so successfully branded a color, much less the very idea of color.