Kinda Blue

The hardest-working color in branding

Winners get a blue ribbon; losers get the blues.

According to color theorists, blue is seen as trustworthy, dependable and committed. It’s likely to be a man’s favorite color, but women like it, too. It’s the Tom Hanks of colors, true-blue and reliable. You couldn’t go wrong with Big Blue. Stately institutions including Tiffany, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Chevron and AT&T made it part of their identities to reassure consumers that they’d always be there for them.

“Blue is very important in corporate identification, color schemes and presentations,” says Scott Lackey, strategic director for ad agency Jugular. “When I was working with IBM, they were very cautious about the exact color — and it did stand for something.”

When Levi’s jeans became the uniform of gold miners, it wasn’t because of their indigo hue. Rather, it was Levi Strauss’s technical innovation of reinforcing the pockets with a rivet. But by the 1950s, they were simply “blue jeans.” The newly invented teenager wore them as a symbol of defiance. By the time the style had been passed down through the beatniks to the hippies, it was the uniform of the counterculture, an oxymoron that Lackey loves.

Blue is also the color of purity (depending on your point of view): the Virgin Mary, Absolut and Skyy vodkas, and the purest of waters; think of all those indigo glass bottles holding pricey spring water.

Blue has a romantic side. Photographers and lovers alike love l’heure bleue, the magic hour between daylight and darkness — dusk, when the mundane becomes moody and imperfections blur.  

In the early 1990s, it became the symbol of haute technology, when the invention of blue LEDs made the keypads of the priciest mobile phones glow indigo. During the dot-com boom, the uniform was a blue button-down shirt and khakis. The go-go-go year of 2000 also saw the launch of JetBlue Airways, the cooler airline for all those bicoastal blueshirts.

JetBlue didn’t use an identity firm or color consultant to come up with its signature shade. “It was one of those things that felt right when everyone saw it,” says T.J. McCormick, general manager of creative services. A shade with a bit of midnight in it is the primary blue in the JetBlue identity. “It evokes a certain sense of maturity and loyalty,” he says. Four other shades of blue add complexity to the bouquet, with overtones of fresh, smart, stylish and witty.

Blue is in fashion. The latest ad for Prada eyewear sets Linda Evangelista against a shadowy background of blues, while a recent ad for Van Heusen shows a killingly good-looking man in a blue shirt on a ledge against a hazy azure sky.

And blue is getting a makeover, according to Kate Smith, color strategist and member of the Color Marketing Group. “For advertising and branding, it’s taken on a new meaning because of the environmental movement,” she says. While green is traditionally associated with environmentalism, it’s been worked to death, and pimped by companies that make toxic products.

“Blue has taken on the higher ideal of global humanitarianism,” Smith says. The Earth is blue from outer space — and blue is the color of the United Nations. “We now have a broader concern for not only the Earth itself, but also for people and their interactions.”

If peace seems like a blue-sky idea, maybe better branding would help.

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