What Are Your Colors?

“The Customer Can Have Any Color He Wants So Long As It’s Black” – Henry Ford

There is some dispute whether Ford actually said this. Regardless it has become a truism, whose influence persists. The message is also, if you don’t like our products, tough! Long after the decline both of Ford and his company, black is the one color in which virtually every model automobile is available.

Similarly, major appliances such as refrigerators and washers still tend to come in white and now a quite limited assortment of other colors. While consumer electronics and small appliances often come in metallic silver, white or black. This begs the question – why are developers of products from plumbing fixtures to household implements to tee shirts color blind?

Colors in product design are, subject to fashion. Remember the blizzard of beige a few years ago? Novel products used to be able to get away with superficial sameness but as product categories from mobile phones to sporting goods have become commodities similarity has become dangerous.

Those of you who stage shows and events as part of your promotional mix may have used tchotchkes such tee shirts. All too often they are white or black in size extra large. As a result, they often end up in trade show dumpsters.

The temptations, which attracted Ford, are still with us. Of course, it’s easier to have one or a small number of colors, flavors, or other features. One of our key missions as marketers is to differentiate our products favorably. We should also do this inexpensively. Here color can work, especially in the face of monochrome monotonous competition.

An interesting case is Dell. Personal computers are as much a commodity as any consumer product. Indeed computer “manufacturers” make none of the major components. Instead they assemble their products from standard parts produced by others.

Dell’s key differentiator had long been to compete on price – the typical strategy in a commodity business. Dell played that game for too long. Competitors caught up leaving Dell with neither cost leadership not profitability.

They have recently made radical changes from management to sales channels to marketing. And they’ve discovered color. Dell notebook computers now come in a choice of eight colors (7 plus black). The color option consists of replacing the top of the case with a plastic panel in one of the colors. This increases Dell’s bill of materials, but with it’s build to order products, it does not increase the number of SKUs. This feature is probably profitable.

Customers pay an extra $20 for color. As long as colored computers are unusual, this means the Dell logo is displayed on the top of an eye catching background. This not only polished the brand image, it builds a ruby, evergreen, gold, or azure box, which for now, is not a commodity.