While the names don’t immediately conjure images of specific colors, they are intended to invoke feelings. It’s all part of a process used by paint companies to appeal to not only the eyes, but also the heart. It’s as much about an emotional connection as it is about visual contentment.
“Color names tell a micro-story about a color. We choose names based on the imagery and mood each color evokes, with the goal of making the color selection process easier and more personal for our customers,” says Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr.
Associating language with a particular color helps to trigger an intended emotional response when viewing that color. It’s a strategic approach that paint companies use to win over consumers in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Dunn-Edwards Corp. recently named Skipping Stones, a serene and steely blue with hints of green and gray, as its 2024 Color of the Year. The regenerative shade is said to emulate the meditative, yet energizing, feeling of the sea and capture a collective yearning to slow down and achieve balance and tranquility in the year to come.
“Skipping Stones feels like a daydream and can add a sense of mystery and thoughtfulness to any space,” says DeMing Carpenter, color expert at Dunn-Edwards. “It’s part of the resurgence of blue and represents a shift away from the bold, warm-toned colors we’ve seen gain popularity over the past few years. This blue is timeless and versatile, fresh, and serene.”
But what does that mean, exactly? While paint names are sourced from everywhere, even from things that don’t automatically suggest a color association, the strategy behind them hinges largely on the theory of color psychology. Paint companies invest heavily in process-driven research to come up with their color names to contrive a connection.
Language offers context around abstract communication and helps to bridge the psychological response with the color. It’s a well-known fact that color plays a role in how you feel. Red incites action, blues and greens promote calm; yellows invite happiness.
This is evidenced in how color is used in marketing campaigns and brand identity. Color and psychological response are becoming more mainstream to treat both mental and physical illnesses in the growing field of chromotherapy, where patients are exposed to lights through different color lenses as part of treatment protocol.
Scientists measure the physiological effect of a color which feeds into a psychological response. The trick is that some colors have a duplicitous impact, framed largely by an individual’s experience with and association around a color.
For example, exposure to red is known to raise blood pressure. Psychologically, this may cause anxiety in one person, or it may energize another.
Exposure to yellow releases serotonin, which can make a person more alert and aware, helpful when learning concepts or making decisions. Conversely, too much exposure to yellow for some can be irritating and spark confrontation, because it is more likely to cause visual fatigue.
That’s why paint names are meant to be broad, yet evocative.
The goal is to “keep paint names as universal as possible, so they appeal to a wide audience. We put a lot of research into our paint color names, knowing they often sway consumers toward one shade or another,” says Woelfel.
What’s the process for naming colors?
There is a rigorous process before a potential name is selected for a paint color and involves multiple stakeholders. Additionally, many paint companies actively involve consumers in the brainstorming phase.
“The naming process is quite involved. From a creative standpoint, it depends on the project but is led by our color marketing & development team as a collaborative effort that involves several groups within the company,” says Hannah Yeo, color marketing & development manager at Benjamin Moore.
“To start the process, questions are asked about the kind of mood the color evokes, what it is reminiscent of and more,” Yeo says.
“From there, all potential names go through a vetting process to eliminate duplicative names from the existing library of 3,500+ colors, satisfy legal requirements, differentiate from other colors and more.”
Inspiration for paint color names
What inspires paint color names? Paint companies start by looking at immediate influences, such as travel (Beachside Drive), food (Black Pepper), animals (Elephant’s Breath), nature (Bay Waves), pop culture (Marilyn’s Dress) and more.
Geography is a significant factor as well and sometimes the most compelling inspiration is located right at the front door.
For Glidden, Allegheny River and Pittsburgh Gray “are two cool gray colors that give a nod to our Pittsburgh heritage and headquarters. They also give a cheeky nod to our consistent overcast weather here,” says Ashley McCollum, Glidden paint by PPG color expert.
That’s an effective approach as well, because it causes you to pause and consider what color it is, and how the name is applicable.
“Color names are intentional,” says McCollum. “We strive to have color names that evoke emotion and create a memorable experience. We want people to remember the colors on their walls.”
And that memory is more compelling when there is a backstory, which often comes in consultation with consumers, paint company employees and even children. At Benjamin Moore, “employees contribute to the process inspired by their own unique perspectives and experiences,” says Yeo.
“Pony Tail has been one of our top-selling neutral colors for years, and it is named after an employee’s daughter’s blonde ponytail,” says McCollum.