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So I’m looking at a bag of popcorn and wondering: how important is color to a brand?

The short answer, of course, is very important. Critically important. Color carries indispensable emotional information that the spacial dimensions of a logo—its shapes, lines and letterforms—couldn’t otherwise convey.

In fact, color serves as a reliable identifier when shape, line and letterforms are up for grabs; you might not be able to read Chinese, but you know a Coke when you see one:

DepartmentD.com - Coke China A Logo

So it’s a valuable dimension of a brand’s visual identity. But is it necessary, or even desirable, to use your  colors every time you present your brand to the public?

Any business owner who insists that her blue and gold logo always be printed in blue and gold is going to run up against harsh reality the first time she buys a newspaper ad; unless she wants to spring for four-color printing, that logo had better look good in black and white. But there are less obvious reasons for businesses to be flexible with their colors.

The best corporate visual identity guidelines anticipate all the ways a brand will be communicated out in the real world. Look at how well Pfizer prepared its new logo to leave the house in 2009:

DepartmentD.com - Pfizer logo variations

The first thing you’ll notice is a clear preference for a particular (and painstakingly chosen) variety of blue. But you’ll also notice that the designers made provisions to dispense with that blue altogether, as circumstances required, and let a plain white (or “reversed”) version of the logo do all the lifting.

So even though some brands have so successfully managed their colors that they’re identifiable by color alone…

DepartmentD.com - Branding through color alone

…Coca-Cola and Pfizer show us that, in order to get the most value out of a brand in the real world, a really good set of identity guidelines has to be willing to put all dimensions of the identity in play. Which requires the keepers of the brand to be really clever about how to bend the rules.

Speaking of popcorn, Angie’s Artisan Treats of Mankato, MN is a great example of how not to be a slave to your color scheme. They package their popular Boomchickapop popcorn with brilliant disregard for the corporate colors, and trust the spacial dimensions of their logo to carry the brand:

DepartmentD.com - Angie's BOOMCHICKAPOP

Four packages, four different-colored Angie’s logos. Not a corporate color in sight, and not a doubt in my mind about whose popcorn I’m about to tear into.

Dan Sarka

Dan Sarka puts the D in Department D. He’s a website developer, graphic designer and copywriter who enjoys helping small businesses grow. Born and reared in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he now lives, breathes, bicycles and writes songs in Minneapolis.

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