In December 2017, the experts at Pantone named Ultra Violet the 2018 Color of the Year for its originality, ingenuity and for inspiring visionary thinking. The color, a dynamic and vivid purple, is a culmination of a shifting resurgence toward the usage of purple in everything from consumer-packaged goods (CPG) to fashion, beauty and home décor over the last few years. Why has this color returned to mainstream consciousness and what is driving brands to actively engage with it?
A History of Accidental Discovery
Scarcely found in nature, the color purple has been alluring humans for over a thousand years. Though Neolithic humans incorporated it into prehistoric artworks using manganese and hematite powder, purple grew to prominence in the Phoenician city of Tyre (what is now Lebanon) where it was dyed into fabrics and worn. The dye was extracted from the mucous of sea snails, taking roughly 9,000 of the snails to produce 1 gram of the purple dye. An exhaustive, expensive and smelly endeavor that made it exclusively attainable to the elite – kings, queens, emperors, nobles and priests.
It wasn’t until 1856, when a teenager named William Henry Perkin accidentally created synthetic purple while trying to make a synthetic version of quinine, a treatment for malaria. His discovery led to the mass production of purple and accessibility to all. Though purple remains reproducible in almost every form today (who can forget Heinz Funky Purple ketchup of 2000?) it has maintained its associations with royalty, wealth and premium quality.
William Henry Perkin seated in his study in Sudbury, Derbyshire. SSPL via Getty Images
Why Do Brands Choose Purple?
There is nothing else like it. Often confused with violet, a spectral color with its own wavelength on the spectrum of light, purple is a composition of two spectral colors – red and blue. While its warm tones inspire creativity, ingenuity and power, its cool tones are grounding, promoting serenity and harmony. The combination is a visionary color that exudes independence, authenticity and warmth.
While most brands choose to “own” blue, black or red for their strong mood-altering effects, purple subconsciously draws consumer attention due to its rarity. A psychological principle called the Isolation Effect explains that when an item stands out from its surroundings, it is more likely to be remembered. Often underleveraged in the CPG industry, purple can provide ascending brands the support they need to stand out against established competitors. In addition, purple can live well with other colors, making it ideal for brandmarks that live in colorful packaging architectures.
The Relationship Between Purple and Prosperity
Over the last century, purple has experienced several waves of rebirth in correlation to cultural and economic shifts. In the 1960’s, bold colors such as purple were in demand with the rise of artistic creativity and the popularity of psychedelic drugs. The 1970’s brought a recession and a muted color palette as society returned to the safety of natural earth tones. Economic prosperity in the 1980’s led to glitzy extravagance with the usage of metallics, holographs and vibrant colors like Prince’s purple guitar. The early 1990’s experienced another economic downturn leading to the rise of “grunge” and washed out shades reminiscent of the 70’s. The rise of dotcoms at the turn of the century gave way to vitality and economic prosperity once again, with purple finding its way back to prominence. Internet companies like Yahoo!, Craigslist and Monster.com all leveraged the color to stand out amongst the influx of blue and red brand logos. Due in part to the fluctuating global landscape with wars, natural disasters and an economic recession the last two decades have seen a shift back to minimalism and neutrals.
When society is prosperous, consumers and brands seek originality and creativity, driving an influx of purple to the market. Over the last few years, the economy has been steadily strengthening - the 2Q GDP for 2018 was reported at a 4.1% annual growth rate, the unemployment rate is near a record low and the stock market indexes continue to rise. A strong economy can inspire optimism, innovation and a sense of excitement toward the future, all of which align with the symbolism of purple.
Regardless of whether it’s snacks, pet food, candy, dairy or beverages, CPG brands large and small are seizing on the thriving economy and positive associations of purple branding to stand out in cluttered shelves around the world. Only time will tell the long-term success of their decision, but for the moment, they are perfectly positioned for growth.