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Brand Thinking
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Managing for Consistent Color


Greenfield Belser, a Finn Partners Company
September 1, 2013

Managing for Consistent Color

Matching colors across platforms is one of the most vexing problems for brand managers today. No technical solution exists and-here’s the bad news-none is likely to emerge. The problem is simply too complex.

People see differently.

Approximately 6–8% of the male population is color blind in the red/green range. Women seem less afflicted. Moreover, elaborate color studies show that even individuals with “normal” vision see colors differently. That people see differently underscores the enormity of the color management problem. Without vision testing for all viewers, it is impossible to determine what color-its value and hue-a viewer really sees.

Printers probably have the most to lose by disappointing client expectations regarding color. To combat the problem, some printers invest in complex vision testing of employees to determine differences from a norm, just as linguists have created a linguistic map to measure pronunciation differences from the “Chicago norm.” In this way, press operators are alerted to deviations from the norm in their own sight and can compensate by conferring with others on press whose vision fits the standard.

Consistency across a single “run” varies.

Anyone who has bought fabric or wallpaper knows to ask for a “memo” of the current dye lot to determine if the current stock matches stock purchased earlier. It's understood that color varies from lot to lot. The same is true for reprints. Matching the color of an earlier printing is the biggest challenge in printing. Inks can run heavy or light. But a frustrating reality for the brand manager is that color can vary substantially over a single press run! Keeping a press run “up to color” is only one ingredient in the mix that makes printing an art and not a science. If color can vary over a single press run on the same sheet under the same conditions, how can we hope to manage color across different platforms?

Color changes when the substrate changes.

The printers color standard in the U.S. is the PMS Color Matching System. There are other print color ink systems in the U.S., Japan and Europe, but none so dominant as the PMS system. Color swatches, bound into a single swatchbook, show colors on coated (glossy) and uncoated (letterhead) stock. These colors-particularly the reds-vary dramatically from coated to uncoated paper and yet the ink formula is identical! If a color is determined to be the “firm color”-that is, is the official color of the brand palette-special mixes may be required to match the color on different substrates. Introducing special mixes into a brand palette is like opening the lid on Pandora’s box. Managing and tracking the mixes from different sources on different substrates discourages even the hardiest brand manager.

Paper is the most common substrate for brand communications, but hardly the only one. Cotton (for t-shirts) is a substrate. So are golf balls and plastic banners. Thread acts as a color when applied to golf caps, jerseys and tote bags. Some manufacturers will not consider special mix inks, nor make any guarantee about color. In fact, the only hope for consistent color is to designate a single individual to be “on press” in every instance to manage the final product. This is simply not practical, even in the best-run organization.

Advertising media are out of your control.

Color issues are multiplied once the print product gets out of your direct control. When it comes to color management, advertising has all the earmarks of a disaster waiting to happen. Newsprint absorbs ink like a paper towel. Only the skill of the pressman and the preparation of the film used to make the plates allow the web press to hold the ink on the surface of the sheet. Moreover, newsprint stretches as the giant rolls of paper feed into the press. With these variables, it's impossible to hold quality across an entire run. That's why the paper you buy may look perfect while the copy held by your colleague may look out of register.

Magazines typically use a higher grade sheet, but large run magazines also run on web press. This means the register and quality will still vary. But the higher grade sheet is less likely to stretch. Its surface is harder and considerably less absorbent, providing the high quality images we're used to seeing in our favorite magazines. But color control? Color preference goes to important advertisers with substantial accounts. If that's not you, then your color takes a back seat to that of the favored client.

Offset presses offer more control over print quality than web presses. Many trade association publications run on offset presses because fewer copies are distributed and the cost benefits of a Web press do not apply. You can expect better color balance, but your ad may still stand behind other advertisers or even the art director's cherished spread design. In every case, color is out of your control. You have considerably greater control over dioramas in airports and other mass transit venues, but the backlighting that illuminates your ad will also change its color. The substrate, as we've learned, also plays a role.

Desktop publishing brings control to brand managers. Really?

Desktop publishing promised organizations the opportunity to control their own material. But has that promise been kept? The greatest strides in color management technology have come from companies devoted to desktop publishing. But monitors must be calibrated daily to match one another closely. Do daily calibrations occur? No, but it is possible. Still, no matter how rigorously calibrations are monitored, desktop printers defeat these efforts. The work-horses of the industry, Hewlett Packard color printers, print true color side by side for short periods. But, as the printers chug on, color deviation widens from printer to printer. Following prescribed maintenance schedules does not cure the problem. Like a long distance race, some runners move ahead and some fall back. If it's difficult to cure color differences in the same office, it is not reasonable to expect them to be synchronized across offices. Even color within an individual office, side by side, cannot reliably be predicted. But let's go online.

Color on the World Wide Web

Enter the World Wide Web, putting the final nail in the coffin of color management. Brand managers might be able to control the calibration of color monitors in a single office but this is not the challenge of the web. The challenge of the web is every monitor in every office in the world! In other words, not only is color out of your immediate control, it will never be in your control.

The Good News

You can relax in the knowledge that your best is as good as it gets. Consistent color is not possible in any medium. Nor is consistent color possible across platforms-from medium to medium. You should still do everything you can to control the brand palette. Often, you can get close. But close is all you can demand. If others don't believe you, copy them on this report.