How much color is enough?

By | February 23, 2011

In the last couple of years, full color production digital printing has become a cost-effective reality for many applications. Many more marketing departments are considering adding color to transaction documents or making their color direct mail pieces more dynamic (rather than printing black over color shells). This led me to ask some of my colleagues at agencies, marketing services providers and plain old printers for their two cents.

I asked if they felt that it was critical to be able to offer clients exact Pantone or PMS color or if it was more important to be able to offer color consistency from run to run. I wondered if their marketing clients were asking for a standard that the recipients of the mail don’t care about. Within the context of delivering a full-color, white paper solution to customers, what are the “must haves” and what are the “nice to haves.”

After a lot of discussion and debate among some pretty knowledgeable industry professionals it boiled down to the following key points:

  • Marketing departments have a lot invested in branding, and color is a key component of branding. With that said, any marketing department that chooses to deliver multi-channel campaigns is, by definition, making compromises on color. Color will not be consistent across email, web, mobile phones, various papers, signage etc. That is an important discussion to have, and can set the baseline for color consistency tolerance.
  • Most recipients of mail have a much higher tolerance for variations in color than the business professionals sending them. If you were using a spectrophotometer and running a test in a lab, a color variation measured as a Delta e of 1.0 is generally considered to be barely perceptible to the human eye. Outside of the lab, a Delta e of 3.0 to 5.0 may go unnoticed by the average consumer.
  • Setting expectations on color capabilities, educating marketers on variations in color across substrates (something they should know but often don’t) and agreeing on acceptable and MEASURABLE tolerances is critical to success. Don’t just let them tell you that they are looking for “luscious.” (Shout out to the Off Register folks.)More research on how consumers view color (real quantitative studies folks) would make it a lot easier to reach reasonable compromises with marketers. Sponsors wanted!
  • If you have the ability to print CMYK plus 1, 2 or 3 Pantone colors, you should be able to charge more for it as long as you have the color management and color measurement tools in place to back up the promises.

At the end of the day, it is the design (information transfer not pretty pictures) and the content (information to be transferred) that should rule – not AT&T orange (probably not allowed to call it orange) or Coca-Cola red (they probably think they own the term “red”) or Luscious pink – but we all know that if we want the business, we need to be able to give the customer what they want.

 How much color is enough? How much do you want the business? How much is the client willing to pay?  So, ask them, agree on measurement for color tolerances and set prices accordingly. There needs to be a “pain and suffering” charge at certain levels of color management and client management. Enough is enough!

I’m going to be presenting a webinar on the business issues related to transitioning to color next Tuesday, March 1 at 2 pm EST. You can register here. I’ll be sharing some more thoughts on the myths and realities of moving to color and DST Output will also be sharing some of their “lessons learned” from transitioning to color. Let me know if there are some key points you’d like to hear about.

You can find a copy of the presentation at

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5 thoughts on “How much color is enough?

  1. Skip Henk

    Bravo Elizabeth. You have stated in one posting what has needed to be said for some time. Everyone knows and associates the Coke logo with red. Not a pantone or shade of red. If it is the Coke logo and a good representation of red, it represents the brand and people associate with it.

    Same logo, in pink or blue, people would recognize the logo but probably disassociate the color … although pink during cancer awareness month may be an effective deviation. (That’s another story)

    Concerning design, we are going through the same thing that we did in the late 80’s when someone first said you could put 32 fonts on a page. People did and created some real ugly documents.
    Companies are doing the same thing with color. Over using it and creating document designs that are not necessarily effective.

    Several years ago when digital color was not quite what it is today I sat in a room with executives who were make the same arguments for the need to have a specific pantone across all documents. The sales person I was with asked each of them to throw one of their business cards in the middle of the table …. Amazing was the inconsistency in color.

  2. Elizabeth Gooding Post author

    Thanks Skip. I remember the days of the ransom note effect too. I have also seen the lack of consistency across business cards (sometimes completely different designs in addition to color issues!)

    Sometimes I think that marketing people put digital printers through hoops because they go in with the mindset that the color isn’t going to be good. Many have more of a “set it and forget it” attitude with other aspects of printing and tend not to do as many press checks as in days gone by. That is purely anecdotal on my part – but it is conisistent with the behavior I’m seeing.

  3. Steve Upton

    Good article, and I think it’s great to bring up the topic.

    There is, however, an important component that you didn’t mention:

    trademark protection

    If Coke or another brand owner want to “own” their color they have to a) claim it and b) protect it. The a) part is fairly easy to understand – they need to decide on the specific color that’s part of their trademark and spell it out to the trademark office. b) however, contains an important responsibility. The brand owner has to ensure that they maintain the quality of their trademark. If they are seen as allowing their color to wander around then they could be accused of neglecting their brand and lose out when a competitor uses a similar color and a disagreement results.

    Now, I’m a color person, not a lawyer. So I’m not trying to give legal advice here, just remind people that the maintenance of the brand is very important. The good thing is that color management tools for brand owners are improving (we make a cloud-based one) and the ability to manage color across multiple device types and print technologies is what the ICC and color profiles are all about.

    thanks for a good article,


    Steve Upton
    CHROMiX, Inc.

  4. Elizabeth Gooding Post author

    Steve – you bring up an excellent point. The “brand police” are there for a reason and brand stewardship is a real responsibility. With that said – any company that stakes out a PMS or Pantone color for their own must recognize that most Pantone colors don’t have an exact CMYK equivalent. For added expense, they can work with a digital press capable of adding one or more Pantone colors to the CMYK – but as mentioned earlier, should expect to pay a premium for that level of service. If they truly believe that their brand is at risk if the color is off by a Delta e of 2.0 then that is the only way to get close enough. It also limits their paper selection as well since the color will look different. Bottom line – there are too many darn lawyers and not enough color specialists 🙂

  5. Cheryl Kananowicz

    Great post Elizabeth. Dave and I look forward to participating in the March 1 webinar and talking about these issues and our experience at DST Output. One factor we will talk about in some depth during the webinar is the use of color to grow revenue and customer satisfaction – another topic near and dear to the marketing department. Marketing departments don’t often put transactional statements at the top of their revenue-generating channels. But, we’ll talk about why they just might want to rethink this approach. Look forward to speaking with you and many of your Digital Nirvana followers at the webinar!

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