Pantone Universe – senseless sell-out or lively line-extension

Everybody who has or had just a little to do with design or marketing knows the name Pantone. It’s the de-facto name for precise color definition, from print to screen to fashion. Pantone is an excellent example for the power of branding in B2B industries: There are competitors (i.e. RAL or HKS in Germany, NCS in Scandinavia), but Pantone Matching System is clearly the number one in (solid) color references. The color guides with its cardboard sheets or the „fan decks“ of matching color swatches are true icons of the graphic design and print industry. Pantone understood, that even as their „old school“ printing heritage is a major part of their identity, they had to „go digital“. Although, it is almost impossible to assess their success from an external point-of-view, digital color calibration systems and apps for mobile devices document their efforts and show a brand entering new grounds.

Strolling through the „Kiez“ (German slang for „neighborhood“), doing some shopping last Saturday, I was reminded that Pantone is entering new grounds in another dimension, too: expanding from the pure B2B to the B2C world. Or is it just catering for B2B customers in B2C situations? Don’t know, doesn’t matter. What made me think? What did I see? I have to confess, I couldn’t hesitate to buy something: a Pantone coffee mug (color 2645 C – for those of you confirming Pantone that „the colors you love are deep and vital affirmations of who you are“. Don’t hesitate to drop me a note what that colors might say about me …). The mug triggered some memories. Reminded me that I saw some storage boxes and notebooks a few weeks ago. It reminded me that I saw somewhere some iPhone-cases. It reminded me that my wife bought a little red-white purse a few years ago. So far, so good. What left me irritated were Pantone toothbrushes. Toothbrushes? Storage boxes, notebooks, pencils – no problem everything related to the office world. Mugs – okay, that’s generic merchandise and even fits to the office metaphor. A purse – well, kind of niche-lifestyle item bought somewhere in NYC … accepted. But … toothbrushes? WTF?

It really left me confused and got me researching what else they might produce under their colorful brand. Toilet paper? Cosmetic pads? Sanitary pads? No, not really. They are not that limited in their imagination (and licensing). They offer an unbelievable „design-led collection for the home, the workplace and the road … Accessories and apparel you need in designs you want“. To give you a brief overview of the Pantone Universe (Yes, that’s the real name of their B2C-range, kind of descriptive, isn’t it?), here’s what’s on offer:

  • Stationary & office (i.e. note- & sketchbooks, storage boxes, business card holder, notes, journals, pencil and pencil pouches)
  • House-ware (i.e. mugs, espresso cups, storage jars, salt & pepper mills)
  • Lifestyle (i.e iPhones cases, travel tags, messenger bags, flash drives, wallets, headphones, bikes)
  • Apparel & accessoires (i.e. jackets, t-shirts, socks, swimwear, scarfs, cufflinks, ties)
  • Home furnishing (i.e. folding chairs, xmas balls, tabletops)
  • Toiletry (toothbrushes)
  • Toys (a „Barbie™“-doll, in Pink, of course)

I learned, there’s even a Pantone hotel in Brussels (and some photos on Flickr suggest, there might be real Pantone toilet paper in the bathrooms, indeed). To be honest, I really like the idea of the hotel. Not just a showroom, but a rich experience that brings colors and color trends in their application and effect to life. But … toothbrushes, xmas balls, swimwear, ties, dolls? Is there another brand in this world that covers such a spectrum? Coca-Cola merchandise? Not sure. Disney-characters? Hmh, probably. „Hello Kitty“ or „Ed Hardy“ stuff, for sure. Maybe a few more. But, I’m quite sure, there won’t be more than ten brands in the world that manage such a spread. And I doubt, there is s second B2B brand on this planet that puts on a similar show.

The question is: is it really managed? Is there a line-extension strategy in place? Or is it just about selling licenses to everyone who wants to put on the Pantone brand and colors? Is the brand strong enough to master its incredible diversification? Is „colors is life“ or „colors you love“ the essence and core that unifies it all? Maybe, time will tell. A different question: does it matter? We always tend to stick to our old-school brand strategies. But, can the B2C-offer of a toothbrush really damage the professional color services brand (even, as the toothbrush might not meet the common quality standards)?

We shouldn’t underestimate the intelligence of people! I’m pretty sure, most of us can distinguish between the fun & lifestyle and a professional service offer. The consumer range is for our entertainment, for coloring our desk or kitchen – and about symbolizing our peers that we are proud members of the famed „creative class“, right? Do we doubt the quality of the B2B services? Being challenged with color definitions or color trends – what brand would pop up first, what brand would be the no. 1 in our „relevant set“? From my point-of-view, the wide-spread licensing is quite surprising and even irritating. However, it might even promote the different offerings and dimensions of the brand. Any way, I believe it won’t harm the brand. Nevertheless, I’m quite sure, I won’t get the Pantone swimwear …

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