How do paint companies name their hues?

|     Elizabeth Mayhew     |

SEVERAL years ago, I painted a bathroom in my house a rich, smoky blue. Everyone who sees it asks for the colour name.

When I answer, “Benjamin Moore’s Gentleman’s Gray,” the questioner inevitably looks perplexed and assumes I have conflated two colours, because there is nothing gray about the shade. Even on Benjamin Moore’s website, the colour is described as a “blackened blue” that “leans toward classic navy.” Why did the company choose a somewhat misleading name?

The name, though not entirely descriptive of the colour, does conjure the image of a man impeccably dressed in a tailored three-piece suit – an image that aptly matches the richness of the hue. Hannah Yeo, Benjamin Moore’s colour and design expert, says names play an important role when people are making colour selections. “While colour descriptions such as ‘light blue’ are helpful to narrow down colours and are quite straightforward, we also look for names that evoke positive associations, experiences, and are inspiring,” Yeo says.

Sue Wadden, director of colour marketing for Sherwin-Williams, said that in some cases a colour name can be a tiebreaker. “In the past, all a name needed to do was describe a colour – for example, bright pink. Today, however, we want consumers to connect with colours. So instead, that colour might be called ‘Vivacious.’ “

Charlotte Cosby, head of creative at Farrow & Ball, says inspiration for their colour names comes from all over. Cosby travels extensively for work, so she gets lots of name (and colour) ideas from the places she visits, but just as important is the inspiration she finds in the landscape and dialect of England’s Dorset County, where the company is based. Farrow & Ball’s naming process is organic, Cosby says. “Even when we are not working on new colours, if we encounter a great name, it gets filed away for when we are.” Sometimes, she says, the colour comes before the name, and sometimes the name comes before the colour. An example of the latter is Farrow & Ball’s Mizzle. “Mizzle,” Cosby explains, “is the word we use in Dorset to describe the weather when it is both misty and drizzling.” Stored on a someday list, the name was eventually matched and attached to a hazy shade of gray green.

Backdrop has 51 paint colours, chosen with the help of 100 friends, family and work associates from across the country

Although many of Farrow & Ball’s colour names pay homage to the past, Cosby says, “We always opt for names that we hope will delight and intrigue the people who pick up our colour cards.”

In fact, Cosby says, the names become a huge part of the identity of the colour and often help with a colour’s popularity. “Elephant’s Breath is always a favorite among our fans. It’s a gorgeous gray with a magenta undertone, very beautiful in its own right, but its unusual name definitely helps its popularity.”

California-based paint company Behr frequently turns to its landscape to name colours, says Erika Woelfel, Behr’s vice president of colour and creative services. “Colours like Surfboard Yellow and Beachside Drive reference a sunny, oceanside culture, while Vintner is a nod to the lush Napa Valley region,” Woelfer says. However, Woelfer and her team try to keep their paint names as universal as possible so they appeal to a wide audience; Behr paints are available nationwide at Home Depot.

“We put a lot of research into our paint colour names, knowing they often sway consumers toward one shade or another,” Woelfer says. “We choose names based on the imagery and mood each colour evokes, with the goal of making the colour selection process easier and more personal for our customers.”

Behr colours fall into four categories: visual names tied to colour (Red Pepper, Bluebird), geographic names (Aruba Green, Rocky Mountain Sky), emotional names (Charismatic, LOL Yellow) and action-oriented experiential names (Explorer Blue, Biking Trail). Like many of the larger brands, Behr does a good bit of research and has a team that chooses the names. – Photo and text by The Washington Post