Paint companies’ fix for overwhelmed customers: Fewer colours

Michelle Brunner

THE WASHINGTON POST – Many a homeowner has been flummoxed by a fan deck in the quest to find the perfect paint colour.

When faced with thousands of options, it’s difficult to narrow the field. A new wave of paint companies think the secret lies in offering fewer choices.

The aptly named Curator, an Irish brand that recently launched in the United States (US), offers a palette of 144 colours. Clare, founded by interior designer Nicole Gibbons, has 56.

And Backdrop, started by husband-and-wife team Caleb and Natalie Ebel, offers just 50 choices.

These numbers are low compared with the major paint manufacturers. For instance, Benjamin Moore has over 3,500 colours; Sherwin-Williams offers 1,536 colours; and Behr has 1,559 colours, though it’s worth noting that even Behr is getting in on the curation trend. The company recently launched an online tool called Behr Express, which features its 55 bestsellers, designed with millennials and first-time home buyers in mind. Could a less-is-more approach be the key to choosing a paint colour?

Backdrop, started by husband-and-wife team Caleb and Natalie Ebel, offers just 50 choices. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Ancient Black, Kerr’s Pink, Rose Mantle and Basking Grey are part of Curator’s palette of 144 colours

There’s a wealth of consumer behaviour research to back up that theory. “Instead of being liberated by lots of options, people are paralysed; they can’t pull the trigger, and they end up with nothing,” said Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice. “If they do make a purchase, they often walk out thinking they made a mistake because one of the other options might be better, so they are less satisfied with their decision.”

Schwartz said this is especially true when it comes to picking things such as paint or nail polish – the variations are sometimes barely detectable. “You dramatically inflate the stakes of the decision because you see these minuscule differences side by side, but when a paint colour is on the wall, no one, including you, is going to be able to tell which one you chose,” he said.

Frustration with too many options and too little guidance prompted the Ebels to start Backdrop. “The legacy paint manufacturers have always had this misconception that more is better, but what they’ve done is thrust the work of curation onto the customer,” Caleb said.

Gibbons, too, felt the number of choices was too vast.

She discovered an interesting phenomenon in her career as an interior designer: When she presented a design scheme to a client with one colour option, they always accepted it, trusting her authority and experience. “No one ever second-guessed me, and I never had a client say, ‘Show me 10 more shades,’” she said. The process of editing down the colours of the rainbow wasn’t easy – after all, how does one determine how many blues are necessary and how many are overkill? Each of these three companies used a different methodology.

For Dublin-based Curator, a division of the General Paints Group, the collection started with 29 options.

Those initial hues were developed with Irish artists and craftsmen across a range of disciplines who often cited the history and landscape of the country as their muse. “Once we had those core colours, we worked on building the palette around them, making sure that we were covering the neutral space, the more vibrant shades and also the earthy tones in between,” said Rachel O’Connor, Curator’s export director. “We felt that 144 choices covered enough ground without being overwhelming.”

Gibbons approached the task by considering the different rooms of the house and colours she saw people gravitate to as a designer.

Unsurprisingly, the line is heavy on neutrals, a category equally attracts and stumps homeowners. “I tried to lean into palettes that I knew to be timeless and universally appealing,” she said.

“We started with about 600 colours, and narrowed it down to 55 by the time we launched.”

For the Ebels, the winnowing down was a hands-on affair. “Our first filter was asking ourselves if we would put it on our walls,” Caleb said. If the answer was yes, the couple then tested many of the hues in their own home. Once a colour passed muster, they would take it to social media.

“We had a focus group on a private Instagram account of 100 early supporters that helped us trim the final selection to 50,” he said.

Director of Colour Marketing and Development at Benjamin Moore Andrea Magno said curation isn’t new to the paint industry, and she’s quick to mention that the company has long offered colour tools, cards and specific palettes to help sift through its robust catalogue. What is new to her: the marketing of fewer choices as both a selling point and a shortcut.

“These days everyone is looking to simplify how they go about a task; by limiting the offering, you’re appealing to a different type of customer,” she said.

And there is a big difference between someone who wants a quick, foolproof recommendation for a warm neutral vs a homeowner who is looking for a specific shade of green.

For the latter especially, Magno sees the benefit to drawing from a pool of 3,500 colours. “We have all of the in-between shades that you might need to work with your lighting to get it just right.”

Besides offering fewer colours, some of the newer companies diverge in another way.

Hoping to eliminate the pain of multiple trips to the paint store, Backdrop and Clare have a direct-to-consumer model. Shipping is free on all Backdrop orders and on Clare orders over USD100. Curator is available online and in bricks-and-mortar stores in select cities; a gallon costs USD90.

Purchasing paint online might seem risky because it’s hard to gauge colour accuracy looking at a computer monitor.

That’s why both Backdrop and Clare stress the importance of sampling, and they offer large repositionable stickers.

Clare’s offers eight-by-eight-inch samples that cost USD2, and Backdrop’s has 12-by-12 samples for USD3 each. Curator offers eight-by-six-inch cards for USD2.

The adhesive swatch is not limited to Backdrop and Clare: Samplise produces peel-and-stick samples painted by hand. Prices range from USD5.95 to USD7.95 for a 12-by-12-inch sticker and include colours from Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams and Farrow & Ball. Hand-painted swatches are a recent development and offer a more accurate depiction of what a paint might look like on your wall than most printed examples. By eliminating messy sample pots, the swatches are designed to make picking the right shade easier.

And yet even with such user-friendly developments, it remains to be seen whether people actually want fewer choices. Schwartz said, “One of the things that’s both striking and frustrating is that while people are tortured by too many options, if you ask them about it, they’ll always say they want more.”