Europe Reports

Color Trends Brace for Economic Uncertainty

By Sean Milmo, Europe Correspondent | October 7, 2011

How will the impending economic downturn influence color trends?

The main features of recent color trends in Europe have been a greater preference for more and stronger colors and a continued move to white in key influential sectors like the automobile market.

Now the big question is how much these trends will be affected by a likely economic downturn only a short time after a weak recovery in Europe from the financial crisis of 2008. Will European consumers switch back to more neutral or even darker colors?

Most color specialists claim, however, that a grim economic climate will reinforce present trends rather than reverse them.

At the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, one of Europe’s premier automobile exhibitions, color designers were confident that trends first emerging before the recession would continue at least for next few years.

“There has been a big increase in sales of white cars in recent years, from less than two percent to over 12 percent,” said Mark Gutjahr, head of design at BASF Coatings’ automotive OEM coatings solutions Europe. “This liking of white has been driven by a combination of a sense of sustainability, luxury and well-being. Despite the economic conditions its popularity will continue.

“The preference for more color will continue as well,” Gutjahr said. “Auto companies like Ford have built a whole strategy around color because it is about emotion in the way a car looks both outside and inside.”

A driving force behind the preference for more color in the car sector in Europe will be a desire among auto owners to express their own individuality. “As a result we are seeing more vivid, bold colors in cars,” Gutjahr said.

Brown is among the colors he believes will continue to become more prominent in the European car market. Its share of the total European OEM market has risen over the last two years from less than two percent to around six percent. 

“It has close links with sustainability which has been given more importance by some consumers since the recession, while it also conveys a sense of individuality,” he said.

The automobile manufacturers are currently responding to a broad range of influences with designers of its coatings colors keeping in close touch with sectors outside the industry.

“We do a lot of research in areas like global markets for fashion, fabrics and textiles as well as social and economic trends,” said Gutjahr, whose company has design offices for OEM coatings in Europe, North America and Asia.

The wide vision adopted by its color designers has helped the car sector maintain its sway over color choices in other markets.

Automobile makers have, for example, been giving high profile over the last few years to blue as the color of advanced, energy efficient technologies. Volkswagen has called a new engine technology range BlueMotion while Mercedes has dubbed an innovative diesel engine Blue Efficiency.

When Toyota launched its hybrid Prius model, which is powered by a mix of battery and gasoline energy, blue was prominent among its selection of colors for the cars.

“Blue is being seen as important by the car makers because of its potential to become a new techno color, like silver is at the moment in many markets,” said Mark Woodman, trend consultant at Global Color Research, a UK-based color consultancy. “Blue is now becoming more conspicuous in interiors and in fashion, where you are seeing a lot of combinations of blue and brown.”

In the autumn/winter of 2012/13 Global Color is predicting that blue will be among the key colors because of a liking among consumers for water-related shades.

Tikkurila, the Finnish-based decorative paints company, is seeing blue and blue-grays emerging as popular exterior colors in Scandinavia. “Natural warm green tones, which are already here may soon be accompanied by colder blue-greens, which have already appeared in clothing fashion,” said Marika Raike, Tikkurila’s design manager.

Global Color believes that the general shift to stronger colors will be helped by what it calls the ‘bleep’ factor—a tendency for bright colors to be applied to parts of electronic equipment and components, particularly in the interior of cars and in household appliances.

In Europe, consumers have been displaying their historical tendency for a greater liking for color than their U.S. counterparts, which varies in its intensity between countries. “Apart from brown, we’re seeing a trend towards exotic, bold colors like yellow, violet and various shades of red,” said Gutjahr.

In parts of Eastern Europe the liking for visually striking colors is even more powerful than in much of Western Europe. “It seems that the Russians tend to prefer more rich and bright shades than the Scandinavians,” said Maarit Taskinen, Tikkurila’s customer segment director for Russian consumers. “For example, it is seen in interior design magazines that modern designers are using very dramatic colors and color combinations.”

Color specialists doubt whether the inclination towards more high impact colors will falter because of the social effects of a new economic downturn.

“Economic conditions can work in two directions,” said Woodman. “People in a downturn will economize in their expenditure on products like paints and will opt for a greyer and more neutral palette.

“On the other hand, things can be so bad that they want to come back home to color on their walls which cheers them up,” Woodman said. “Historically people have tended to revert to color when times are tough. They want the space around them at home to be calming but also uplifting.”

However, Tikkurila believes that the predominant tendency is towards natural colors driven by the persistent concerns among consumers about the environment, with even a drift back to darker colors.

“Recycling and environmental awareness are the unquestionable megatrends at the moment,” said Raike. “In the world of paints, this trend manifests as naturalness and light surface treatments.

“Black is an emerging trend in exterior painting,” Raike said. “It can be used in small details—even entire houses have been painted black. For inspiration, look to Denmark and Sweden. Both countries have a lot of black modern timber houses. Black rendering is also popular for surfaces such as apartment block balconies.”

In terms of color choices, Europe is already showing signs of a variety of responses to the possibility of a new economic crisis. This would be typical of the region’s cultural diversity.