11/11/2014 - 05:03

Week of ideas colours WA palette

11/11/2014 - 05:03


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Business and their marketing advisers put a lot of thought and effort into how best to appeal to consumers, and colour is a big part of that.

Week of ideas colours WA palette

Two engaging events during the past week allowed me to break out of the usual confines of Western Australia's business sector – one in a somewhat abstract sense, the other more geographical in nature.

At the weekend, I hosted a talk and panel session on the subject 'The Ownership of Colour', which was part of the Disrupted Festival of Ideas run by Writing WA and the State Library.

Also part of that festival was Roger Sutton, the head of the authority charged with rebuilding the New Zealand city of Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake. I hosted a question and answer session with him after he spoke to an audience for Consult Australia, ahead of his appearance at the festival.

The two subjects are unrelated so I thought I'd split this column and briefly discuss both.


The properties of colour, its history and its modern use are thoroughly absorbing subjects, about which I soon learned that I knew very little when in the presence of marketing expert Mark Braddock, intellectual property lawyer David Stewart and WA's own expert on colour, former academic Paul Green-Armytage.

Ownership of colour is a more modern concept, of which any student of marketing and commerce would have some inkling – most notably the fact that Cadbury has trademarked the use of purple when it comes to chocolate packaging.

Nevertheless, it is the sort of subject that is contentious in the same way that gene patenting draws out that initial 'you can't do that' comment from most people when first exposed to the concept.

That is the gut reaction from most of us. If you didn't invent, create or design something – either a colour or a gene – why should be allowed intellectual property rights that give you some control or ownership over it?

I am not particularly here to argue the case for or against, although I did come to the conclusion that any fears nature's colour palette was put out of bounds forever were greatly exaggerated.

The quick lesson I learned was that there are effectively 27 colour groups and there are 45 trademark classes or industries, which means the permutations are, at this stage, fairly considerable.

Furthermore, just because you claim a colour doesn't mean it's yours. 'Owning' a single colour is difficult because it is so exclusive, whereas claiming a combination of colours is less restrictive to others because, naturally, there are many more permutations of multiple colours.

While I sympathise with those who are opposed to such things, trademarks are there to protect others from passing off their goods as yours – and that's pretty important no matter what business you are in.

However, some big businesses are guilty of overreach when it comes to trademarks. I am aware of the bullying tactics of many multinationals with regard to use of words or initials in trademarked business names; but just because they have deep pockets doesn't mean they win every case. Legal precedents will back me up on this one.

Those that were there before have rights, of course. A local example was Bankwest successfully challenging ING's efforts to trademark the use of orange in financial services.

Of course, Commonwealth Bank-owned Bankwest has the financial muscle to fight a big group like ING when many others might struggle.

Oddly, I was most intrigued by some of the parting words from our panellists.

It seems that many corporations at the vanguard of creative branding are heading in the opposite direction to those that want to lay claim to one colour or a limited palette of two or three.

Those swimming against the tide are leaders in this space that seek to use their branding outside of any colour range allowing it to be multipurpose and far more flexible, depending on the audience it is aimed at.

Notwithstanding this apparent move away from colour domination, one question I had which was hard to answer at short notice was what colour (or combination of colours) WA should 'own'? Was it pindan? Or maybe that restrained green of our bush as one of the panellists suggested.

If you have an idea, let me know.


Roger Sutton has the unenviable task of rebuilding his town after it was torn apart by an earthquake in 2011.

His thought-provoking comments could easily consume this page, but I thought I'd just rescue a few nuggets.

Firstly, he said relationships were everything, especially in a small town, and he learned that no matter who threw mud at you it was worth calling them up to discuss what was troubling them.

Of course, rebuilding doesn't mean replicating and Mr Sutton acknowledged that there were plenty of decisions he'd made – in some case almost unilaterally – that had strong opposition.

Some of the biggest post-earthquake changes were making a smaller CBD surrounded by expanded parkland, and buying out a whole suburb of residents whose land was too unstable for reconstruction.

I was intrigued to find he had met with WA's Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority. He was interested in some of the MRA model's advantages, being a one-stop shop for many development decisions, which were a continuation of what his authority had as emergency powers.


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