By Thomas Wagner.

No matter what shade of pink you are talking about, whether pale primrose, shocking pink or magenta, it never fails to surprise, provoke and steal the limelight. However contentious these colours might be from the viewpoint of gender politics, they still lend extra sparkle to brands and characterise the identity of trade marks. These are colours that everyone has an opinion about. 

There is scarcely any other colour which is so contentious, and which has so many different associations for different people. Marilyn Monroe and Jacky Kennedy wore it; you see it on smartphones, kids’ laptops, dolls, furniture and ties. Cardinals and the pink panther both wear it, and you may even see it on drills/screwdrivers, tool sets or on a female robot, using pink to playfully overstep the customary colour codes and gender boundaries. In gender marketing pink is used liberally to reinforce role stereotypes; it is thought to make a girl’s heart beat faster, whilst real men (code for heterosexual males) often shudder at the mere sight of pink.

Nowadays no-one needs to put on the famous rose-tinted spectacles in order to see their surroundings and many other things tinted in multiple shades of a colour which provokes, and at the same time promises so much. In other words: use pink to pep up your life! Even if everything in your life isn’t completely rosy, there are still products and accessories you can surround and beautify yourself with – especially if you are the stereotypical woman. And those who obey the pink battle-cry view the world sometimes with optimism, sometimes with ingenuous romanticism, sometimes defiantly and provocatively, or even with a dash of glamour and extravagance.

Makita drilling machine, 2018.
Photo Peter Sedlaczek © Technical Museum Vienna
Toolbox Pink © Technical Museum Vienna

The different effects that pink has on people is currently the subject of a research project at the Technical Museum Vienna. With reference to a range of objects on display, visitors are asked to share their opinions and stories about pink, or even their own pink objects, with the museum. Even if the stereotypes which accompany everything pink appear to be ineradicable, the liberating potential which this colour generates in the debate about gender roles in society has a transformational effect. That girls are said to like pink and boys light blue is increasingly being identified as a problematic acquired convention. Nevertheless, marketing deliberately continues to encourage girls to spend their childhood surrounded by pink. Take a look at any toy department in any store, you’ll see colour coding by gender.

Although the English word “pink” has been adopted by the German language to denote a particular shade of bright pink, the colour pink, depending on its intensity, actually covers a very broad spectrum of shades and hues. In fashion, for example, the pink palette ranges from the gentle, old-fashioned rose pink which can be seen in garments in medieval paintings, to a more robust version which Madame de Pompadour preferred in the 18th century and liked to combine with light blue, through to the “shocking pink” used by designer Elsa Schiaparelli for the packaging of her perfume “Shocking”, created in 1937. There is nothing new about a hankering for the sensation engendered by a powerful splash of pink. Pink is, therefore, a classic among colours: it energises everything imaginable and recurs time and time again in art, design, advertising and marketing.

GYMQUEEN advertisement © GYMQUEEN
Sulmtaler hat with silk ribbons © Technical Museum Vienna

Pink crosses boundaries

What is it that makes this colour so attractive, and at the same time so provocative? Pink gets noticed, it steals the limelight and it crosses boundaries. It is equally prevalent in both high culture and low culture. Depending on the context and product, its effect can be dignified or embarrassing, antiquated or youthful, vulnerable or pleasurable, artistic or eccentric. In its discreet, pastel-shaded versions it alludes to the (white) human body and the colour of skin. If it appears in a more vivid form, it seems artificial, but not alarming. Pink always speaks to us directly, and, unlike many other colours, provokes an emotional response. But above all else, pink remains ambivalent in its effect. In the politics of fashion, society and even gender, nowadays it is difficult to classify and assign without ambiguity.

Accordingly, pink is used in fashion and product design, in brand communication and art in a multitude of ways, partly because – or perhaps precisely because – the messages it transmits can be interpreted in so many different ways. As is so often the case, nuances make all the difference. Shades of salmon pink, or champagne pink, emphasise delicacy and elegance. The fuchsia shades of the 2000s strive to grab attention wherever they can, while the millennium pink seeks to beguile us by its very modesty. On the other hand, magenta conveys dominance through its striking visual presence.

Magenta and brand identity

Magenta is known in Germany as a core component of the corporate design of Telekom AG, and has been registered as a “contourless colour trade mark” for goods and services in the telecommunications industry. Since Telekom AG was privatised in 1995, its corporate design has been firmly based on this colour, without exception – in letterhead, on its website and in product names. Even the handsets in phone boxes announce their presence in magenta.

Telekom logo © Deutsche Telekom
IFA Berlin 2019, media event © Deutsche Telekom

Just how much value the company places on the recognition value of magenta for its brand communication has recently been demonstrated. The American start-up “Lemonade” applied to the European Union Intellectual Property Office to declare the Deutsche Telekom “magenta” to be invalid as a brand. At the same time, it filed an application with the German Patent and Trade Mark Office demanding that Telekom’s claim to the colour magenta be revoked in the insurance area in which Lemonade was operating. When Lemonade, which had adopted the colour magenta since its formation in 2015, used the colour in Germany in the middle of 2019, Telekom immediately took legal action against the newcomer. Telekom argued that the colour was recognised above and beyond the classic sphere of the telecommunications industry, and so contributed to the company’s success. Judges now have to decide whether that applies in other European countries and for other product areas.

This example also demonstrates that the colour pink – encompassing all shades, from primrose to magenta, not only has a global fan club which includes the young and old, men and women, gay and straight – more significantly, it leaves no-one cold; it either demands acceptance or provokes abhorrence. But for those to whom this all seems too arty and ambivalent – if you’re not sure, you can always stick with black and white.

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