The process is extremely intense and time-consuming.
A company creates a new car, or a new version of an existing model, picks out a color, slaps on some paint, and sends it out to the dealership, right? Absolutely wrong. The task of finalizing a color takes years. It has to make sense with the vehicle. It has to make sense with the brand. Psychologically, it must make the driver feel a certain way. We talked to Nicole Riedel from Subaru, its resident car line planning manager, to follow the journey of a paint color, from idea to application.
Riedel graduated with an art degree and from there went to a British home decor company that specialized in wallpaper for the US market, "I did all the design for the US market." She's been all over at Subaru, in marketing, product development research and last year got the job as planning manager for the Outback, Legacy and Ascent. Her Zoom background during the interview looked like a fake Subaru poster, with several WRXs in a pole barn in various states of repair. But she assured us, this was her pole barn, and those were her hot Subarus.
"Design is very near and dear to my heart," Riedel says. "Its my favorite thing to do, so I work with the team for all of the colors, for all of the carlines, not just mine. And this is my favorite thing to talk about."
The idea for this story came when we were about to drive the new Subaru Outback Wilderness with its beautiful new hue called Geyser Blue. Riedel mentioned that the color has been in the works for at least five years, which piqued our interest.
"For that color we wanted to take a good amount of time to make sure we were getting the right color, because we knew it would be a heritage color for us, the same way that World Rally Blue is. So, our colors sometimes range from 4-6 years of development, to make sure we're getting it right. And then all of the testing that needs to go into it."
The durability testing happens in Japan, for color fastness (resistance to fading), chip and scratch protection. But this is all going on continuously.
"Some colors aren't as fast as others, so we have to make sure whatever we're designing goes through the rigorous testing so that it will stay looking as good as when it rolled off the line," said Riedel. "It's a constant process, every year we're doing design and color trending. We also look at the displays and instrument panels, so it's a continuous thing."
We really wanted to know about the process, and if Subaru says, "we need a blue" or if the company brass says, "we need a color." It turns out it's usually the latter.
"It's wide open, and what we want to do is tell a story through the color, the who, what, where, when and why," said Riedel. "What is the color, what kind of car is it going on, who's the target customer, what sort of things are they interested in? From a psychology standpoint, what kind of colors are going to resonate with this person. For Wilderness we had this added side of it, 'what does it say about our brand?' It has to tick a lot of boxes, and that's when we get our best colors, I think."
These colors have to speak to their owners, sometimes subconsciously.
"Customers don't look at the blue and say, 'oh that's blue, that blue makes me feel like…' It just inherently happens. It's fun to tell a story like that. It's like when you know your friend really well and you can just exchange a look and everyone knows what's going on," said Riedel.
Subaru looked at the whole spectrum for the Outback Wilderness, thinking about what color says "outdoor, adventure, fun, and trustworthy." Riedel didn't pick a metallic hue, and went with a flatter color instead, because it evokes a more rugged feel. Though the reds and oranges are trending, "we chose blue as the steadfast friend to get you up the mountain."
She also worked on Abyss Blue Pearl for the three-row Ascent, which was designed around the same time. With that blue, Subaru went darker after looking at the target demographics. Younger owners like darker colors, apparently.
"Once we decide on the direction, we talk to Japan. They do renderings, which are tough to develop on a screen, and very quickly we move to spraying cars on an undulating shape to see how it would look," said Riedel. "We have a studio with different light temperatures, to see San Francisco or Maine or Japan. We also have a temperature that looks like a retailer showroom."
Because those colors are tough to look at on a screen, Riedel will develop some options and then paint some panels. Those physical panels then get sent to Japan so that the design team can see what it looks like on actual metal.
"It's a very collaborative progress, for me that's always really fun. There are different colors for different markets, but sometimes we have to share," said Riedel. "It has to pass through a lot of gates before you see the final color. Pre-Covid we'd all be in the same room."
Even common existing colors get changed often, like your silvers, blacks and whites. They change with the trends too. Though neutral colors like that last longer, about 8-10 years. Trend colors last about half as long. The Crosstrek was a special case. Subie launched it with the Tangerine Orange and it survived a lot longer because customers love it.
"Sometimes we want warmer, sometimes cooler. Right now with the pandemic everyone now is looking for chill, calm colors, because there's so much going on, which isn't great for us. They're liking the creamier colors as opposed to crisp white. But those shifts are slower."
We asked Riedel which are some of her favorites.
"Green is a good one for telling a story subliminally. I was part of the team for Wilderness Green Metallic," said Riedel. "I like when the ones that I champion work out, I like ones that people gravitate to. There's so much time and effort making sure each color has its own story. Subaru means outdoor adventure and families, and we have unique opportunity to tell these stories."