A recent article entitled “Color Wars: Multi-Branded Strategy in French Telecommunications” highlights the lengths to which French service providers have gone to differentiate their brands through the use of colour. The article analyses how a low-cost new entrant effectively disrupted the market, resulting in the three major players launching sub-brands.
These sub-brands had to be differentiated from the main brands in order to achieve the goal of being associated with low-cost. The fact that in order to differentiate the sub-brands, the service providers could not use the same colours as their main brands as these were too strongly associated with the main brand offerings, indicates the power of colour branding in telecommunications.
It is also interesting to note that all of the sub-brands incorporate a blue-green colour combination. This blue-green combination could be argued to indicate “low-cost” in the telecommunications industry in France; again proving the power of colour branding.
The South African telecommunications industry is no different to the French industry when it comes to the importance of colour. It is possible to name the 4 major cellular service providers solely by reference to their colours: black, red, yellow and blue. With the nature of telecommunications being what it is, every segment of our population is aware of these service providers and would be able to identify them simply by reference to their respective colours.
It is a well-known fact that people in the industry refer to their competitors by reference to colour alone.
In an industry where margins are low, and are under more and more scrutiny, the extensive marketing efforts (and no doubt marketing spend) of each service provider in promoting their respective colours is testament to the importance that each places on the marketing power of their colour.
Given the importance of colour to the service providers, and the millions that each service provider spends on ensuring that their respective colours are associated with their respective brands, the question to be asked is how can the service providers protect the advertising goodwill/value that has accrued to that colour and to the brand?
Registrability of colour as a trade mark in South Africa
In theory, colours are registrable as trade marks in South Africa. The Trade Marks Act, 1993, defines a “mark” as any sign capable of being represented graphically, including a colour. Like any other trade mark, a colour mark must be capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one person in relation to which the mark is used, from the goods or services of another person, either inherently or through acquired distinctiveness.
The colours red, black, yellow and blue are clearly not inherently distinctive. However, the fact that the average consumer can identify each provider simply by colour (without reference to anything else) indicates that these colours have become capable of distinguishing through use, in relation to telecommunications services, as being associated with the respective service providers.
Brands are of significant importance in the telecommunications industry. It will be interesting to watch for any developments in this regard, particularly as more and more smaller players enter the market as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These MVNOs will occasionally bring their existing branding into the market (for example, FNB), and this may at some stage conflict with the colour branding of the existing service providers. This is definitely a space to watch.