How UPS Was Able to Trademark the Color Pullman Brown

UPS Pullman Brown color as background with hex code

The rise of online shopping has changed the face of the modern world. One of the biggest examples of this is the sheer ubiquity of expedited delivery services. Every delivery service has a unique look. And we’ve all had moments where we eagerly stare out the window hoping to see the distinctive marks of a delivery vehicle. However, some delivery services are more easily recognized than others. UPS in particular has their branding down to an art.

The distinctive brown color of UPS is easily noticed whether it’s on a delivery vehicle or the driver’s uniform. At this point most of us take this notable branding for granted. Wondering why UPS is so distinctly branded in brown can feel a bit akin to wondering why snow is white. But there’s a lot more to the story of how UPS settled on its distinctive color scheme than most people imagine.

A Notable Lack of Competition

One of the first points to consider is why the color scheme UPS uses is so distinct. It’s quite common for competitors in any industry to attempt some level of brand co-opting. When an industry leader is so distinct why aren’t competitors using variations on something which would seem so easy to copy? After all, company’s can’t just trademark a color like they would a logo. Except that’s exactly what happened with UPS. Companies are legally prohibited from using the color brown while competing against UPS. And to understand why, we need to look back by about a hundred years.

UPS is far older than most people realize. The company was created all the way back in 1907. And it’s had that distinctive brown branding for nearly as long. UPS only operated for nine years before finally implementing its distinctive brown uniforms at the behest of Charlie Soderstrom. The adoption within the company as a whole was a gradual process. But by 1929 UPS had implemented brown as a companywide brand. This shows how the company settled on brown theming. But we need to go further down the path of history to find out why nobody has ever tried to copy it.

The Elegance of Pullman Brown

One interesting point to keep in mind is that UPS technically isn’t using the color brown. They’re using a specific shade called “Pullman brown”. This particular shade of brown was sometimes thought to be particularly luxurious. As we’ve noted, the color has proven quite distinctive. The average person might not even consciously notice that UPS has a very specific shade of brown. But conscious or not, we can almost always spot the distinctive color of UPS in a crowd.

Woman singing for package delivery from man in brown colored shirt

UPS is well aware of how important that instantaneous recognition is. In 2002 they even began to drive the point home in their marketing campaigns. The year marked the beginning of their “What can brown do for you” slogan. The company would use the phrase in its marketing efforts up until 2010. All of this highlights just how invested the company is in their Pullman brown coloring. And this is also why UPS was able to take what many people feel was a surprising legal move to protect their brand.

How a Company Can Successfully Trademark a Color

In 1998 UPS went as far as to register a trademark on their distinctive color. This can seem like a shocking fact when taken out of context. If someone just casually mentioned a company trademarking specific colors we might react with shock or outrage. Many people within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office felt the same. But we need to keep everything we’ve seen so far in mind when considering whether a company should be able to trademark a color. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would eventually side with UPS and grant their request. This would stand as solid precedent for color trademarks.

A Question of What Makes a Company Distinct

Everything we’ve covered so far shows that the public associates UPS with a distinct shape of brown. Take the UPS logo off the uniform and people would still be able to recognize it at a glance. The same task and result could be done with a UPS delivery truck as well. And this is the key to why UPS was able to trademark the color brown.

The average person, or even the head of a large company, can’t simply decide to trademark a color. In order to trademark colors someone needs to be able to properly demonstrate a high level of consumer recognition between color and company. For example, imagine that you owned a small company with a green logo. You might decide that you wanted to trademark the color green. An important part of doing so would be to demonstrate that the average person would think of your company if he saw the color green. Saying that this is unlikely would be an understatement.

Growing Up and Growing Old Amid a Fleet of Brown Trucks

Moving brown delivery truck on urban city street in what looks like a trademarked UPS brown color

It’s exceedingly rare for a company to be large enough, and to have enough national reach, to obtain the level of brand recognition demonstrated by UPS. The company has spent a century building up that level of recognition in the public eye. We’ve seen three to five generations, depending on how we define the term, grow to maturity seeing that distinctive brown on UPS uniforms and vehicles.

A Rare but Important Event

We don’t, and probably shouldn’t, see many companies trademarking specific colors. The way UPS has branded itself around the color brown shows a rare convergence of historical events. And even then it’s important to keep in mind that UPS hasn’t been able to simply sit on that legal success. It’s obviously difficult to know the exact motivations behind their “what can brown do for you” campaign. But even if it wasn’t the campaign’s primary goal, UPS did strengthen its tie to the color brown by openly stating that fact.

Even a company with the impressive longevity of UPS needed to put considerable effort into plainly stating just how invested they are in their particular color scheme. UPS shows that it’s not enough to simply use a color. It’s not enough to simply trademark the color either. A company needs to actively strengthen that connection as a branding choice. But as hard as that process might be, UPS has managed to accomplish it. And in doing so they’ve set a strong precinct in color trademarks.