For most people, the color of a car is a bit like the color of the sky: that’s just the way it is. But Janis Ambrose Shard isn’t like most people. As the color and trim manager in Toyota Motor Sales (TMS)’ Product Planning department, she knows a vehicle’s exterior hue doesn’t just happen. Rather, it’s the end result of what is typically a four-year journey of exploration, choices, decisions and implementation.
Take, for example, the 2011 Sienna and its new color Predawn Gray Mica.
“It’s been very well received,” says Ambrose Shard. “It represents a departure for Toyota. This is a conservative company. We tend to offer a very balanced palette, in terms of light to dark and warm to cool. We don’t take big chances.”
Actually, the automotive industry as a whole tends to gravitate to the tried and true. Ambrose Shard notes that 80 percent of the luxury vehicles on the market are black, silver, white or gray. That only leaves 20 percent for all the other colors, the ones that tend “to make dealers nervous,” she says.
New color concepts first tend to bubble up to the surface 48 months before a vehicle’s launch. That’s when Ambrose Shard and her counterparts at Calty Design Research, Toyota’s California-based design studio, began thinking about the Sienna and tracking color trends across multiple industries and product categories, such as fashion and cosmetics.
The concept for Predawn Gray Mica emerged from that research and started to pull into focus 36 months prior to the Sienna’s launch. That’s when TMS and Calty shared its ideas, under the concept name “Mocha,” with various paint suppliers. A few months later, each supplier responded with as many as 30 variations on the theme.
Calty affixed those samples—called strike-offs—to a curved surface to replicate the highlighting effect of a car’s body, then invited some 25 professionals from Calty, TMS and Toyota Motor Corporation to weigh in. This step in the process, referred to as First Selection, concluded with the team identifying the supplier that came the closest to capturing Predawn Gray Mica’s essence.
“There has to be consensus,” says Ambrose Shard. “It’s based in part on subjective opinion. But we also rely on some market data and trend research. Color is becoming an increasingly important factor in purchase decisions. The Internet, for example, is having a big impact, exposing everyone to a wider range of global influences. Nike, with its NIKEiD custom shoe program, offers 64,000 color choices. With each minor or major model change, we can only refresh two or three colors.”
In the case of Predawn Gray Mica, the supplier was given six months for fine tuning before delivering the finished product in time to begin 24 months of weather testing. At this point, Predawn Gray Mica was also shared with suppliers of exterior components, such as bumpers, fenders and grilles. Some of the Sienna’s pieces would require solvent-based paint while others could work with water-borne paint. The end product needed to match.
At the 12-month mark, Product Planning held an update meeting with other departments to help prepare for launch. Research was later conducted with a select group of customers who intend to buy a minivan, exposing them to vehicles and color samples. When it came to exterior color, 37 percent of the participants preferred Predawn Gray Mica among the nine color choices. By comparison, white was the favorite of just 3 percent.
Ambrose Shard says one of the objectives of the research is to help the sales organization select colors when configuring their vehicle orders. But with new colors there is often a conservative approach. For example, white is typically ordered at very high levels.
“White usually isn’t the first choice, but many customers are willing to live with it. It’s safe,” she says. “So, 19 percent of the Siennas that have been sold are white. But they take 60 days to sell. By comparison, Predawn Gray Mica is running at 22 percent of sales, but those units take just 37 days to turn.”
In other words, four years after it was first conceived, the new color on the block is a big hit. That could translate into even more dramatic new colors four years from now.
“Hopefully, this success will allow us to further expand our color palette,” says Ambrose Shard. “Toyota is hoping to attract a younger buyer which means we need to offer bolder color choices but will still maintain balance with the overall palette for our loyal buyers. If the vehicle is manufactured in North America, we have more input. That was certainly true for the Sienna and Predawn Gray Mica.”