Nancy Lockhart is a color-marketing manager at Axalta Coating Systems in Michigan. Her job with this major car-paint supplier, a former DuPont subsidiary, is to help automakers develop new colors for their vehicles.
She is quite aware just how crucial it is to be able to predict which hues customers will want when those cars and trucks finally emerge from their three-year development cycles.
"Color is a critical part of the buying process," she said. "People may very well walk away if they don't see the color they want."
Like a lot of forecasting, predicting which colors car buyers will want three years down the pike is part science and part art.
The process begins with Axalta's Color Popularity Report for the previous year, a continuation of the survey DuPont began 62 years ago. Based on automakers' production bills, the report ranks color popularity worldwide and in each major market. (White is Number 1 everywhere but India.)
With the survey as a starting point, Lockhart said the Axalta folk, working with the automakers' designers and marketing people, try to get a handle on where consumer tastes are heading.
"We're looking at consumer preferences [beyond car colors]," she explained. "In the short term, we're looking at trends like fashion and packaging. But we're also looking longer term, at things like interior design."
She said they take notice of new technology - "Silver rose in popularity between 2000 and 2007, when there was a particularly intense interest in technology" - as well as looking back.
"We look at the colors of the past and try to refresh them. . . . We did that with a new version of 'Hemi Orange,' " the signature color of the Dodge Challenger muscle car.
The result of the research? Lockhart expects to see more intense reds and blues in the next couple of years. White should stay strong, but the rest of the neutrals - black, silver, and gray - will decline.
Though Lockhart said there was a close correlation between what Axalta predicts and what the car companies take, the automakers, of course, make the final decisions. They also come up with the often esoteric names for these finishes, names that can only be coined while contemplating one's navel in a dark room.
(Consider, for example, the pea-soup-color finish available on the 2015 Rolls-Royce Ghost. It's called Aurum, which sounds like something that happens after you contract food poisoning. And how about that Kia Soul color, Alien II Pearl Metallic?)
The verdict is hardly in after the manufacturers field their color offerings. What dealers stock and what customers buy are the final determinants.
"Dealers stock their lots based on color popularity," Lockhart observed. "If 27 percent of the cars they sold last year were white, they are going to make sure they have plenty of white cars on the lot."
And that, of course, is going to affect sales.
The most recent popularity survey had some interesting aspects, Lockhart said.
"What we saw this year was unusual in that you normally see small, incremental moves [in paint popularity] - 1 to 2 percent. But in North America, there was a 3 percent increase in red - that's a big jump. . . . What we're seeing is color coming back. There's the increase in red here, and in Europe, blue is starting to increase."
White is the longtime leader largely because it is an "inoffensive" color. Black is Number Two globally, partly because of its popularity on luxury cars.
"Black is 19 percent of overall North American sales. . . . But among luxury cars, it is Number One at 32 percent."