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Lessons in Brand Sentiment and Adaptation: Sherwin-Williams

Last year my spouse and I bought a real fixer-upper of a house, and one aspect of the fixing-up process involves coating every square inch in a fresh layer of paint. So every other weekend we make a trip to Sherwin-Williams for supplies, and every other weekend as we pull past the sign and into the lot I think: what the heck is going on with this logo?

It turns out I’m not the only one who’s wondered. One day on a whim I did an internet search and I fell down a virtual rabbit hole of articles and commentary.

Here’s the back story: the current Sherwin-Williams logo is old — older than you may think. It was first used in 1893 and in 1895 was made the Sherwin-Williams trademark. 120 years later, it’s utterly unchanged and still going strong. Another company may have already “rebranded” several times over now in an effort to stay fresh and relevant, but Sherwin-Williams has chosen again and again to play it safe and err on the side of brand recognition.

But is the safest approach always the best one? Curious, I polled some pals at a barbecue, pulling up the Sherwin-Williams logo on my phone and asking what they thought. “The red looks creepy, like blood spilling over the Earth!” one friend exclaimed. “Haven’t they ever heard of Exxon-Valdez?” another friend asked, jokingly. “It’s 2014! How is this possibly still their logo?” someone else chimed in.

Okay, maybe I just have an odd group of friends. So next I checked what folks have been saying about the logo on Twitter:

Ouch.

Now, by no means is my brief, casual analysis an accurate stand-in for thorough market research and testing, but the fact that I kept casually encountering such vociferously negative opinions about the Sherwin-Williams logo gave me pause. I’m not surprised that a company that’s been in existence since 1866 — that’s nearly 150 years! — is reluctant to give themselves a makeover. But I’d argue that the times have changed so much that Sherwin-Williams must eventually change, too, or risk being left behind.

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It’s not that they haven’t grown in other respects. Consider the “Ask Sherwin-Williams” marketing boilerplate that the company uses on its consumer press releases:

“For nearly 150 years, Sherwin-Williams has been an industry leader in the development of technologically advanced paint and coatings. As the nation’s largest specialty retailer of paint and painting supplies, Sherwin-Williams is dedicated to supporting both do-it-yourselfers and painting professionals with exceptional products, resources to make confident color selections and expert, personalized service that’s focused on unique project needs. Sherwin-Williams products can only be found at its more than 3,900 neighborhood stores across North America.”

When I scan this copy, their current company positioning seems to be:

  • Industry leadership that meets changing needs
  • Dynamic, technologically advanced products
  • Personalized, expert service
  • Local scale with a global reach

But customers don’t seem to be seeing these themes reflected in the logo. Instead, they’re seeing:

  • Fear: the red in the logo suggests blood; evokes ominous or scary feelings
  • Symbolism: the “Cover the Earth” tagline in conjunction with the color red hints at social and political revolution and propaganda (at least for some — I’ll admit I didn’t readily see this)
  • Anti-environmentalism: the image of paint covering the world serves as a glaring reminder of oil spills and pollution
  • Indifference: the splashing paint can and dripping Earth suggests messiness and lack of care and regard

I don’t doubt that Sherwin-Williams is proud of its history. But they can’t solely rely on history to accurately tell their story. A brand mark should reflect core company values. And there’s a mighty disconnect here between what Sherwin-Williams is saying and what they’re showing.

Here’s one last example to drive the point home: during my research I came across a buried news item from last year announcing that Sherwin Williams had been named one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by Ethisphere Institute, an international think-tank. Wow! That’s impressive, and pretty on-brand for their current global leadership positioning. But chances are, online or in real life, you’ll hear people talking instead about how unethical the “Cover the Earth” logo looks.

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” said the fictional ad man Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. One of the quickest, most effective ways for Sherwin-Williams to change the conversation about their brand would be to update that 120-year-old logo. In fact, other folks have already attempted to do just that. But in the meantime, I’m not holding my breath for the real thing.

The takeaway? Remember to periodically assess your own business positioning to see if it’s in line with your branding. For a well-rounded perspective, ask others what they think! You may just find out something new.

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