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Cellphones? They say a lot about you

February 01, 2008 08:34 IST

If Verizon and AT&T have their way, Valentine's Day will spark thoughts of chocolate, roses--and candy-colored cellphones.

The two carriers recently rolled out brightly hued versions of some popular handsets, including a red LG Shine, a pink BlackBerry Pearl and a purple Samsung Gleam. Verizon's site exhorts visitors to "Add some playfulness to your life with these hot phones."

As cellphones evolve from largely functional devices into personal accessories, the wireless industry is building a wave of colorful handsets. "Phones are becoming reflections of us as individuals and an important way to express our personalities," says Ehtisham Rabbani, vice president of product strategy and marketing for LG.

It's a sharp contrast to the drab shades most consumer electronics sported just a few years ago. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, says tech companies, with the exception of forward-thinking Apple, largely ignored her color recommendations up through the '90s. "They didn't understand the impact of color--they felt it had nothing to do with their devices," she recalls.

The color trend in cellphones ramped up around six months ago. Consider the Samsung Juke, which Verizon released in October in red, aqua and royal blue. Phones like the sporty Juke, which appeal to younger consumers, are often first to get the color treatment. Handsets that target older customers, such as pricey smart phones, are more likely to be offered in more conservative colors, says Sapna Tahliani, a device marketing manager for Verizon Wireless.

That's starting to change, though. Research in Motion's BlackBerry, long considered the workhorse of smart phones, now comes in pink, red, amethyst, gold and -- in the UK.--a reddish orange shade called "sunset."

Our emotional reactions to color guide our shopping decisions, says Eiseman. That has handset manufacturers studying color psychology, investing in materials research and consulting color forecasts. "Our design group is completely hooked into what's happening in fashion, autos and interior décor," says Rabbani. New colors can hit stores within six months.

In a sign that neutrals aren't totally passé, Rabbani says black is LG's most "stable" color across all demographics. Among younger consumers, light blue is increasingly hot. "Blue is a safe color with appeal across gender and age groups," he notes. "Light blue stands out; it's the new pink." LG recently relaunched the Chocolate, a sleek music player/phone, in a pale blue and will add one to two more phones in similar shades by the end of the year.

Fittingly, blue is America's favorite color, says Eiseman. "Consumer products often include blue in some form because a certain percentage of the population will always respond to it," she adds.

Some colors, such as yellow and green, don't resonate with consumers. "You won't see a yellow phone from us soon," says Rabbani. LG's green enV phone, however, enjoyed surprising success despite testing poorly with focus groups. Rabbani says a promotional tie-in with a Shrek film probably helped.

Manufacturers that sell around the world customize their colors to local tastes. Americans prefer simple, unadorned colors, says Rabbani. Carriers also influence color options by requesting exclusive rights to particular shades.

Only certain handset models get a color dipping. Carriers are wary of slicing the market too thin. Occasionally, phones will sell better than expected and earn a "color refresh." That was the case with the Chocolate, which was first offered in black, in July 2006. By December 2007, it had expanded to six more colors, including white, "mint" and "cherry."

The newest trend is to offer handsets in several shades right away. "Sometimes you don't get the full appeal of a phone if you only launch with one color," explains Rabbani. When LG unveiled its Venus in November, it carried black and hot-pink versions to target both men and women.

Handset makers and carriers expect the color trend to keep growing. Over the next 10 years, as the inner workings of phones shrink and manufacturing costs drop, "You'll be able to put a thicker texture of design around the phone," says Christian Lindholm, director of Fjord, a London-based strategic design consultancy.

Says Eiseman, "Today, if you don't do something that involves color, you're seen as very backward or very boring."

Elizabeth Woyke, Forbes.com