As the car wash industry becomes more crowded, there’s a second-order effect happening: brand standardization. Companies are establishing regional and national brands, whether it’s across a few locations or hundreds of sites. As the fight for territory and market share continues, wash companies are planting their flag on brand name, logo, and color palette as a way to stand out from the market.
After all, when markets get crowded, how do high-performing businesses respond? They adapt in ways that outmaneuver their current competition. And the very best make chess moves that simultaneously scare away future competition. One important factor hiding in plain sight is the opportunity to differentiate a brand based on color scheme.
We see this in every industry. Case in point, cell phone service providers: AT&T is blue, white, and orange. Verizon is black and red. T-Mobile is hot pink. These are intentional, highly researched, and high-priced decisions. Those companies make these brand positioning choices because the payoff is even greater.
Big brands spend millions of dollars just on the colors they choose to represent the products and experiences they’re giving the market, and there are some obvious takeaways that can be gleaned by car wash owners. You can pick up a lot of intel observing branding decisions inside and outside the car wash space, and comparing that to the decisions they make with their brands and what their brands “say” without speaking.
In November 2021 our company sponsored, exhibited, and presented educational content at The Car Wash Show in Las Vegas. A well-attended event, it was great to see so many friends in the industry. We also noticed an uptick in conversations with branding agencies and dedicated marketing teams tasked with building intentional brands for car wash companies.
While in Las Vegas, it was also nice to see the city itself bustling again. Few markets rival Sin City in terms of a crowded, competitive marketplace. And it’s easy to see what happens as a result. Casinos respond by doing more unique buildings — and often higher and bigger — that include distinct brand colors, materials, and architectural elements. The sand-colored Caesar’s Palace distinctly stands out from the black pyramid of the Luxor, which is unique from the iconic green-and-gold color combination of the MGM Grand.
We can apply this directly to the car wash industry with competitors moving in around the corner if not across the street. This has been happening with fast food companies for years. If every car wash uses the same color, there’s no strategy of differentiation. That sort of copycat approach will eventually turn into a sea of cookie-cutter car washes that fail to differentiate in any meaningful way from their competition.
Your car wash building represents a big part of your brand. What’s a brand? Your brand is not a name or a graphic. Your brand is the promise you consistently make to your current and future customers about the experience they’ll have when they drive through. Your name, building, materials, and color palette are just as much part of your brand as your logo, your marketing, and your advertising.
It didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when it worked to “build it and they will come.” Take automobiles for example. Back when Henry Ford started manufacturing automobiles he famously said, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.” But back then, Ford didn’t have much in the way of competition in the marketplace the way Ford experiences it today. And so they’ve adapted. We see the almost limitless model options and color customization — as well as the blue and silver Ford logo mark — which have all evolved with the times as part of their strategy to respond to market demands and remain a leading automobile manufacturer.
Similarly, it used to be that you could have any car wash, as long as it was block. A cinder block structure with the owner-operator’s name on the front and a splash of red or blue, and your car wash branding was complete.
That’s no longer the case. With larger brands and private equity firms fueling the industry with capital and consolidation, there are marketing and branding teams dedicated to communicating the expected customer experience. A big part of that is the color choices a creative firm or team will make.
We’ll analyze here some of the most popular color choices as a way to unpack what those choices are communicating to your customers and community.
Red is a popular choice and for good reason: it’s a powerful, passionate color which asks to be taken seriously. Red is also intentionally used in many places where impulsive decisions are encouraged: casinos, candy wrappers, sugar cereal boxes, and lipstick, as just a few examples. Getting your car washed is often an impulse decision, too. Red can communicate a bold excitement and youthful energy that can convey ambition and leadership. It’s no accident that politicians often wear red ties or outfits to express a confidence and vibrance that speaks on their behalf.
Like waving a red cape in front of a bull, we might conclude red is the most impulsive colors. In the last few decades, orange has become more defined in the minds of consumers as an impulsive color that communicates spontaneity, optimism, and warmth. The color may elicit a gut reaction or split decision connected to intrinsic freedom and personal motivation. There’s a sophisticated modernity to the color orange seen in brands like Amazon, Mastercard, Firefox, and Harley Davidson, These brands communicate a daring social and extroverted essence, open to new ideas. Orange is a bold choice that can help forge a new path instead of relying on the well-worn path of others.
If you go the bold route, do the figurative legwork early with city planners, design guidelines, and development restrictions, so your plans don’t get squeezed later on. (That was an orange pun.)
On its own, blue has a lot to say. Blue can communicate a calm, cool, collected brand. It is a self-sufficient and spirited color that brings a fresh, modern perspective on the world. Companies like Intel, PayPal, Samsung, Twitter, and Meta choose blue because of what it has to say about a spirited, open, and ambitious brand that is on the forefront of innovation. There’s even a “blue ocean strategy” in business, where a company looks for uncharted waters with limited or no competition.
In the car wash world, blue gets used a lot because people associate blue with water.
Depending on the hue, different shades of blue can communicate different messages. For example, going with a warmer, darker navy blue tone can communicate a calmer, trustworthy confidence.
You can also start applying two or three colors to change the message. Red and blue are contrasting colors, for example. The temperatures of the colors can complement each other and communicate a balance in subtle ways. Red comes from the warm half of the color wheel, while blue comes from the cool half of the color wheel. They can communicate love and strength, respectively.
And it’s just a small leap from there to communicate an idea like the American spirit with the classic red, white, and blue combination. It’s an important point to note that color interpretation is often dependent on your local culture. A red, white, and blue car wash in Europe might not deliver the same message immediately. It’s important to know your audience and how they’ll interpret what you are showing.
It makes sense that the phrase “going green” communicates exactly what it says with color. Growth, nature, stability, and positivity are subconsciously communicated with the color green. Brands like Whole Foods, John Deere, and Starbucks choose green for reasons relating to the natural environment. John Deere throws in a splash of yellow, which we see other brands like Best Buy and McDonald’s do too. Sometimes that can suggest a lower price.
In market research, consumers are reporting being more interested in supporting brands that communicate about specific causes. While there are lots of community causes that can easily be supported by a car wash — and regardless of where you fall on, say, global warming — it certainly makes sense to be aware of the volume of messaging happening around environmental and ecological topics, and how that messaging impacts consumers. From space, the Earth looks blue and green, mixed with some white clouds. This trio of colors can combine to bring a fresh earthiness to the right structure.
WOOD GRAINS AND NATURAL TONES
Another clear way to communicate a natural essence and connection to nature is to incorporate wood grains and more earth tones like sand colors and tans in addition to green. Many car washes are working to become more eco-friendly or, at the very least, to signal that to their customers as a counter point to the water and chemical usage.
Manufacturing advances allow for durable aluminum composite materials to be used as cladding with a wood-grain finish in practically any color of timber you can imagine, which communicates a natural project while providing the owner-operator with a cost-effective long-lasting material that will enhance the building.
One of the best choices in color is no color at all. Letting the sunlight in can have an astounding impact on the customer experience, and impact the bottom line as well. In any retail environment, the right use of daylighting can improve sales 40 percent. Light in nature is part of what creates natural movement. You can also achieve this movement with curves and interesting architectural elements rather than simple block boxes. And connected to the “going green” trend, a dark tunnel with a light show communicates a very different experience than a well-lit tunnel with sunshine. Today’s consumer is opting for cleaner, greener, more organic experiences. And what’s more organic than rays of sunshine?
Compared to red and blue structures, there aren’t as many purple or pink car washes, yet. Warmth, creativity, sophistication, and sensitivity can be especially communicated in these colors. They show up in brands like Barbie, Cadbury, Yahoo!, Hallmark, and Cosmopolitan. These are also colors that sell to brands with a demographic more often defined as feminine versus masculine. Even if you don’t select one of these as your leading colors, you can add a splash or hint of pink or purple to transform a building and your branding.
There’s a rainbow of colors to choose from. Don’t limit yourself. It’s important to know how those various hues, shades, tints, and tones might communicate something consciously or subconsciously to your audience. A unique color pattern relative to your market also benefits you by helping you stand out from your competition. This article dove into the topic of colors, but we just scratched the surface. Do a Google search to learn more, and keep your eyes open as you interact with the stores and brands you frequent. You may start to notice things you’ve never really seen before, even though your mind was aware of it all the time. Good luck, and don’t be afraid to show your true colors.
Steve Turney leads marketing strategy and business development for Modernwash, a company designing and pre-engineering car wash structures that stand out in competitive markets: www.modernwash.net