Painting an Online Picture for Customers

Paint retailers have embraced a range of online visualisation tools to help market their products. JOHN POWER examines some of the industry’s latest efforts.

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Internet-based communications and marketing techniques have altered the way paint companies relate to their customers.

In the good old days companies would take great pains to produce printed swatches, cards and catalogues to showcase lovely squares of colour. It was a matter of professional pride that rows of squares – their subtly graded differences barely perceptible to the naked eye – portrayed the best possible match to the ‘real’ paint colour.

Printed charts, fans and swatches continue to perform the function of providing premium colour-faithful samples, but companies have realised that online visualisation tools can play an excellent support role.

Types of tools

So, what are online visualisation tools? In simple terms, they refer to a range of interactive Internet-based programs that allow online users to select and examine different colours and colour schemes to suit different applications. Tools may be as simple as straightforward colour walls, or as complex as personally uploaded images that can be manipulated to show the same digital scene ‘painted’ in any number of colours or colour combinations.

It is important to appreciate that online visualisation tools are not replacements for printed cards or swatches; indeed, almost every site with this kind of tool offers a disclaimer that colour faithfulness is always dependent on personal computer settings and monitor quality. The reality is that these tools exist for the following three main reasons:

(1) To educate the user about the main colours, finishes, names, codes, textures and applications in the paint company’s portfolio of products.

(2) To invite the user to do some preparatory homework about subjective issues, such as whether to use single- or multi-coloured colour schemes, and in which general spectra.

(3) To kick-start a process of customer capture or retention.

The first point is vital, as it informs the prospective customer about the existence of various paint ranges and appropriate applications. Examples might be listings of special ‘suede’ or ‘metallic’ effects, or of certain types of premium ‘eco-friendly’ products that the user might not have discovered or considered without the tool.

The second (equally important) point is all about in-store time saving. Instead of customers entering a store with absolutely no idea about their project and expecting the store attendant to act as an ‘interior design consultant’, it is helpful for the retailer if the customer arrives forearmed with some preparatory ideas – and a visualisation tool which can expedite the process.

The third point relates to the use of visualisation tools as instruments of business communication, based on some form of customer registration, account establishment, product sample delivery or other action designed to instigate a relationship between the customer and the company. In short, a visualisation tool can be used as a classical ‘lead generator’.

The best tool designers have a clear sense of purpose about what their tool is meant to achieve. Different tools, different aims

In Australia, it is evident that some paint retailers and manufacturers have paid greater attention to online merchandising tools than others, but it would be unfair to rate different tools against each other because no two companies have identical aims or goals. The best one can do is assess each site on its merits as a self-contained entity, and ask, ‘Does the functionality deliver a positive or negative experience?’

One of the most straightforward sites in the mainstream Australian market is the PaintRight site, which consists of a simple Colour Wall and associated categories according to different product types, new trends, etc. The Colour Wall presentations are clear and well laid out, inviting users to record preferred colours and design notes in a personal ‘Project Scrapbook’ before visiting a store for more elaborate project development. The website, one might argue, sends a clear message to customers that a dialogue within a store environment is really the company’s preferred way of doing business.

The British Paints website goes a step further, presenting not only a colour wall, but also an Image Gallery featuring suggested colour schemes, with adjoining swatches showing colour names and codes. In some cases, however, it is not always easy to identify which swatch refers to which colour in the image.

A slightly more elaborate visualisation option is that provided by Bristol Paints. This tool offers users a choice of 15 different generic images under categories of ‘Contemporary Exterior’, ‘Contemporary Interior’, and ‘Heritage Exterior’, with an adjoining task bar inviting the user to select different colours and then ‘drag’ each nominated colour onto an area of the facing picture. The process involves a bit of trial and error to reveal that colours need to be dragged as close as possible to a ‘+’ sign on each major paintable surface in the image. The obvious shortcoming of this system, of course, is that the customer’s real-life room(s) may not resemble those in the suite of generic images. While some visualisation tools overcome this problem by allowing users to upload their own photos, it should be noted that greater levels of complexity might raise the risk of error or confusion and thwart a positive user experience. Nevertheless, many websites do indeed provide opportunities for users to upload their own images, with the expectation that the user can experiment with different colours without having to go anywhere near a real sample pot. For example, Dulux operates the MyColour visualisation program, which includes an option for users to upload their own photos; however, during research for this article the tool was not operable with either Safari or Firefox search engines on the latest iMac, so it may not be suitable for Apple equipment. A Colour App is also available.

The Wattyl Virtual Painter is an effective and relatively intuitive visualisation tool that offers significant flexibility to the user, including the ability to view colour schemes in varying lighting conditions. This tool is also adept at handling one of the biggest hurdles in self-upload image scenarios, namely the problem of images that are cluttered with ornaments, wall hangings, artworks and other paraphernalia. Users can save preferences and access a range of support resources such as an Ideas Library.

The Virtual Painter tool (also available as an App) for Mitre 10’s accent range is equally impressive, with plenty of understandable functionality and an overall aesthetic that makes the process enjoyable and bright. A good selection of internal tools such as paintbrushes of different sizes is very helpful.

One of the most original offerings in this space is the new Colour Galaxy tool from Taubmans,which is a visualisation tool aimed at professional designers and architects. The main purpose of this tool and its related colour wheel, wall and image search functions is to allow users to identify a preferred colour in the first instance, and then find out the name and code of its closest match in the Taubmans range. For instance, if a client wants a wall to be painted in exactly the same colour as the leaves of a tree on the owner’s property, then the user can take a photo of the leaf, upload the image file and discover the closest matching colour’s name. Alternatively, the Colour Galaxy search function takes the user on a 3D journey through “colour space” in order to find just the right shade for a task.

Exciting times ahead

The online visualisation tool segment is continually evolving, as software designers improve the logic and ease of use of their creations. As users become more confident with the concept of these tools, useage rates will increase. In tandem, better software packages will serve to entice users to embark on colour explorations with ever-increasing seriousness.