Style changes in the late 19th century sparked a new trend in home decor. In many homes and commercial spaces, paint replaced the messy application and expensive cost of wallpaper. Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams started a painting company in 1866. According to Ohio History Central, the Sherwin Williams Paint Company was in the right place at the right time. Ready-mixed paint sold in cans was a newly invented product not available until 1880. Before that time paint ingredients were sold separately. With this new process available, companies were eager for their share of the growing demand. Sherwin Williams hopped on the bandwagon and expanded their company to include professionally blended home decorating products. Every successful company has to have its signature look, slogan, and logo. The concept of branding is nothing new and back then like now a product had to be eye-catching on the shelf, signs, and print ads.
1885 Color Chameleon
Any good advertising brand strategy needs an identifying graphic so in 1885 Henry Sherwin came up with an illustration known as “The Chameleon”. It featured a lizard on a color wheel artist’s palette suggesting that more and more middle-class consumers were looking for a colorful aesthetic in their living space. With ready mixed paint available to purchase in all sorts of shades and colors, every homeowner could now add their artistic touch to their home. The “Chameleon” logo served the company until 1893 when a designer named George W. Ford came up with the “Cover the Earth” logo that would evolve through various incarnations through the next century and beyond.
1893 First Cover
The first artistic rendering of Cover the Earth” by George W. Ford depicted a monochrome shaded globe with white paint being poured over it. The idea was to use paint to cover virtually anything that needed decorating. Consumers of that time readily understood that the image was a surrealistic symbol, not a literal mandate to cover all the land on the globe with paint. During this time,” The Chameleon” logo was still in use at the same time, no doubt as a test to see which the public preferred.
The Chameleon was phased out and “Cover the Earth” became Sherwin Williams’ only official logo. The advertisers decided that the paint can that dripped onto our greyscale planet needed a little something extra so the initials “S.W” were added, lest consumers forget which brand of paint to use. The artwork, like most of the advertising of the day, was hand-drawn and reproduced which was not as sophisticated as later creations detailed by graphic artists.
1910 Onward A Catchphrase Was Born
In addition to the initials on the paint can, the words “Cover the Earth” were added to the globe. In 1919 a “P” was added to the “SW” on the paint can. By the 1920s a red white and blue color scheme was adopted and the color the company chose for the paint spilling down from the heavens to a helpless planet was a bold one: red!
1974 Earth Days
By the mid-seventies, the population was becoming more environmentally conscious with celebrations of “Earth Day” and an emphasis on cleaning up the planet. Oil spills and other environmental hazards were front-page news and companies were changing their approach to reflect consumer concerns. A temporary logo, simply bearing the words “Sherwin Williams” was rolled out to coexist with the traditional “Cover the Earth”; however, the temporary logo was phased out again in the early 1990s.
Around this time, out came the internet where just about anyone can speak their mind about everything so many sounded off about Sherwin Williams’ “disturbing” logo. Although the commercial catchphrase for the company these days is “Ask Sherwin Williams”, “Cover the Earth” is still prominently featured right on the logo! The red dripping, messy paint streaming down Mother Earth’s landscapes and oceans were too much for the environmentally-conscious buyers to bear.
Popular Culture Wars
Sherwin Williams is the top choice for a branding rework according to a survey conducted by Fast Company.com, although Verizon, K-Mart, Hallmark, and others also received votes. Adweek.com wrote an opinion piece. “Now it’s Sherwin Williams’ Turn for a Much Needed New Logo, Right?” (Now It's Sherwin-Williams' Turn for a Much-Needed New Logo, Right? The commentator describes the icon as “earth smothering”. They got an unexpected response from the company.
Their director of communications, Mike Conway, defends the continued use of the “Cover the Earth” logo as it is well known worldwide and of course is not meant to be taken literally. The interesting fact is that the company with the least environmentally friendly logo has received the “Green Chemistry” award from the EPA for its water-based paints and meets the environmental standards to the letter. Sherwin Williams is dedicated to sustainability initiatives. Logo aside, the company clearly does not intend to dominate the world via buckets of red paint from outer space.
Good business practices notwithstanding, mention the Sherwin Williams icon on a message board like Reddit, and the flame wars begin. Some share how it’s a sign of environmental doom while others defend it as just an image to not be taken so literally. Bloggers describe it as “the most traumatic thing they’ve ever seen” and “revolting”. The dripping red on the globe has traumatized adults who remember their “experience” encountering a Sherwin Williams paint can when they were small, although some posts are so over the top it’s difficult to separate the hyperbole from the truly concerned commenters.
For over 150 years Sherwin Williams has been a premier producer of paints, stains, caulks, and other home products. Can the high quality of the paint and adherence to environmental regulations continue to make up for a logo that many find offensive and even terrifying? So far the company has adhered to tradition and weathered criticism for doing so. With so many stuck at home during a deadly pandemic doing home improvement projects and the demand for paint products on the upswing, the Sherwin Williams logo may not seem so scary compared to our real environmental challenges during these difficult times.
Written by Virginia Repka-Franco
Read more posts by Virginia Repka-Franco