Colour marketing, or how brands play with your mind

Up to 90% of snap judgments made about products are based on colour alone. Indeed, colour marketing is an extremely important visual element in marketing, and here’s why.

The psychology of colours

Each and every one of our past, present and future sensory experiences will inform how we perceive colour and whether we are persuaded by them. Indeed, personal preference, gender, experiences, upbringing, cultural differences, context, and more, further complicate the effect that individual colours have on us.

For example, Asians tend to think of black as the colour of water and mystery, and is considered the king of colours: it is a colour that is frequently worn. On the other hand, white is associated with death and mourning (whereas in Western culture black is associated with death and mourning). Green is associated with health, prosperity and harmony, but also with infidelity. Yellow, on the other hand, is considered the most beautiful and prestigious colour, and is said to generate the yin and yang. It is also the symbol for heroism, whereas in Western culture it is associated with cowardice.

The advertising and marketing industries have long recognized that colours play an integral role in influencing our perception of brands, but… the examples above do show the discrepancies between cultures and understandings.

It’s interesting to note that orange tends to represent joy, love, humility and good health in East Asian cultures. Unsurprisingly Harley-Davidson isn’t that popular there…

Myself, I always associated green with envy and puke, and so when friends let me know that their favourite colour was green, I was absolutely skeptical at first as to why someone could like that colour. And then they told me it was because they love orcs in a game, or because they love plants, or because it makes them feel relaxed… and my rigid perception has now loosened.

But let’s get back to facts. Colours tend to stay with us far more than a shape, a form, a size, or the content. Indeed, a colour will stay with us longer than a tagline or a fact. This is why some brands are instantly recognizable by colour alone. Think of Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Greenpeace, McDonald’s… their colours are indelibly associated with their brand. Some of them in fact trademark their colours so as to prevent similar products or companies riding on their wave.

Needless to say, it’s important to choose your brand’s colours carefully. Your colour scheme must reflect your brand values, clearly define your company and its products, and be aesthetically pleasing to your potential customers, employees and investors.

Before deciding on a colour or colour scheme, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which colour(s) best represent the personality of my brand?
  • Which colour(s) suit(s) what my product or service is / provides? In other words, is / are the colour(s) appropriate for the product or service sold?
  • Which colour(s) is / are my competitor(s) using? Shall we be original or conform?

Colour theory

When I was in art school, we spent quite a bit of time on colour theory, and associating colours with perception, as well as fitting the mold and venturing “outside of the box”, so to speak, to test the limits of colours on certain marketing perceptions.

The truth, however, is that each consumer’s (in our case, student’s) experience is unique. I mentioned above my example of my personal perception of the colour green, and how my perception was different from my peers’. Or take the example of Asians and the colour white as that of death and mourning… Indeed, I know some South Koreans celebrate two weddings: a traditional one with the (usually red) hanbok, and a modern one with a white dress (which would horrify their ancestors!).

Essentially, in the Western world…

Yellow is optimistic

Yellow is the colour of the sun, and therefore becomes associated with optimism, joy, warmth and clarity. It also calls to mind gold and treasure, but also caution and safety. Of all colours, yellow perhaps stands out the most, and draws attention to itself effortlessly. Also, did you know that yellow can have negative connotations? It’s associated with illness, cowardice, and betrayal. So many meanings for one single colour!

McDonald’s golden arches are kid-friendly, fun. UPS’s brown and yellow is, however, dignified and sober. The National Geographic logo effortlessly draws the eye to its picture frame. CAT’s yellow signify caution and construction know-how.

Orange is courageous

Orange is creative, youthful, and enthusiastic. Buddhist monks wear that colour to convey trust, friendliness and amiability. Orange is kid-friendly, unafraid, and tough.

Hooters, while controversial with their dress code, is unapologetic about their identity. Firefox is friendly and bold in their endeavours. Harley-Davidson is tough and eternally youthful. Nickelodeon’s orange slime splatter is quintessential childhood.

Red is punchy

Red is a warm colour that is passionate, exciting, sexy and urgent. Research suggests that the colour itself raises blood pressure. It’s the colour of romance, roses and blood. Stop signs use red to convey urgency.

Red is used often in the entertainment industry (Youtube, Netflix, Nintendo) to allude to the excitement they provide to consumers. Retailers like K-Mart and Target also use red to draw attention to themselves, and also to compel people to buy, especially as they have made a name for themselves due to their frequent sales (urgency). Fast food joints and companies like Coca-Cola, KFC, Heinz, Dairy Queen, and Frito Lay use red for its welcoming allure. They are known in their advertising for their passion and positivity.

Purple is mystical

Purple was the colour that kings traditionally wore, and was indeed a very expensive dye to produce due to the rarity of its main ingredient. Purple has therefore come to represent opulence, mysticism, and regality. It activates the imagination and enthrals with “what if” vibes.

The Syfy channel is a prime example of harnessing the power of the colour purple: their television shows are strange, out of the ordinary, and spark the imagination with their glorious impossibilities. Barbie uses the colour purple to represent the exploration little girls go through as they play with the iconic doll. Cadbury is famous for its message that chocolate can make impossible things, possible… like a bunny laying chocolate eggs.

Blue is mighty

Blue is a calming colour. In 2009, blue lights were installed at the end of platforms on Tokyo’s Yamanote railway line to reduce the incidence of suicide. Myself, I can spend hours at a beach staring at the sky and the ocean. If I could, I would live by the sea with great bay windows to never miss a hint of its majesty and beauty. Indeed, blue conveys feelings of strength, dependability, trust and tranquility.

It’s no wonder companies like LinkedIn and Facebook use blue in their logos: the former wants to set itself apart from the latter as a social platform for serious professionals, and the latter wants to set itself apart from other social platforms as trustworthy and mighty… despite some recent serious privacy breaches (let’s not get into that can of worms, shall we?). Companies that produce products that people rely on everyday, like Oral-B, Pfizer, Dell, American Express, and more, use blue as a badge of dependability.

Green is peace

About 71% of Earth is covered in water, and yet there is much greenery here too. Green is serene, peaceful, and conveys the idea of growth and health. You may have noticed companies dealing with health or the the environment, or companies producing environmentally-friendly products, utilizing the colour to quickly portray just what their service or product is in a quick glance, such as Animal Planet and Whole Foods. Land Rover, BP and John Deere all use green to signify their ties with the environment too. Android and Spotify use green to convey growth and peace, respectfully.

Black and white are classic

Technically, black and white aren’t actually colours. On screens, black is the absence of colour and white is a combination of all colours, whereas in real life it’s the opposite. Many tend to say that black and white and other neutral hues of grey are boring, uninspired. That said, they can make for some striking logos. For 22 years, Apple’s iconic logo was rendered with bright rainbow colours. As an underdog, he wanted to stand out from the competition. A year after returning to Apple, however, he decided to remove all colours from their logo to accentuate their new modern and user-first direction, and hasn’t changed ever since.

Black is professional and credible, explaining Microsoft’s old logo colour and many publications’ colour choice for balance and simplicity, but it can feel edgy as well, like Puma and Nike’s logos. White is clean and pure. Grey too can play an important role, especially when shined to a silver finish like Apple’s current iteration. Many car companies, like Acura, Lexus, Nissan and Hyundai, use logos that feature shiny silver.

Conclusion

When choosing a colour to represent your brand, product or service, you can’t simply rely on personal taste, preferences and hunches. Careful thought must be put into deliberating the role of the colour in your company’s visual communication and the values it communicates to customers. Knowing the psychology of colour can help you and your company stand out in the crowded marketplace that globalization has brought about.

If you’d like some help in your colour marketing or logo-making decisions, drop me a line and I’ll work with you to pinpoint what your business needs.