The Role of Colour Theory in Branding

Colour Theory

The human brain processes interactions with a product or brand extremely quickly; within 90 seconds we have already decided whether we like or dislike a brand and a large percentage (between 62%-90%) of our cognitive reasoning behind liking or disliking a brand is based on colour.

The importance of choosing the most appropriate colour for your brand is therefore of huge importance in not only capturing the attention of prospective customers, but also persuading them that they need or want to use your product or service.

Unfortunately for designers and marketers, choosing a colour scheme for your brand is about as tricky as it is important. There is no universal meaning behind any colour and there are a huge amount of factors that can affect emotional colour perception, such as experiences, upbringing and personal preference. These factors are almost impossible to design for, but with a bit of research into your customer demographic preferences you stand more chance of attracting business.

6 key areas to focus on when researching your target clientele and choosing a brand colour are:

  1. Age

Our colour preferences change over the course of our lives. Faber Birren, an early practitioner in the colour industry and author of Color Psychology and Color Therapy stated, “With maturity comes a greater liking for hues of shorter wave length (blue, green, purple) than for hues of longer wave length (red, orange, and yellow).”

As well as this, it has also been noted in a study by Marcel Zentner that “adults mapped emotion to colour differently from children. The adults were very consistent in their choices of color to associate with emotion: Happy was yellow, Sad was black, and Angry was red. Children, by contrast, chose a range of colours to associate with each emotion.”

If your product or service has a clear target age, considering changes in colour preference and perception is key.

  1. Gender

It probably isn’t a surprise that colour preferences and interpretations vary by gender. In a 2003 study by Joe Hallock on Colour Assignment, 232 men and women from 22 different countries stated their favourite colours. It seems that, on the whole, men and women do share a lot of the same preferences; however, there is a huge difference in how many men and women chose purple as their favourite, with 0% of men and 23% of women choosing it.

Favourite colour chart

This may be part of the reason why many traditionally female-orientated businesses – for example, those servicing the beauty industry – are often branded with pinks and purples. The difference in preference is not maybe as vast as you’d expect; however, there are some clear taste differences that cannot be ignored, especially when branding a service with a significant gender-bias.

  1. Culture

Cultural influences and upbringing are two of the biggest contributors to the perception of colour meanings and our ‘learnt’ emotional connections to them. Blue is globally seen as the safest colour. In western cultures it is seen to represent trust, security and authority.

According to an article by Shutterstock: “In some countries, blue symbolizes healing and evil repellence. Blue eye-shaped amulets, believed to protect against the evil eye, are common sights in Turkey, Greece, Iran, Afghanistan, and Albania. In Eastern cultures, blue symbolizes immortality, while in the Ukraine, it denotes good health. In Hinduism, blue is strongly associated with Krishna, who embodies love and divine joy.”

The meaning of blue in colour theory

However, there are many colours with quite opposing connotations across the world, some examples of which are white, green and red.

White in western culture is seen as a pure, elegant and clean; used for weddings and christenings and also associated with angels in many cultures. In a number of Asian cultures white is seen as quite the opposite, representing mourning and bad luck and is traditionally worn at funerals.

Green can represent luck, nature and wealth but also inexperience and jealousy.

Again, according to Shutterstock: “In Indonesia, green has traditionally been forbidden, whereas in Mexico, it’s a national color that stands for independence. In fact, in China, green hats for men are taboo because it signals that their wives have committed adultery!”

And it appears red is one of the most diverse colours in terms of global meaning…

“Red symbolizes excitement, energy, passion, action, love, and danger in Western cultures. It’s also associated with communism and revolution in countries like Russia. In Asian cultures, red is a very important color — it symbolizes good luck, joy, prosperity, celebration, happiness, and a long life. Because it’s such an auspicious color, brides often wear red on their wedding day, and red envelopes containing money are given out during holidays and special occasions.

“In India, red is associated with purity, sensuality, and spirituality. On the other hand, some countries in Africa associate red with death, and in Nigeria, it represents aggression and vitality. It’s considered a lucky charm in Egypt, and symbolizes good fortune and courage in Iran.”

The meaning of red in colour theory

As companies become more global it’s important to consider these factors, taking into account that using the wrong colour could immediately put a large chunk of the global market off your brand.

  1. Perceived appropriateness and context

Sometimes it can be important to make sure you are sticking to classically used industry colours, as customers can view some colours as being inappropriate for certain sectors, making them view you as less credible.

As we mentioned earlier purples and pinks are generally more associated with women, so are often used in branding for businesses with a predominantly female customer base; not necessarily because these are women’s favourite colours, but because people are used to seeing these types of colours associated with female targeted brands. In some cases this can help coerce customers into making a snap judgement that this is a brand aimed at them.

There is no particular set of designated colours per sector, but there are clear patterns between the types of colours used. For example in the automotive industry there are a few colour variations used, but in general most brands go for deep blues, bright reds, blacks and silver. These are all commanding colours with a strong presence and relatively strong intensity. If you used a pastel pink to brand an automotive brand like these it’s unlikely that it would be deemed appropriate and therefore might lack credibility.

Car manufacturer logos

However, it’s important not to forget that breaking the mould can also make your brand stand out from the crowd. Using a colour scheme that differentiates from the competition is a good way of attracting attention, especially for brands that are likely to be compared with their competitors before customers make a choice to use them.

  1. Colour variations

Colours are often referred to in terms of their purest form when examining their perceived meanings, for example, red is anger or romance. The average human eye can see around 10 million colours, so it is worth mentioning that each of the basic colours has numerous variation possibilities, each with their own potentially differing perceived meanings.

An example of this would be the varying greens used by Spotify and Starbucks…

Spotify & Starbucks logos

“Spotify wanted their logo to reflect the vibrancy of their industry – the neon green chosen as part of their recent redesign now pops, communicating the fresh and modern music Spotify releases daily. While Starbuck’s green is intended to promote international peace, not to mention stability and consistency in their product.” – Fat Rabbit Creative

The deep Starbucks green is also used to create a sense of calm, allowing people to take time out of their busy days to sit down for a coffee break.

Evidently – considering one green can say innovation and vibrancy, whereas another can be used to reflect a sense of peace and relaxation – choosing the wrong colour brightness or intensity has the potential to significantly affect the perceived meaning behind your branding.

  1. Colour combinations

When thinking about colour meanings it should also be noted that colour combinations can affect the individual colour meanings. In fact, when placed next to a variety of colours, one colour can be perceived as a completely different shade.

Josef Albers writes about many studies of how colours behave when placed alongside each other in his book, Interaction of Colour. In the below study he points out that the two small orange squares are exactly the same colour yet “no normal human eye is able to see both squares-alike.”

Colour sample combinations

The take away from this being that as well as making sure the individual colours are appropriate for the brand, it goes without saying that they also need to work together effectively to create the desired perception of the brand.

So what have we learnt? Essentially that there are no easy answers when it comes to choosing brand colour schemes and there certainly is no set of definitive rules you can follow; however, by analysing your target audience in as much detail as possible, and considering their generalised preferences and perceptions, you should be able to get pretty close for the majority of your audience.

References & Further Reading