What’s your favorite color?
Everyone can usually reel off an answer to that question without thinking. Humans are very visual creatures, so it’s no surprise that the role of color in branding has been looked at closely.
Below, we’ll be taking a look at how color psychology applies to advertising, and how you can make the most of it in your branding.
The color wheel and color psychology
The color wheel is the underpinning theory of color psychology.
Take a look at a color wheel and you’ll see the way colors compare and contrast. Colors on opposite sides of the wheel are called complementary colors.
Complementary color psychology goes a long way to showing marketers which color combinations to use. Graphic designers use these colors to highlight or create a backdrop against which a logo can stand out.
For a look at the pervasiveness of color theory, just head to the movies. There’s a huge trend in modern movies to color-grade toward complementary colors. Orange and blue are the two most likely candidates.
There’s a good reason for this. They simply look good together.
Designers apply the same color psychology to branding. This builds an eye-catching personality for each brand even beyond the design of a great logo.
Although guided by society and culture, color associations vary between individuals. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
However, trends feedback into these associations to build certain identities for particular colors.
These color identities only represent broad stereotypes and a starting point from which to build your brand.
More important is to build a sense of personality for your brand based on these colors. With a consistent identity, you can carefully control how customers feel about and respond to your brand.
With that in mind, let’s break down a few common associations by color.
The most strident color, red evokes strong feelings automatically. It’s no coincidence that red is associated with some of the most powerful human experiences; anger and passion, specifically.
Although brands aren’t usually aiming for anger, offsetting red with white text or white space creates a feeling of energy for the brand.
Red brands are intense and carry a certain ‘cool factor’. They’re vigorous and trendy.
Nintendo, YouTube, Netflix, LEGO, and Virgin are all great examples of brands that capture some or all of these traits.
Red also associates itself with food and appetite. KFC, McDonald’s, Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and Heinz are all great examples of these.
Orange isn’t an easy color to pin down in color psychology, but it breaks down into two broad categories.
Firstly, its most obvious association is the fruit with which it shares its name. Citrus orange branding appeals to a similar kind of color psychology as the appetite reds, going for a mouth-watering effect.
In a broader sense, orange also has a fairly neutral-but-friendly connotation, used by companies who want to appear approachable without the intensity of strong reds. Amazon, Blogger, and Nickelodeon all make use of this identity, as does, obviously, the Orange telecoms company.
Yellow has a workhorse connotation, used frequently by construction companies and other dependable services. CAT, Yellow Pages, Shell, DHL, and UPS are all good examples of this kind of personality branding.
Yellow has a more subtle use, as well. Yellow is often used as a contrast color, chosen to make text or a logo pop against a stronger brand color. McDonald’s, IKEA, and DHL all adopt this system.
As a very bright color, yellow needs to be carefully deployed to prevent it disappearing into white backgrounds. It’ll need a strong border or a background on other colors to keep it looking strong.
Green has a branding identity that’s by far the easiest to pin down and is consistently used to mean health, nature, and growth.
Green is often used to indicate all-natural ingredients in foodstuffs. It’s also used by brands trying to associate themselves with more genuine health foods. Think of the processed ‘breakfast bars’ in cereal aisles. Most of them contain huge amounts of added sugar and are far from healthy.
Another strong example of this is Coca-Cola Life. Compared to the (red, intense) usual branding of Coca-Cola, Life presents itself as a natural and healthy alternative.
BP’s Helios logo uses similar connotations. In this case, it symbolizes the sun while also evoking the imagery of a flower. BP’s branding actually contrasts with associations people make with a petrochemical company, helping to soften their image.
Green also has an association with tranquility, so you’ll see it used in certain brands that otherwise don’t have anything to do with nature or the environment, such as Holiday Inn.
Blue has a pretty strong color identity. Relaxing, calming, blue tends to invoke trust and professionalism.
As a cooly professional color, blue sees use in Facebook, American Express, Bank of America, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Ford. Less playful than other colors, it helps to express an adult, dependable quality.
Blue may be a poor choice for a company trying to appear young and hip, but it’s a great choice for something with a little prestige.
In modern times, blue has taken on a secondary association with technology. Just take a look at the sheer amount of techy organizations with a fondness for blue: Siemens, Phillips, IBM, Intel, Samsung, HP, NASA, DELL, Skype, EA, Ford, and Mazda, the list goes on.
Historically associated with royalty, purple still carries some of the same connotations in branding. Companies playing to royal elements in their name may choose to use purple branding.
However, purple remains quite a minority color for branding choices. As we discuss below, it’s not a color that speaks to men, so this might be some of the reason.
Those brands which do use purple are actually quite diverse, with little to associate them. Of these, candy manufacturers such as Cadbury’s are the most unified, using purple to express the richness and luxury of their goods
White, black, and gray
White, black, and gray have their own connotations, despite sitting outside the color spectrum.
Associated with balance and neutrality, logos featuring white and gray tones are often invoking a sense of balance. Wikipedia’s globe logo is a great example of this.
Stark black logos have some interesting connotations. Taken in isolation, black indicates formality or prestige.
However, black is used by many long-standing companies, so it can be taken as a confidence in the brand. You could say they have so much confidence in the brand that they actually eschew normal psychology! These companies aim for a lack of pretension in their branding. It’s a great example of playing off brand equity.
Adidas, Disney, WWF, and Nike are all great examples of this kind of plain-spoken approach.
Some companies specifically make use of a combo of colors, up to and including the full spectrum.
Using multiple colors evokes diversity. Google uses to this suggest that its results encompass the whole web and that the brand is available to everyone. Windows takes a similar approach, as does eBay. These three companies all have a sense of universality in common. They’re seen as the product in their particular fields. They’re also very wide-reaching brands.
You’ll often find multi-colored branding paired with irregular shapes in a logo. Together they communicate a casual inclusiveness.
The most visible example of the full spectrum outside of business is the LGBT Pride flag, which again invokes the idea of diversity.
Multi-colored logos should be avoided by companies looking for a serious or professional image, however.
Men and women
But here comes another wrinkle: men and women are actually affected differently by color psychology! They may even see color differently.
Granted, these differences are themselves affected by culture, but there are clear preferences shown by each gender.
Interestingly, responsiveness to blue is huge with both genders in Western societies.
Purple represents the biggest disparity, being much more favored by women than men.
Brown is one of the least favorite colors for both groups. Purple ranks highly for least favorite among men, with orange another disliked color for both. The biggest disparity here is for gray, which men look upon more favorably than women.
Men also have a tendency to prefer bolder colors, while women tend to prefer softer colors.
Taking the gender differences into account is an important consideration when it comes to marketing and branding. After all, if your product is particularly targeted toward men, it might not be a good idea to use purple, which almost no men consider their favorite color.
Smart use of color can even help communicate your target audience. This allows the customer to find the right product at a glance. Children’s toys coded in blue and pink are a super common example of this.
Building a strong identity
If there’s one rule that stands above all others in marketing color psychology, it’s consistency.
A strong brand identity is created by choosing a very specific color palette and sticking to it. You wouldn’t change your company name on every platform and expect to be remembered, would you?
And yet colors actually do more to identify a brand than a brand name.
That’s why you need to ensure that your color identity remains consistent across Facebook, Twitter, your website, and any physical branding or advertising you might have.
Alongside everything we’ve said about color psychology, the single most important aspect of branding is that your color choices mean you in a customer’s mind.
When it comes to social media in particular, this extends beyond your logo and into your choice of banner ads and other content. Find images that work with your company colors to create a unifying theme and build your brand.
But to take your identity to the next level, your branding needs to say something about your company. Take a look at the personality profiles of the colors above. Although opinions may differ on what each color ‘means’, their use does not.
You want to stand out from your competitors, but you don’t want to obscure the purpose of your brand. Choose colors which fit the psychological profile of your company so that your customers will know what to expect.
There are advanced tricks to be had in color psychology. However, these often rely on the size and household name of the brand to prevent self-sabotage.
The isolation effect
The isolation effect suggests that objects standing apart from others are more likely to be seen or valued.
This works just as well in color psychology. You can employ it to boost the effect of calls to action on your page by highlighting a subscribe or download button in a color which contrasts with your chosen theme.
Although theories about the ‘best’ color palette for conversion have largely been debunked, the isolation effect has been studied and tested with strong results.
Choosing a subscribe or download button in a color contrasting with the rest of your color brand can make it uniquely visible. The eye of your customers will be drawn to the button that stands out.
Using this technique, you can ‘shepherd’ the attention of your customers toward certain actions. This does a lot to boost conversions. You can capture engaged customers rather than casual visitors.
A word on mascots
Color psychology doesn’t apply any less to mascots that accompany your logo and your brand.
Ronald McDonald, for instance, is decked out in the McDonald’s colors. Others, like Mozilla Firefox’s fox, add a complementary counterpoint to the logo. This makes it so they stand out against your primary company colors.
Whatever approach you choose, be sure that you’re deploying color psychology effectively. If your mascot isn’t consistent with the color psychology of your brand, the whole thing will fall apart.
The takeaway from all this is to be sure your colors fit the personality of your brand. Although colors mean different things to different people, they’ve built up a catalog of associations in branding that you can’t afford to ignore. It might even be the number 1 area you need to focus on in your branding!
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