Consider a red can of cola; blue striped capital letters, a black apple, and yellow arches –what brands come to mind? In each instance, color is the predominate element of identification and association with a brand. Color enables us to instantly recognize and draw emotional associations to a brand.
Effective and comprehensive brand strategy must consider the critical importance of color. Color is far more than a simple aesthetic consideration in the tool kit of components that make up brand identity and experience. Color is the very first perception customers will have with your brand, and along with perception comes a whole host of emotional associations.
The color of your brand is an essential character in your brand’s story. When choosing a color to represent your brand, you must think far beyond your personal, subjective preferences.
Color And The Brain
Visual perception is the primary sense humans have for exploring and making sense of their environment. Colors trigger a diverse set of responses within the cerebral cortex of the brain and throughout the central nervous system. The proper perception of color has been one of the key drivers of human evolution. If color is that important to human evolution, just think how important it is to building the value of your brand.
Once we humans identify a color, we instantly have a chemical reaction in our brain that produces an emotional response. This response triggers a multitude of thoughts, memories and associations to people, places and events. Color affects us in profound ways. Our brains are designed to respond to color. This all happens instantly under our conscious awareness.
We all know color is nothing more than the reflection of certain light waves picked up by your optic nerve, transmitted through nerves to your brain. Color doesn’t really exist; it’s only its reflection. Within our conscious minds, we have all been predisposed and indoctrinated to give meanings and feelings to particular colors within the context of what the culture at large values. These cultural associations to specific colors need to be a big driver of your strategic and creative decisions when forming the foundation of your brand’s identity in the marketplace.
Within the spectrum of visible light, there is a physiological effect. Colors with long wavelengths (red for example) illicit the faster recognition response in the brain. While colors with shorter wavelengths (blue) are more soothing and can actually lower pulse, respiration and blood pressure. It’s no accident that an insurance brand like Progressive would have blue as the primary color it its visual identity system.
The same is true for other colors in the spectrum. Yellow is a middle wavelength color detected by the eye. Consequently yellow, because it is the brightest, commands attention more easily. This is why yellow is used in road signs and the Yellow Pages. Yellow is about attention, even caution, while red powerfully represents sex and seduction.
Colors Convey A Mood And Defined Emotional State
Colors affect us in many different ways but all colors create a specific frame of mind for people–it’s called a mood. Having people be in the most receptive mood is essential for their engagement with your brand. Color sets the mood of brand expression, and more importantly, creates mental associations to the meaning of your brand within the context of the world it lives in.
John Deere owns green which means tractor. IBM has a royal blue, which means stability and reliability. Fed Ex chose two clashing colors (orange and purple) which means something important has dependably been delivered to you worthy of your attention–and your signature.
Color And Visual Identity
Color is foundational to the visual identity of your brand in all its expressions and executions–logos, packaging, products, environments and all forms of marketing communications. UPS built their whole brand story around the proposition “what can brown do for you?” Apple transformed how we think of desktop computers through the creative use of color.
It’s amazing when you look back at the profound impact this simple little innovation had in building the foundation of what Apple has become today. For strong ,well managed brands, color is more than a subjective choice–it’s a strategic business imperative.
Selecting The Right Color For Your Brand
To convey a simple idea of meaning and differentiation requires you select a color that properly fits your strategic positioning. Selecting a color (and color scheme) for your brand must represent the audience emotional associations and desires, and the value proposition or promise your brand brings to those desires.
Selecting the appropriate color to represent and differentiate your brand must be based on several criteria. Here are three of the most important:
The Target Audience
Who are those people, what do they care about, what mood do they need to be in to engage with your brand? Different consumers are affected by color in different ways and cultural trends are always in transition. What color best anchors the meaning of your value to your audience and distinguishes your brand from the competition in the category?
The Brand Archetype
If you have determined the appropriate archetype for your brand, what color best represents the attributes of the archetype? For example, if your brand archetype is the Explorer, you probably will consider colors that represent the outdoors or anything that is associated with the persona of that archetype. Red probably would not be a wise choice.
Color means different things to people in different parts of the world, in different cultures. In the US, white represents purity, while in some regions of Asia it is the color of mourning. Color perceptions and meanings change with race, age, social class, gender and religion. The demographics and psychographics that are most dominate in the culture will be an important consideration in selecting the color that represents your brand in markets the brand serves.
The Bottom Line
Selecting colors to represent your brand should never be an exercise in trendiness, or coolness, driven by the whims of your ad agency creative director or the personal taste of the CEO’s spouse. Properly chosen colors define your brand’s value, strengthen and support your brand positioning, enable greater awareness and customer recall, and distinguish your brand among its alternatives. Picking the right color should never be underestimated.
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July 9, 2013 at 6:34 pm
I was completely captivated by this article until your comment about the yellow pages.
You could not find anyone who agrees more with you on the importance of color in branding. Oh my goodness. Tomes can be written about this. You are right: it’s the first thing your eye sees. Color, then shape, then image, then text. That’s kinda how it works, but in milliseconds, of course. And color can totally alter mood and brain chemistry – those of us in love with and awe of its power hold this as a fundamental truth.
But the power of yellow is NOT leveraged by the Yellow Pages. How is that possible? How does the yellow of the pages allow anything to jump out? Yellow road signs, on the other hand, work so well because of the sky or the trees behind them. Yellow needs a darker partner.
Green does not mean tractor if you happen to be a Case customer. Then it’s red. And even if it did mean tractor, you’re confusing semantics with emotional appeal.
Color is complicated.
Interesting that you compare Apple to UPS. UPS uses brown as a functional differentiator, not an emotional one. For emotional impact, it personifies the word ‘brown’ when it asks, What can Brown do for you today?” Without those words, brown would just suck.
Apple started out using all the colors in the spectrum by choosing a rainbow-colored symbol. Was it strategic prescience, or did it just become strategically significant after Apple’s undisputed success? The first twenty years were pretty bumpy.
Such an interesting topic, but so little understood. And I mean by everyone, including myself.
July 10, 2013 at 4:55 am
The article and the comment from Will are great. For my take I advise clients to treat color as a differentiating strategy first. In other words “own the color” much like UPS does its world. I cannot agree with you Will, that UPS brown would suck if not for its slogan. In the courier world where everyone is all bright colors, brown differentiates. They own brown. Ask anyone on the street – what company is brown” and they will say UPS.
Mind you once the differentiating color is chosen, then psychological and emotional touch-points are also entertained to be sure it doesn’t conflict with the brand’s character.
Color is so powerful, yet most brands spend more time on slogans for some reason. 🙂
February 1, 2017 at 7:48 am
Ed, I agree about UPS brown. The slogan, “What can brown do for you?” didn’t come along until years after UPS went into business and took control of brown. They became brown before they really had any slogan as I recall.
July 10, 2013 at 11:13 am
@will @ ed–
Thank you for reading and sharing your comments here. I hope you both felt I gave this topic justice considering volumes have been written on the subject. You both bring up some interesting points about this idea. Yet many marketers don’t really give the selection of color the deep consideration it deserves. It’s my view that color in brand strategy should never be subjective and arbitrary. I agree with Ed, most are more concerned with slogans.
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