Experts discussing color choice in branding will inevitably seek to justify a truism you intuitively already know — that color is important in marketing. They cite statistics and percentages, show charts and graphs and make various claims about just how much color choice can affect success. Consider these tidbits compiled by Jill Morton at Colorcom:
- 84.7% say color alone is more than half the reason they choose one product over another (research conducted by the secretariat of the Seoul International Colour Expo).
- Between 62% and 90% of the important first impression of a product is based on color (CCI Color Institute of Color Research).
- Ads in color are read up to 42% more than the same ads in black and white (Jan V. White, Color For Impact).
Color is clearly important, but there are a lot of options. How do you choose which colors are right for your brand?
The Basics of Color
Colors may be either warm (red, orange, yellow) or cool (blue, green, violet). In broad terms, warm colors evoke energy and excitement while cool colors are calming. All colors are made up of different combinations of the three primary colors: red, blue and yellow, or, with some kinds of printing, four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
Primary colors (red, yellow, blue) combine in pairs to make secondary colors (red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green), and mixing primary and secondary colors make the six tertiary colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet). The farther apart on the color wheel, the more two colors will contrast with each other, and opposites on the wheel (as far apart as they can get) are called complementary colors. Colors next to each other on the color wheel have low contrast with each other and are called analogous colors.
Adding white to a color makes lighter versions of that color described as tints. Adding black to a color makes darker versions of that color, which are called shades. The color wheel is the best way to visualize it all:
Color Evokes Certain Feelings & Emotions
There are numerous studies and lists out there that will give you an idea of what feelings, emotions and messages are generally evoked by what colors. Here’s an example:
Color Association In Branding
In addition to the generally accepted linking of certain emotions and ideas with color, some colors are also associated with specific types of products and services. Red will forever be linked with foods and beverages thanks to Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s and Nabisco, while green will remain popular in the health food industry, bringing to mind well-known brands like Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, Kashi and Healthy Choice. When surveying the competition, you will often find an established color norm into which you may, or may not, want to place your brand identity.
Sometimes you might want to differentiate your brand from others in your category, but striking out on your own in terms of color palette can also have a downside, especially when your brand’s category has a strong market leader already firmly implanted in consumers’ minds. Most of the time, if customers expect luxury products to use black or banks to use blues, then there’s value in grabbing on to that preexisting associative power.
How Color Variances Can Change the Tone of a Brand
If color speaks to consumers, it’s important to remember that the vocabulary is vast. There is not just one shade of red. You could have a cooler red or a warmer red. Purple can tip toward either the blue or the red side. Colors can be strong and vibrant, or muted pastels with white mixed in. All of these things will change the voice of the color, making it louder or softer, changing the way it’s perceived and affecting what it “says” to the viewer.
That’s just one of the reasons you should avoid relying solely on overly simplistic thinking and charts (yep, like the one we just showed you). Charts and lists will suggest a particular color family aligns with a particular emotion or connotation, but it’s not that simple.
Red can be exciting and vibrant when used by Netflix and Virgin and also appetizing when used by Lays and Dairy Queen. Blue shows up conveying strength and stability for JPMorgan and Lowes, but also works to suggest playfulness for Twitter and high-tech brilliance for IBM and Intel. You’ll notice our chart has some of the same descriptors listed under different colors. Orange, yellow and green, for example, can all denote youthful energy.
Besides, as with all perceptions, the eye of the beholder may vary according to both personal and cultural background — gender, age, geographical region — you name it. Joe Hallock’s research reveals all kinds of variations depending on gender and age and discusses fascinating differences based on culture, noting that some languages don’t even have specific words for green, blue, yellow or orange.
Hallock finds that among study participants blue was most often chosen as the favorite color, but men are more likely than women to prefer blue (57% as opposed to 37%), and men were more fond of grey (3% to 1%) and significantly less attracted to purple. In fact, 23% of women chose purple as their favorite color, whereas nearly the same percentage of men (22%) described it as their least favorite.
Other Considerations: Color Combinations, Contrasts, Accessibility & More
The way you combine colors also matters — maybe even more than the colors themselves. A strong visual contrast in your branding, ad or website may have much more to do with whether or not something is noticed and acted upon than whether or not that contrast is between dark red and light yellow or between blue and orange. Context matters. Implementation matters. Strategy matters. Yes, color must be part of that strategy — just not in a simple “red-means-excitement” kind of way.
Furthermore, some percentage of your target audience won’t even see some of the colors you’re putting out there. Color blindness is common, especially among men (1 in 12 men versus 1 in 200 women). If you want to get an idea of how an image, logo or ad will look to this 4.5% of the population, you can use tools like a color blindness simulator, and there’s even an extension you can add to Chrome that lets you turn on a color blindness filter to simulate various forms of the condition.
Designing for accessibility is best, not just because it’s good to be inclusive, but because you want your message to reach the maximum number of people with the greatest possible effectiveness. Check out this article from Smashing Magazine for a more thorough discussion of color blindness and ways to design for better readability, including color combinations to avoid. The upshot, though, is that you can’t rely solely on color to carry your message. It’s just an important part of the bigger picture.
What does all this mean in practice? Well, first you figure out what you want your brand to say, and to whom. An oft-cited study conducted by psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker titled “Dimensions of Brand Personality” maps out five core aspects of a brand: Sincerity. Excitement. Competence. Sophistication. Ruggedness. Note that there can be overlap between these broad categories of associations. Like people, brands can have personalities that check more than one box on a list of traits.
Final Thoughts About Color Theory
So now you’ve thought about your brand’s persona and you’ve nailed down the messages you’re trying to convey. You’ve identified and researched your target audience, so you know who will be receiving your messages. You’re armed with the knowledge of basic color theory and a more nuanced understanding of how color speaks to people. After all this, you’re finally ready to choose your colors.
For all the reasons covered above, color is crucial, but has to work together with other facets of the branding and messaging — things like typography, font choices, imagery, iconography and copywriting. Color can’t be relied upon to do all the messaging work. Some people can’t see all of the colors, and not everyone has the same cultural associations. But the power of color can’t be ignored.
Hopefully, this overview helps you start thinking about color choice in branding and marketing. It should be clear by now that working with color in marketing is complicated. Always consider consulting the experts — like the team at Fridge — when you set out to create or optimize your brand’s color story and put it to work for you across different media platforms.
Anna Schiff, Deputy Director of Design