choosing brand colors, color palettes

You want people to notice your brand, remember it, and eventually like it, right?

To achieve this you need to get inside the head of your potential clients. That’s why you need to know how colors affect people’s emotions and judgments and how to use that to make them like your brand.

However, a substantial part of the information you’ll find online is based on misconceptions and pop-science myths.

So, is orange friendly or purple creative? And what does it all have to do with your logo?

Psychology of Colors: The Real Facts

It’s obvious that colors are important to us. Every culture and religion has definite ideas about the application of color and uses it to differentiate and imply meanings to things. For instance, religious and governmental bodies use color to denote power and social roles 1.

To understand how colors influence us, first, we need to understand the underlying mechanisms.

How do colors affect our mind?

Scientists identify two different pathways of influence of colors: Referential and Embodied Meaning.

Adapted from The marketers’ prismatic palette: A review of color research and future directions 2.

Embodied Meaning (P1) is driven by properties embodied in the colors that are independent of the context. For instance, research shows that longer wavelengths, like red, are more arousing than shorter wavelengths, like blue, and produce automatic physiological responses, such as increased brain activity and heart rate3.

While the Referential Meaning (P2a) is driven by the context. This path uses the associations you make when you see the color and the specific context in which the color is used.

Color Associations

If I give you a green beverage, you’ll expect it to have kiwi, not strawberry taste, right?

Color associations are extremely powerful. They are formed from our experience.

In fact, there is one very interesting example of how learned associations can affect people’s perception of a product and lead to a brand’s failure. Have you ever heard about Crystal Pepsi?

Crystal Pepsi was released in the early 90s. At that time other brands had successfully used this strategy to make a well-known product in a “clear”, transparent version.

So that’s what Pepsi did as well. Crystal Pepsi preserved all the properties of the original beverage, even the taste was identical. And according to the research, this was their major mistake.

“Consumers expected a clear cola to have a lighter, cleaner flavor with fewer calories. However, upon tasting Crystal Pepsi, consumers’ expectations were disconfirmed: They got the original Pepsi Cola strength of taste rendered unpalatable by a mere change of color!”4

Crystal Pepsi Cola
Source: PepsiCo

In 2018, Coca-Cola launched their “clear” version in Japan. But they learned from the mistakes of their competition, so their product is sugar-free and has a lighter flavour.

Coca-Cola have tested over 50 different flavors until they finally chose the lemon flavor.

There are many studies showing that colors can manipulate our senses.

Did you know that the color of the cup you are drinking from can make you think that the beverage is warmer or colder? A recent study found that a red cup can make you think that the coffee is warmer. 5 While drinking a cold beverage from a blue glass is more thirst-quenching than drinking from a red, yellow or green glass.6

In my early years as a psychology student, I was quite fascinated by colors. In fact, my first scientific experiment was related to color psychology.

I was investigating the influence of red on intellectual performance. In brief, some studies suggest that red color can decrease intellectual performance. Red is often associated with warning and danger (e.g. traffic lights, warning signals) which triggers avoidance behavior and provokes negative reactions, like increasing your anxiety. So those negative reactions are expected to negatively influence your intellectual performance. There’s a study showing that people who viewed a page with red text at the beginning of the test solved fewer items correctly7. That’s what I decided to test.

Sounds interesting, right? However, the results from my own experiments did not confirm these findings. The people who viewed the red color didn’t perform worse or better. This doesn’t mean that the effect doesn’t exist. But it means that we should at least question it.

I am telling you this story to demonstrate that even for scientists the influence of colors is still foggy.

Let’s leave aside the individual colors and see what factors can change the way we interpret colors overall.

Culture influences color perception

Culture is a huge factor in color perception. One of the most conspicuous examples is the perception of death.

In Western societies black is the color of death. While in many Asian countries death is represented in white color.

There are cultural color differences even in marketing. For instance, in Japan brands use soft gray hues for the packaging of products that are produced in their own country, brighter colors are reserved for packages representing products from foreign countries.

Color meaning is situational

So, if you live in a Western country, black is used for funerals. But a funeral is not what comes to your mind when you see a beautiful woman in a black cocktail dress.

The meaning of the color depends on the context.

Another interesting factor is that the meaning can dramatically change over time.

Color Meaning changes over time

“Blue is for boys and pink is for girls” – right?

Well, in the past it was quite the opposite in some countries.

In an interview for Business Insider, Gavin Evans, the color expert and author of The Story of Colour: An Exploration of the Hidden Messages of the Spectrum, says:

Blue in parts of Europe, at least, had long been associated as a feminine color because of the supposed color of the Virgin Mary’s outfit.

Pink was seen as a kind of boyish version of the masculine color red. So it gradually started to change however in the mid-20th Century and eventually by about 1950, there was a huge advertising campaign by several advertising agencies pushing pink as an exclusively feminine color and the change came very quickly at that point.”

Hot coffee, clear cola, boys in pink… Do all these things tell us something about the influence of colors in branding?

colors and branding

Colors are important. But their meaning could be much more complicated than popsci notions like “purple means creativity”.

Here are four factors that you really should take into account when you choose your brand colors.

#1: Your industry

You should follow the color rules defined in your industry.

As you see, if you are in the food industry you should follow very strict rules on how to use colors. There are similar rules in cosmetics as well. You can’t just put a minty shampoo in a pink bottle, because the pink bottle suggest a floral or candy sent, not mint.

But what about other industries like digital marketing or blogging where there are no such century-old rules? Then you should focus on the second factor.

#2: Your competition

When we talk about branding the first thing that comes to your mind is Coca-Cola and their emblematic red logo.

But have you ever noticed that Pepsi use a blue, bold, sans-serif font – exactly the opposite of Coca-Cola’s logo? Why?

Because the main goal of Pepsi was to differentiate their brand from their competition.

In fact, differentiation is one of the factors that researchers believe is most important for a successful brand. 8

#3: Where your business operates

As we discussed, the meaning of colors is culture-dependent. For instance, if your business operates in Japan you should be very careful with the bright colors, but if you are building a business in the US, for example, bright colors can be more than necessary.

So, research the color traditions in your country before you choose your brand colors.

#4: Your visual marketing strategy

Like it or not, business depends on social media. So the question of how and where to use your brand is way beyond choosing a logo, packaging and occasional brochures for events.

In social media you have to brand content every day.

And you need more than one or two colors to make your brand recognizable. Especially if you decide to spice up your brand with a brand character (a mascot) or custom illustrations.

Planning your visual content strategy beforehand will help you to identify how many and what type of colors you need. As Endeavor Creative say, you should choose functional contrasting colors that work well together. Check out their guide on how to choose the right color palette for your brand.

Conclusion

So, what have we learned about colors? Colors can influence our senses. They can make us believe something is colder or warmer. But when it comes to branding there are other much more important rules to follow:

  1. Take into account the color rules in your industry (especially for the food and cosmetic industries).
  2. Learn about the color traditions of the country in which your business operates.
  3. Visually differentiate your brand from the competition.
  4. Plan your visual content strategy beforehand.

If you want to learn more about how to build a distinctive brand, sign up for our free personalized course:

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Notes

  1. Labrecque, L. I., Patrick, V. M., & Milne, G. R. (2013). The marketers’ prismatic palette: A review of color research and future directions. Psychology & Marketing, 30(2), 187-202.
  2. Labrecque, L. I., Patrick, V. M., & Milne, G. R. (2013). The marketers’ prismatic palette: A review of color research and future directions. Psychology & Marketing, 30(2), 187-202.
  3. Crowley, A. E. (1993). The two-dimensional impact of color on shopping. Marketing letters, 4(1), 59-69.
  4. Garber Jr, L. L., & Hyatt, E. M. (2003). Color as a tool for visual persuasion. In Persuasive imagery (pp. 319-342). Routledge.
  5. Guéguen, N., & Jacob, C. (2014). Coffee cup color and evaluation of a beverage’s “warmth quality”. Color Research & Application, 39(1), 79-81.
  6. Guéguen, N. (2003). The effect of glass colour on the evaluation of a beverage’s thirst-quenching quality. Current psychology letters. Behaviour, brain & cognition, (11, Vol. 2, 2003).
  7. Maier, M. A., Elliot, A. J., & Lichtenfeld, S. (2008). Mediation of the negative effect of red on intellectual performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(11), 1530-1540.
  8. Labrecque, L. I., Patrick, V. M., & Milne, G. R. (2013). The marketers’ prismatic palette: A review of color research and future directions. Psychology & Marketing, 30(2), 187-202.

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