What do the colours in your brand say about your business?

A couple of years ago public opinion in the UK was split down the middle on a highly contentious issue. It confused and polarised people as they tried to understand what on earth those in the other camp were thinking.

No, it’s not Brexit. Go back a year. I’m talking about ‘The dress’. If you somehow missed it, ‘The dress’ was an eBay photo that went viral due to a peculiar quirk of lighting. Depending on the person looking at it, the stripy dress could appear as blue and black, or white and gold.

What this tells us is that people become very annoyed and vocal about apparently trivial arguments. But it also shows that people have strong opinions about what they’re looking at. When you’re deciding on the visual elements of your branding, that’s not trivial at all.

Colours and moods

There have been countless studies into the associations and effects of different colours – in fact colours have long been associated with moods – we see red, we feel blue, we go white with fear or turn green with envy.

What colours mean to us is subjective – while purple may suggest royalty and wealth, in Brazil and Thailand it’s the colour of mourning – but there’s also an important distinction between ‘associations’ and ‘effects’. If blue makes us think of calm blue seas, then that’s an association. If it actually makes us feel calmer, that’s an effect. The first is probably a fair assumption, but the second is much harder to prove.

When we look at colours in the psychology of branding there are two strands. First, there’s the pursuit of trying to make a customer feel a particular emotion. Secondly, there’s a more practical angle concerned with brand recognition. You’ll see lots of marketing blogs that give you a rundown of colours and their special powers. They read a little like horoscopes, but here are the general themes.

Red – associated with danger, passion, excitement and energy. In branding terms, it packs a powerful punch and signifies strength, confidence and power.

Orange – can be fresh, youthful, vibrant and creative. It’s a good choice for brands that want to tap into a spirit of adventure or show an energetic and lively side.

Yellow – communicates joy, energy and a certain clarity of thought. It’s a bold choice but one that’s easy to get wrong – use it carefully to avoid your brand looking cheap or down-market.

Green – symbolises growth, life and sustainability. In the US it’s also the ‘colour of money’ so it’s often used for financial institutions or large, corporate organisations.

Blue – is calming, reliable, harmonious and widely adopted by companies that want to express authority and status. You’ll see lots of blue in social media.

Pink – comes across as confident, fresh, exciting and modern. Long used for products or services aimed at women or little girls, today, pink is being adopted far more widely. Depending on the shade it can be anything from sweet to sexy.

Purple – Often associated with royalty it can give your brand a rich, luxurious yet nostalgic feel.

Black – asks to be taken seriously and suggests exclusivity. It’s another bold move though and it demands careful use, or you run the risk of your brand looking too gloomy.

White – signifies purity, simplicity and freedom.

How far do people actually react to colour?

Whether you agree or disagree with these associations, we know that people definitely react to colour. The Institute for Color Research found that we make snap decisions about people, places and products within 90 seconds and that 62-90% of that decision is based on colour. The power of colour is already entrenched in business – according to Xerox, 92% of those asked believe colour presents an image of quality, 90% feel it can attract new customers and 81% think it gives them a competitive edge.

We know that colour affects decisions, but what’s harder to pinpoint is how or why. When Honda tried a point-of-sale experiment with a ‘calming’ blue pod, they found profitability of sales conducted inside it were 35% higher. Does this prove the calming effect of blue? Maybe. Or maybe they liked the pod design. Or maybe the novelty of the situation put them in a more agreeable mood.

In any case, which blue works? Google famously tested 41 shades of blue (no, not an EL James novel) to find just the right one for links. They claim the research netted them $200 million. It may have done, but I’m not sure how you’d run a scientific test to show what the outcome of the other 40 shades would have been.

Colour in brand recognition

On a practical level, this is where the role of colour really matters to your business. A study by the University of Loyola, Maryland concluded that colour increases brand recognition by up to 80%. That’s not 80% of people feeling invigorated, or calmed, or excited or comforted by you. It’s an 80% rise in people who plainly and simply know who are and what you do.

Yes, the red and yellow of McDonald’s is cheerful, but it’s also very clearly recognisable. Take away the word and it still couldn’t be anything else. In fact you can do exactly that. Try this quiz – it asks you to name the brands with the words removed. I’m willing to bet you’ll do pretty well. That’s because you recognise them.

Perception vs. recognition

In this clip, James Wildman shows an audience two different coloured circles, pointing out that despite appearances, they’re not of equal size. He then asks them to vote on which is larger. A healthy number of people confidently choose one or the other, only for Wildman to reveal that in fact they’re exactly equal. In seconds, an audience is nudged into expressing opinions they don’t really have about a fact that isn’t really true. People may perceive your visual cues differently; what’s important is that they recognise who you are and what you do. In branding, perception is malleable, but recognition is valuable.

To return to the dress, I spoke to people who had seen both the white and gold version and the blue and black version at different times. That could be down to lighting or screen colour profiles, but it could also be down to their mood on different days. It could be down to peer pressure, ‘FOMO’, or even a nudge applied by a sneaky marketer.

Show your true colours

If any of this seems to downplay the role of colour in branding, it shouldn’t. Putting your brand identity together takes hard work. It’s a matter of accurately hitting a whole range of visual marks of which colour is just one, along with shape, typeface and imagery.

Whether it’s by cultural association or something deeper, colour may help to encourage a mood in prospective customers. But there’s no sure-fire way of knowing that colours mean the same things to different people. While colours build associations, brands build emotions. Colours can evoke fun, elegance, excitement or exclusivity, but branding as a whole package – as an exercise in identity – is what engenders the emotional responses that can be so powerful in building brand loyalty.

Look at Audi – a brand with incredible loyalty and yet their mirror-finish logo is almost without colour. But now look at the branding itself. It’s bold, elegant and solid. Apply the same three adjectives to Audi’s product line and you’ll see what a master class this is.

The established associative shortcuts of colour can be helpful, but ultimately you need to build a visual identity that works harmoniously as a whole, and one that reflects the real values and personality of your brand.

Colour alone isn’t the answer, but consider it a valuable component in a comprehensive toolkit of visual cues.

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