Psychology of colour in branding

A few years ago, I worked at a fashion magazine. We were planning a cover spread for spring and tossing around ideas for colour, as the background and garments were both white. Green was suggested and quickly shot down. Why? Because green doesn’t do well on the newsstands. Green is the colour of jealousy, ill-health and makes people feel uneasy and impedes the sales of fashion publications. What this shows is that people have emotional responses to colour.

Colour has been a primitive form of communication, it can trigger associations, allude to cultural norms and provoke feelings. Studies show it only takes 90 seconds for people to form an opinion about a brand and within this time, colour influences between 62-90% of attitudes.

Smart branding taps into the psychological impact of colours as colour quickly gives an impression. Yellow brands Sprint, Shell and DHL show warmth and clarity, Coca-Cola, Lego and Heinz are exciting and bold in red, IBM, Facebook and American Express are dependable and trustworthy in cool blues, and Nike, Apple and Mercedes Benz are clean, calm and neutral in greys and blacks.

Perceptions about the brand’s personality and what it stands for are greatly affected by colour. For example, the Virgin Group’s bright red emphasises the “challenger” aspect of the business and clearly identifies all Virgin-licensed companies, Land Rover’s green oval exudes a luxurious-ruggedness and performance, while BP’s green and yellow helios logo symbolises growth, energy and environmental sensitivity.

People gravitate towards brands they recognise, which places greater importance on having a strong brand identity. Colour can catapult a brand forward when it’s unique colour palette sets it apart from the rest of the category. For example, Southwest Airline’s tri-colour heart logo nods to the most important brand assets: hospitality, empathy and customer service, while competitors blend together in a fleet of corporate mainstays: blue and red.

Cultural and gender associations also greatly affect the use of colour in branding and product sales. Blue and pink are commonly thought of as gendered tones, influencing the sales of baby products as many people prefer to purchase gendered items for new tots. But, this also affects other products, for example power tools. Most often in blacks, greys and yellows, a pink or purple piece of hardware or tool is difficult to come by because of how this would affect peoples’ perception, and therefore sales.

While the emotions colours can prompt are easy ways for brands to exude a familiar personality, brave colour palettes have the potential to increase greater brand awareness. Next time an environmental company chooses a green or financial firm blue, think: what could an unconventional colour do for you?