Colour psychology is a thing - we’ve all heard of it - but have you considered it when developing your brand or creating graphic elements for your marketing? Chances are you have considered it - but maybe only subconsciously.
The history of colour
Colour is deeply connected to emotion on a pre-lingual, pre-conscious level. It’s based on ancient evolutionary systems of survival. As homo sapiens began to explore the world, we learned certain things about colours. A brightly coloured insect is probably poisonous. A shady green tree is probably safe. Red meat good, green meat very very bad. As our species evolved, our interactions with colour became more sophisticated. We learned to predict the weather by the colour of the sky. We could tell when our crops were ripe by the colour of their fruit. This added nuances to our relationship with colour. Red means bad if it’s a mushroom, but good if it’s a tomato.
These ancient lessons have stayed with us and we still use them today. And the nuances have stayed with us too. Red can mean danger, but it can also mean an exciting new notification. Navigating the ancient and the nuanced in colour psychology is vital to understanding how best to deploy colour in your branding and marketing.
Why is colour important?
Colour is like smells and music - it evokes an emotion instantly, and transports you to a certain time and place. Having command of these reactions in your audience by strategically using colour in certain ways is invaluable when it comes to making a deep connection and getting engagement.
Gregory Ciotti writes, “It’s an important field of study to consider when creating marketing assets, building a new business, or rebranding an existing one. Consider this: In a study titled “Impact of color on marketing,” researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone.”
Basic colour associations
There are some obvious associations to be made between colour and emotion.
But as discussed, our associations with colour are more complex than this. Our individual interpretations, cultural backgrounds, upbringings and experiences can all alter the way we interpret colour. A traumatic event can turn an otherwise attractive colour into something unpleasant.
As such, when choosing colours for your brand, it’s worth spending a little more time thinking about your selection and the potential meanings behind it.
We talk a lot about brand attributes and archetypes in our workshops. By identifying a few carefully chosen words and phrases, we can capture the personality of a brand on paper. This can be done with colours too. In a paper titled “Dimensions of Brand Personality”, scholar Jennifer Aaker identifies five core dimensions that play a role in a brand’s personality and how those dimensions are associated with different colours.
So if you know you want your brand to make people* feel excited, you may want to choose a shade from the red / orange part of the spectrum.
*Notably, this study is American and makes assumptions based on Western traditions and Western perceptions.
This goes hand-in-hand with brand attributes and brand archetypes.
Consider Skittles, “the jester”. The primary colour on their packaging is red, which gives us the impression that their brand is exciting. This works for a jester, who is entertaining, fun-loving and full of energy. If Skittles had chosen sincere blue as their primary colour, this would conflict with their chosen archetype. Doing so would give off mixed messages, which causes mistrust and confusion.
(Edit: Our self-proclaimed snack queen Zoe tells me that Skittles did do blue packaging once, but I bet it was the most exciting blue ever.)
So finding synergy across your attributes, archetype and colours is important.
Your brand colours need to appeal to your audience. This can relate to big demographic things like gender, age or income level - or more nuanced things like taste in music and fashion.
There is evidence that certain colours perform better with certain demographics - but such research is controversial. The idea that women can only use pink razors is demonstrably problematic and untrue.
It might be more effective to learn more about a narrower segment of this audience to find out what they really like. For example, if your audience is women who like punk rock, a neon green and black colour palette is more likely to win them over than a pastel pink one.
Colour palettes & hierarchies
Most brands have more than one colour in their colour palette. While a monochromatic profile can be hugely impactful, it also limits you massively. Most brands will have three or four primary colours and some have a secondary colour palette too.
Deciding how each of the colours in your palette will be used is important for ensuring your content looks consistent. For example, you can set rules in your brand guidelines that guide users on the primary, secondary, background and accent colours in your palette. You can even set mathematic rules for designers to follow - for example, no more than 20% of a design can be green.
Another great reason to set these rules is so you can break them. If you want to run a campaign that stands out from the rest of your marketing - maybe you’re launching an exciting new product, or you’ve started a charity scheme - try inverting your colour palette. This can make certain assets stand out without breaking your branding by going off-palette.
A secondary colour palette gives you even more flexibility. You may also want to think about creating a tertiary palette for product ranges and things like that. If you need to colour code elements of your catalogue you don’t want to be restricted to three colours - you need to be able to add as many colours as you need.
Contrasts and accents
When developing your colour palette(s), you want to keep a few things in mind. First is your brand identity. You don’t want any of the colours in your palette to challenge or undermine your primary brand colour. Second is how well all the colours work together.
This is where colour theory comes in. There are numerous ways to pick colours from the colour wheel that will sit well together.
Complementary and analogous are two of the most common selection methods. Complementary colours are opposite one another in the colour wheel - for example, orange and blue. Analogous colours are close to each other in the colour wheel - for example, blue, teal and green. Adobe Color is a great tool to help you generate a coherent palette.
You can mix and match to get more colour diversity. For example, your primary colour palette could be three analogous shades - but you could include one complementary colour to use as an accent. This is proven to be very effective in UX design, as using a contrasting colour for buttons and alerts means they are more prominent in the design.
In colour, consistency is key. It’s not okay to use one shade of red here, and another similar shade of red over there. Colours are identified by numeric values - RGB for digital and CMYK for print. You can also use # values and Pantone colours. Whatever system you use, the key is to make sure everyone in your organisation knows which shade of red they should be using, and no-one is picking colours at random from a colour wheel. The easiest way to do this is define the values in your brand guidelines and make sure everyone has access to this document.
Do the unexpected
One of the best lessons to learn from colour psychology is that people react to the unexpected. In evolutionary terms, the introduction of an unfamiliar colour to the landscape might mean danger - or it might mean new possibilities. Imagine the first time we saw fire. In marketing terms, doing something unexpected is a great way to get people’s attention and shake up an industry.
If every business in your industry uses greens and blues as their primary colour, why not break with convention and use yellow? Strategic colour choices can help you to stand out from your competition.
When defying the status quo, there’s a balance to be found between being exciting enough and being uncomfortably provocative. The MAYA theory (most advanced yet acceptable) can help you determine where that balancing point is. You want to pique your audience’s interest, but you don’t want to scare them off. It’s the difference between a candle and a forest fire.
A great example of a brand who’s defying colour conventions is Dead Happy. Other life insurance companies go for reliable blue or reassuring yellow - but Dead Happy have opted for neon pink. That’s because they want to attract a different audience. Combined with the rest of their brand - clever messaging, bold typography - their colour palette is highly effective and reinforces their role in the rebel archetype.
The lesson here is that even when breaking convention, you still need to follow some rules. Your brand attributes and archetype, and your target audience should steer the conversation - and the overall effect should be something that feels consistent with itself, even if it’s defying everything else.
What to do next
Who wrote this?
She / her; red / blue. Mel is a writer, editor and designer. Equally happy hiking a muddy trail as playing tabletop roleplay games by candlelight. Will seize any opportunity for a party, as long as said party features copious food, prosecco and hits from the 1980s. Her true passion lies in words. A student of literature, she is fascinated by enduring myths, etymology and science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut is her hero. “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”