The Psychology of Colours and Branding

By Grace Maylos

“Brands and colour are inextricably linked because colour offers an instantaneous method for conveying meaning and message without words.”– Colour Professor Jill Morton

It’s true. Colours create meaning without words. A brief flash of colour can create a wash of chain reactions on a neuronal level that stirs emotion, manipulates motivation, and changes behaviour…all the things that a good marketer wants to do with a brand. We have an immediate sensory and neurological response based on colour that, while it may be somewhat subject to trends, is grounded in an evolutionary historical context. It is critical for any business developing a marketing strategy to pay particular attention to the messages conveyed by the colours associated with their brand. The colours chosen to represent a brand should tap into the psychological representations that we share relating to archetypal colour symbols.

The psychology of colour has been implemented throughout history for a multitude of tasks. Psychiatric wards and prisons have used research on colour to choose wall colours. Flags across the globe have been designed to use an interplay of colours to represent basic principles of national philosophies. Feng shui, the artistic science of environmental influence over life incorporates colour as one of the guiding principles. Colours are even used to unify locally and globally, through initiatives such as the “green movement.”

It may be that colours are, in a sense, visual archetypes. The concept of the archetype was described by Carl Jung. Jungian psychology theorizes that humans all live with unifying constructs that dwell in the human psyche and are based upon the shared evolutionary development of humankind. While Jung’s archetypes describe universal constructs that define human roles or traits, research has reliably shown that colours have standard and typical impacts and meanings across the globe.

The psychology of colour, while easy to understand, is not straightforward. Colours represent dichotomies of positive and negative, with cultural, generational, and commercial variables playing an integral part in the evolutionary representations influencing and motivating our psyche. Obviously, this is critical information for branding of products by companies that want to capitalize on the basic symbolic impressions while recognizing the importance of colour for positioning within the marketplace.

Take, for example the symbolic representations of the primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. The primary colours are pure and powerful. They are the anchors from which other colours in the spectrum are based. Brands using the primary colours convey to the consumer the general principles of purity, honesty, truth, sincerity, and strength. These colours convey meanings that are not muddied, mixed, or diluted.

Specifically, red has historically been a colour associated with fire and romance. It can denote heat, harness the concept of life blood, signify danger, and incite passion. Internationally, red is a highly popular colour and appears in 77 percent of country flags. As Jill Morton explains, it is a colour of extremes. It grabs attention, but when used in branding must be strategically applied. While a company may want its red to say stop and look, it does not want the red to signal danger and promote avoidance.

Blue is a highly versatile colour. It is the colour of nobility (blue blood), calmness, depth, hydration, and cleanliness. While blue is frequently associated with revitalization through beverages, there are no purely blue foods, and therefore it is not a colour highly associated with the appetite. However, blue is a favourite colour among cultures and peoples worldwide, and has a favourable nature in terms of its natural purity and spiritual essence. Blue has become the colour of the common man, the man in uniform and the man wearing jeans to work: the police officer, the farmer, and the trucker. It is easily integrated into branding as a positive influence, but in some cultures also has the dichotomous meaning of sorrow, tears, and depression. This is important for branding specialists to recognize in order to pick hues from the blue spectrum that visually and neurologically tap into the uplifting blues, rather than those shades that bring us down.

Yellow is the colour of the sun. It represents warmth, happiness, courage, and because it is the first colour processed by the eye, is a signal of caution. Yellow will draw the attention of the consumer when used strategically, and conveys positive emotional states including optimism. However, when yellows are dulled, they can lose their positive status and evoke a meaning that turns from an upbeat take notice to a sickly jaundiced feel.

Secondary colours, including green, orange, and purple also leave strong impressions psychologically, although they are not “pure.” Green is the colour of nature. Could it possibly be any more ‘right’ that the colour created from combining the colours in the sun and sky bedecks plant life across the globe? It’s a natural relationship in the master design. Orange is a colour of change. It is somewhat ambiguous and neutral, yet draws attention and is regarded positively. Purple has been adopted as a colour of royalty. It is associated with wealth, intelligence, and spirituality. It is a colour of creativity and mysticism.

From a branding perspective, all the colours can be manipulated in order to strengthen meanings in different directions. A pale yellow creates a vastly different visual experience than a golden yellow. A yellow green has a very different feel than a green heavily mixed with blue. Adding white and black to tint the colour alter the impression further. Finding the perfect colour to represent the brand can be an arduous process that takes a significant amount of research and time. Of course, when the perfect colours have been chosen, there are other factors, beyond the archetypal representations that we share, which may impact the success of a brand in unforeseeable ways.

Take, for example, the McDonald’s yellow ‘M’ on a bright red background that has globally come to represent fast service for inexpensive comfort food. Consider the brand in light of two companies whose national flags are designed with the same colours, China and Vietnam. It is interesting to note that American company McDonald’s has a positive commercial appeal in China and is considered healthy and desirable. And yet this American company has not made in-roads into Vietnam. Other American restaurants including Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken have a presence in Vietnam, but McDonald’s has not. It makes sense from a historically psychological perspective. Perhaps it is simply too much to ask that a country accept a brand whose colours so closely reflects national values and pride, when the brand’s country of origin is representatively tied to so many deaths in Chien Tranh Chong My Curo Nuoc, or the War against the Americans to save the nation. It is simply too much to expect the Vietnamese government and people to be willing to meld their national colours with a brand for cheap American comfort food. So fly high the Vietnam flag, pure and untainted. If you are seeking good old American comfort food in Vietnam, look not for a red and yellow logo, but instead, find a Pizza Hut.

About the Author
Grace Maylos is a freelance writer for Open Colleges. When not working, she can be found blogging about psychology at Cerebral Hacks.

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