What’s in a colour?

The psychology of colour in branding and marketing.
7 min read
Colour Theory - Branding, Design

Colour is all around us, from nature, fashion, and architecture, to television, ads, billboards, and the web. Those of us who live in the marketing world spend a lot of time and energy choosing the right colours, and personal preference has virtually nothing to do with it. Don’t get me wrong, we want the colours we choose to look great – but an even more important factor to consider is what those colours mean.

It’s not always black and white.

The subject of colour in the design world is a little touchy. Yes there are theories – in fact there are professional colour consultants who have spent their lives breaking down the psychology behind colour – but of course it’s still very subjective. Colour theories are often a useful guide, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

Because colour is so personal and subjective, it can result in completely different reactions among your audience. One person’s favourite colour might make another person cringe because of the feelings and meaning they associate with that colour based on their personal experiences.

With that said, there are patterns we can find in colours that stand true about 90% of the time. We have to think very carefully about these patterns and which colours we associate with a brand, since it will heavily influence how the audience perceives it.

When choosing a colour, what you’re really choosing is the personality you want to convey, and the emotions you wish to invoke.

Let’s take a look at the colour red. Red is a beautiful, confident, and powerful colour but it does have some negative connotations (as it’s often used to indicate “danger” and “stop”). Typically, if we see big red words on a sign, we’re conditioned to take notice and proceed with caution. On the flip side, red can also invoke feelings of excitement, energy, power, courage, and adventure.

One brand that uses red effectively is Marvel. What’s particularly interesting about their choice is that they can own both the positive and negative aspects of the colour. Most brands would only want to highlight the positive associations with red, but for a brand that has just as many villains and vigilantes as superheroes, personality traits like aggressive, violent, temperamental, and dangerous are just as fitting. The key is knowing your brand personality and owning it.

The grey area.

While the use of colour is complicated by the fact that it can have different streams of associations, you can use context to steer the emotional response that people will have to it. Whether you’re looking for a positive or negative emotional trigger, the effect a colour can have is strongly reliant on how you use it.

It’s important to keep in mind that colours have a broad spectrum of tones, hues, and emotional triggers, so you have to pick the ones that most accurately represent your brand’s personality.

Let’s pick two products that seemingly have nothing in common, but use the same colour for their identity. John Deere and Perrier, for example, both use the same shade of green, but have very different products and audiences.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that John Deere’s brand colour is green when their products largely revolve around lawn care and agriculture. The simple equation is grass is green + leaves are green =John Deere is green. But for this brand, green represents much more than grass – it represents nature, growth, restoration, environmental awareness, trust, and reliability. These are all emotions that you want your customer to have when they’re investing in a heavy piece of machinery designed to do a very specific job.

John Deere vs Perrier

If we look at Perrier, the reasoning behind the colour choice is a little more complex. You’d think the obvious choice for sparkling water would be somewhere in the aqua blue family since we tend to relate thirst to water, and water to blue. However, the emotions you feel when you see the colour blue are generally on the calming and peaceful side of the spectrum – which isn’t exactly on target for this lively beverage.

While Perrier did want to be seen as soothing, refreshing, and cool, they also wanted to be citrusy and lively – which is exactly what they did. This is a great example of how a more complex message can necessitate a colour choice that’s slightly subversive, and will allow them to stand out from the branding tropes used by competitors.

Addressing the pink elephant in the room.

Something that’s been on my radar lately is the prevalence of gender marketing. Since we’re conditioned from birth to associate certain colours with gender, we may not even notice the subtle ways in which these choices are made in the ads and products we see every day. However, it can quickly go from subtle to absurd when taken too far – as with the infamous “Bic for Her” pens.


And it doesn’t stop at pink pens! There are pink hammers, earplugs, scissors, tape (seriously), and even a garden hose. I mean, how can women be expected to use a garden tool that isn’t pink, right? As someone who has studied colour theory and uses it professionally on a daily basis, I’m still struck by these choices and find myself asking, “what’s going on here?”

Like most colours, pink has many positive connotations and is associated with traits like affectionate, soft, sweet, fragile, delicate, and compassionate. These are all things that could potentially resonate with women, but surely not exclusively with women? In the 18th century, pink and blue weren’t actually related in any way to gender identification. In fact, pink was considered a strong, war-like colour since it was so close to red. Gender identification by colour didn’t come into play until the 20th century, and while it seems to have been fairly arbitrary decision, it’s nevertheless become deeply ingrained for many cultures.

My point? You may not want to put your audience in a box, since doing so can leave them feeling stereotyped or excluded. Besides, would you rather cater to generic tropes or make a more sophisticated choice that stands out from the crowd?

Don’t pigeonhole your brand.

Knowing your brand’s colour and personality is great, but you also don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. Remember that design and marketing is constantly evolving, so it’s impossible to pick a colour that will always be “in” or unique. What you can do is know how to use your brand’s colour in a flexible way.

A great example is Apple. Their dominant brand colour is white, but that hasn’t stopped them from integrating new colours into their marketing over the years. The emotions that are most strongly connected with the colour white are pure, clean, lightweight, airy, and simplistic. White can also be interrupted as clinical and sterile, which in this case isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s safe to say that Apple’s strongest personality trait is minimalist, so white works perfectly.

Apple colour theory

Since white is neutral, it’s given Apple the flexibility to integrate some fun and vibrant colours into their campaigns over the years while maintaining the integrity of who they are at the core. Even in the very colourful iPod ads, the one thing that remains white is the iPod. Apple was able to use bright colours to represent different personalities, while still representing their own.

Colour should reinforce your brand, not define it.

Colour is subjective and can sometimes be a tricky path to navigate, so the most important thing to keep in mind is that your brand personality should be well defined before you look at a pantone book. Choosing the right colour will become more obvious once you know how you want to be perceived by your audience, so the questions you need to ask yourself are:

  1. What is the personality of my brand that I want to convey?
  2. What are the positive and negative associations for the colours I’ve chosen?
  3. What other brands, within or outside my category, use these colours?
  4. Do I want to use these established colour associations, or challenge them?

Whatever you decide, make your choices thoughtful, intentional, and flexible. If you can own a colour while knowing how to evolve it, your brand has the potential to be both iconic, and current.