In our last post, we covered visual branding in a broad sense. Today, we’re taking a journey through the exciting world of color theory as applied to branding. Color theory is a truly fascinating topic that can have a real impact on your bottom line. Some of the biggest, most successful brands in history have used color theory to set their brands up for success from the start. Now you can too.
What these brands have in common is that they all know how to combine color theory with brand-building activities. Imagine you order a complex piece of furniture or equipment. Unless it comes to you pre-assembled, you’ll need to know how to use certain tools in order to put the equipment together.
If you don’t know your way around those tools, you’re going to have a hard time. Brand building is much the same.
In this post, you’ll gain the tools you need to navigate the world of brand color with ease. At the end of the post, we walk you through the process of deciding on your very own brand colors so you can create—or update—your logo and other marketing elements with confidence.
Client Case Study: You can see how we created a palette of complementary colors for our client, Woodbridge Appartments, to create a sophisticated yet retro look to their branding that matches the USP of their property.
The Power of Color
As you might guess, the first step in creating a powerful, enduring brand is to create a plan. To be impactful, your brand visuals must be intentional and meaningful. What’s more, a robust logo, website or other visual elements must outlast shifting visual trends. Your logo, in particular, must pass this test. Often, this doesn’t mean ditching the color scheme. But it does mean updating your logo to a more modern aesthetic.
In fact, any blue-chip brand—think Campbell’s Soup or Coca-Cola—will go through several visual refreshes throughout the years. While these brands do try for an evergreen logo each time, the reality is, tastes and trends do change. These blue-chip brands all have one thing in common: they understand that their own visual panache—read, personality—must shine through.
Naturally, then, creating or updating a logo demands careful forethought and planning.
When a large, successful company sets out to change its branding, you can be sure that it’ll accomplish a few things:
• The company makes only a few changes to its logo, usually updating visual flourishes or accents
• The company makes few changes to color if any
• The company remains recognizable
In the past, maintaining a consistent visual brand was extremely important. It helped companies differentiate themselves from their competitors. Visual branding also improves brand resilience and recognition. In today’s always-on, always-connected world, visual branding has become even more important. Here is a nice case study that goes into great detail on how effective visual branding can be.
Today, your logo pulls double duty. You slap it on all your products, to be sure, but you also place it in many places online. This may include:
• Social media profiles and messages
• Your blog
• Your YouTube videos
• White papers and case studies
• Online marketing
Client Case Study: Choosing a color palette that creates the right impact is the goal of color theory for branding. As you can see above, for our client Belotika Apparel, we chose subtle shades of the same color to create a background for the main brand mark to pop.
How to Choose a Color Palette
As we’ll see throughout this post, there is a strong link between color and:
• Brand identity
• Brand mission
• Brand messaging
According to brand experts such as Lauren Labrecque and George Milne, color conveys meaning. This statement may seem simple and straightforward at the outset. On the surface it is.
But let’s look deeper.
The colors you choose for your branding will become central to your brand identity. These colors will contribute to brand loyalty in a big way, too. Moreover, color tells your customers how you want them to perceive you. Consider Target. The company’s no-nonsense logo consists of two colors: red and white. This simple, effective logo conveys a sense of surety and kinetic energy, and it implies efficiency.
Did you know that the color blue is the primary color in over 75 percent of credit card company logos? But the same color is the primary in only 20 percent of fast food logos. Why is this? As we’ll see, human beings respond to color in specific ways. Often, these responses are independent of culture, too. The color blue may communicate to a customer that they should feel confident, assured, and at peace. But it doesn’t exactly stir the appetite much. Small wonder, then, that few fast-food restaurants use it.
But you know who else does use the color blue? Banks such as Chase, Bank Of America, and Barclay’s. All of these companies understand the power of color.
It’s important to know how the subconscious mind responds to color. Why? Because consumers are bombarded by advertising.
Plus, you’re now competing with social media for customer time and attention. Your grandfather’s marketing concerns are not your own. You live in a much more complex world. Therefore, you need to grab your potential customer’s attention and hold it. Understanding the psychological impact of color and using it intentionally in your branding can help you do that.
Tell us, dear reader…what visuals come to mind when you think of the word ‘love?’ What about ‘hate?’ How about ‘envy?’ With each word you read, your brain generated an image, didn’t it? That’s how our brains work. They’re wondrous image generators. Even the least visual person in the world experiences mental images, if only in the moments before sleep. All people dream every night, though many people claim they don’t. We may not remember our dreams, but we do dream. Our brains are visual.
Now think about the above words again, one at a time:
As you read each, you probably felt at least a sliver of emotion. Maybe the flicker of a memory. Emotions are ever-present, and they’re tied intimately to vision. This is why hypnosis, neural-linguistic programming, guided meditation, and other mind-shaping methodologies work. Emotions are incredibly powerful. Emotions, in fact, drive our decision-making process to a large extent.
Needless to say, your goal as a brand builder is to forge a strong emotional connection between the said brand and your customer’s heart and mind. Of course, you can’t just tell your customer why they should be loyal to you. Well, you could try. Some do. This effort manifests as aggressive advertising campaigns that rarely pay off. Instead, take a more subtle approach.
Color Theory Crash Course
You can’t convey your company’s history, values, or mission with your logo alone. But you can convey these things via the colors you choose to use. Certain words like love, hate, and envy provoke emotional reactions in us. So too do colors. What’s more, these associations tend to apply to all people everywhere, regardless of culture—for the most part. On the whole, the color blue means the same to someone in Alaska as it does to someone in Egypt.
The reasoning for this is quite simple. The color was important to our survival before the advent of technology. A yellow or orange frog is saying don’t eat me, I’m poisonous. A snake with a head shaped like an arrow, with dark, shiny scales is venomous. but a green snake with a rounder head and round eyes is likely harmless. A wound that has turned red around the edges is infected.
These contextual clues were essential to helping our species survive a hostile world. So much so that today, we retain visceral reactions to certain colors.
Blood red makes us feel uneasy, threatened, or vulnerable.
Muted browns say the color of dirt or mud, signals to our brains that we should become more aware of our surroundings.
Vibrant green makes us feel energized.
Blue makes us feel calm, while some shades of blue, like sky blue, evoke wonder.
Some of these psychological effects are rooted in the deep past, such as with the colors green, red, and yellow. Others are more recent. For instance, it’s commonly accepted in the scientific community that human beings only recently gained the ability to discern the color blue. Blue is very, very rare in nature. So rare, in fact, that scientists think that we had no reason to take note of it at all.
Researchers speculate that it wasn’t until we gained the ability to create blue pigments that we really appreciated the color. Cave paintings from around 20,000 years ago don’t contain the color blue. But around 6,000 years ago, humans created the first blue pigments, and suddenly, the color blue cropped up in our early artwork.
More recently, a dye was created from the semi-precious stone called lapis. Once this rich dye made its debut, the color blue became prominent in art. Not long after, it was favored by the royals of Egypt and, later, it was highly prized by medieval Europeans. They, too, used the color blue to denote royals. From the earliest days of our ability to appreciate the color blue, it has signified power, confidence, and authority.
Of course, we’re generalizing here somewhat. Not all colors mean the same to all people. For instance, we mentioned above that the color brown makes most people feel a bit…dirty. But some people love the color brown. To a brownie or chocolate lover, the color brown may represent wholesome comfort. To a volunteer, the color red—think American Red Cross—may represent altruism. A prisoner, meanwhile, may come to develop a deep loathing for the color orange.
The way certain colors make us feel, and how we can make use of those reactions, is referred to as color theory. But it’s not as simple as mint green is a pretty color. It’s more like, green makes me feel vibrant, energized, and alive. There is a psychological aspect to this that you must understand before you can truly put color to good use.
However, the color associations we cover below are generalizations somewhat. While they are true in a general sense, they don’t apply universally to all people. However, they apply to enough people that some of the biggest companies in the world use color theory in their branding. You should too.
One last thing before we move on. There are cultural considerations to take into account. For instance, many Americans associate the color green with money. But someone from the European Union probably doesn’t harbor that association. Yet a person from any English speaking country gets what you mean when you say, ‘That company is going green.’
Client Case Study: The power of color in branding can not be underestimated. If you do then you are depriving your brand of one of the best tools to create an emotional bond with the target audience. As you can see above, for our client Pecking Tales fast food restaurant, we used one main color and a deeper share from the same palette to create impact and narrative effectively, resulting in stunning looking brand identity.
The Power of Color in Branding
Here’s a secret: what people feel about you is more important than what people think about you. In the same way, what customers feel about your brand is more important than what they think of it. Savvy marketers couple this psychological reality with colors to create truly stellar visual branding.
In a very real sense, if you nail your look and feel, you create a sort of security blanket. You see, over time, smart visual branding can bolster your sales and can help you through economic downturns. Campbell’s Soup is well known for offering a wide variety of tasty soups. But when you hear the name, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Do you see a bowl of soup, or do you see the iconic Campbell’s Soup can? If you’re like most people, you see the soup can. Campbell’s Soup can means quality soup to most people.
Anchor your brand in powerful color associations and visuals to create a lasting impression that can help you survive when times get tough. Repetition of the same colors can hammer home the message you’re trying to convey. This is why a company like Campbell’s will experiment with updating its logo, but it’s unlikely to outright change its brand colors.
You’ll never see, for instance, McDonald’s swap their golden arches for green arches. You’ll never see Coke go blue instead of red. You’ll never see a red Twitter bird. Over time, your logo’s primary, accent, and even neutral colors become part of your brand identity. More on these colors in the next section.
Below is a brief list of all the marketing assets you’ll create with your brand’s colors once you’ve identified them:
• Your logo (see how to color in your logo designs)
• Your storefront’s interior design
• Your website (see how to choose colors for your website)
• Your staff’s uniforms
• Your advertisements
Harmony between these visual branding elements will help you build brand recognition at a good pace.
For an example of this harmony in action, consider Best Buy. The store, logo, and website feature blue as the dominant color. The secondary color is a vibrant yellow. It’s a nice combination that combines the confidence-projection qualities of blue with the attention-grabbing qualities of yellow.
Select your colors carefully. Once you establish yourself, you’re probably stuck with the colors you chose at the outset. Those color combinations can help you—or they can hold you back. Here are a few other companies that have done good things with color:
• AirBnB. The brand uses a muted red to project friendly energy that appeals to a young demographic.
• WinkBeds. This luxury mattress brand uses navy blue to convey confidence, comfort, and reliability.
• Starbucks. This coffee giant uses the color green to convey eco-friendly business practices, a sense of wellbeing, and healthy energy.
• Spotify. This music streaming service uses green to convey a sense of playfulness, possibility, and energy.
• PayPal. While not a bank or a credit card company, this payment processor uses the color blue to convey safety and reliability.
• Steam. The gaming giant uses a dark blue gradient that fades to black. The combination projects power and confidence. This was important for Steam because when it first debuted it was a novel concept.
Colors & Their Meaning
In this section, we’ll reveal what each color means. Use this as a general guide when considering your brand colors.
• Black. Black is a great color for any luxury, ultra-modern brand. It evokes power, exclusivity, and edginess.
• Purple. Purple is also associated with luxury, but it has a bit of a playful bent. It can also evoke feelings of exclusivity. Like the color blue before it, purple was once a color available only to royals.
• Dark blue. Dark blue is the color of professionalism. It can also convey security. It promotes a feeling of stoic, contemplative calm.
• Light blue. Light blue evokes feelings of innocence and trust.
• Green. Green is the color of prosperity, growth, nature, and tranquility.
• Yellow. Yellow is the color of happiness, optimism, and youthful energy. You can also use yellow to convey affordability.
• Red. Red is the color of passion. Brands also use it to command attention. It’s an inherently aggressive color.
• Orange. Orange is the color of playfulness. It evokes vitality and is a very social color. It’s often used to convey friendliness.
• Pink. Often used as a symbol of femininity, it also represents youth and innocence.
• Gray. Gray is the color of neutrality. It’s classy, modern, and quite serious.
• White. White is the color of cleanliness, health, and simplicity. White is extremely versatile. It’s used by both luxury and discount brands.
The Brand Color Scheme Formula
Now that you know what each color means, you can decide on your color scheme. Follow this simple four-step process to determine your ideal brand colors and logo layout.
#1 Nail Down Your Brand Essence
Your first step is to identify what your brand is all about. What values do you want to communicate to your audience? What energy do you want to project? What are your brand goals? Consider the following brands and their primary colors:
• Red. Coca-Cola and YouTube. For Coca-Cola, red conveys passion, fun, and vitality. For YouTube, the color may evoke vitality, urgency, and a sense of self-actualization.
• Blue. Dell and Intel. Both of these tech companies use blue to convey sophistication, professionalism, and the cutting edge.
• Yellow. McDonald’s and Lufthansa. McDonald’s uses yellow because it excites the senses and may spur the appetite. For Lufthansa, the yellow in their logo draws the eye and conveys a sense of vitality, energy, and a life well-lived.
• Pink. Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts. Both brands utilize pink to add a sense of fun and playfulness.
• Green. Subway and Android. For Subway, the green conveys a sense of vitality and health. Android may use green to project a sense of newness, energy and efficiency.
Now try to imagine if the Coca-Cola logo were blue instead. Or if Subway’s logo was red. It’s hard to do, right? This is, to a degree, down to cognitive bias on our part; it’s hard to do because we’ve always seen these brands associated with those colors. But it’s also because there is a built-in logic to the color choices.
So, what is your brand about? Write down a few core values, and then consult the color list from the previous section. When thinking of your brand identity, which color speaks to you the most?
#2 Do Some Research
Before moving forward, though, you’ll need to do some industry research. At this point, ask yourself two questions:
• What is this business all about?
• Who is my audience?
Your logo, and its design elements, must appeal to your ideal customer. Create some buyer personas at this point if you haven’t already. When thinking about your ideal customer, think back to the colors outlined above. Which colors will resonate best with your ideal customers?
Next, take a good, hard look at your competition. You’ll likely find that your competitors are using the colors you have in mind at this point. This isn’t a bad thing; it means you’re on the right track. But you may find a few competitors that are using wildly different colors and logo styles. You may find it worthwhile to take a closer look at these. If you’ve decided to go with blue and yellow, why are they using red and black?
Your competitor may be breaking with industry tradition while you may be better off following established trends. The point is, you won’t know unless you dive into the research.
#3 Select a Logo Type
There are two main types of logos: the symbol and the wordmark.
• Wordmark. The name of the company is the focus of the logo. The selection of an appropriate typeface is crucial here, but color also plays an incredibly large role.
• Symbol. The iconography represents the essence, mission, or drive of your brand.
There are strengths and weaknesses of each. The strength of a wordmark is that it introduces your potential customer to your business right away, hopefully cementing your name in their mind. The weakness is that it may not. Examples of well-executed wordmark logos include Coca-Cola, Google, The New York Times, and Calvin Klein.
The strength of a symbol is that it can, over time, come to represent your business in the minds of customers. This can be extremely powerful. Examples include Firefox, Nike, Pepsi, Apple, PlayBoy, Toyota, and Twitter.
#4 Choose Your Color Scheme
Once you know which type of logo you want to create, things start to fall into place. Now you can combine all of the work you’ve done so far. You’ve done some industry research, so you know what’s typical for other businesses in your space. You know whether you want to fit in or buck the trend. You’ve thought about your brand essence and what you want to convey to customers.
Now consult the above color list again.
Think about the associations you want people to make with your brand from the moment they’re exposed to it. What colors from the above list best fit this goal? Keep in mind that the colors you choose here will extend far beyond your logo. They’ll also appear on your social media, your website, your marketing, and your business cards.
To start with, choose three colors.
The first is your base. This is the color that most reflects your brand’s identity or personality. You can also think of the base color as the color that represents your brand’s dominant trait. Note, however, that your base color must also appeal to your target customer.
Next, you’ll choose your accent. Your accent is the second-most used color in your logo. It should also reflect a brand personality trait. However, it has to pull double duty in that it should complement the base color, too.
In Best Buy’s branding, blue is the dominant color and yellow is the accent.
In Texaco’s logo, red is the base and white is the accent.
In the Chipotle logo, red is the base and burgundy is the accent.
Finally, choose a neutral color. This is often a background color. The job of the neutral color is to be…well, neutral. Use neutral colors to emphasize your more active colors. For instance, in the Chipotle logo, the neutral color is white. The white typeface naturally flows around the logo, which draws attention to the nice combination of red and burgundy.
Finally, when selecting colors, use one of the following color schemes.
• Monochromatic. A single color. Think Nike. This is most effective when you have a single personality trait you want to emphasize.
• Analogous. In this scheme, you use colors that are adjacent to each other in the color wheel. The theory here is that the colors you choose will be inherently harmonious. Adjacent colors typically evoke similar emotions in people. If you’re new to visual branding, analogous colors are a good place to start. The Chipotle logo uses this scheme.
• Complementary. This is a more advanced visual branding technique. It calls for you to use opposing colors together. An example is the aforementioned Best Buy logo. This can work, but only if the opposing colors also evoke emotions that are relevant to your brand and customer. If you get this wrong, you’ll send a mixed message that could cost you business, brand recognition, or both.
• Triadic. The triadic scheme breaks the color wheel down into three parts. You can then select from a wider range of colors, with the idea being that all colors within the same third of the wheel are complementary. This can be difficult to work with, however, and you can easily lose the psychological impact because you’re selecting from a wider range of hues.
There you have it. A complete, simple system for identifying your brand colors. Just remember: this isn’t a decision to make lightly. The cost of a total visual rebrand down the line can be extreme. If you swap out established colors for new ones, you may be throwing away valuable brand recognition. So take all the time you need in this stage. Don’t rush the process.
Color is one of the most important aspects of any successful brand or startup. If you look at any of the superbrands out there, you notice that they tend to own a color. Picking the right color and then applying that color consistently to all their branding strategies is the key to owing a color that creates the right kind of brand recall.
How to own color for brand success?
The process starts with choosing and selecting a color that is unique to your market segment. Often you see several competitors using similar colors – cliche colors in that vertical – and thereby fail to differentiate from their competitors. A simple example is how most software companies choose the color blue. Blue represents* “Positive: power, calmness, success, trustworthiness”.
This creates a lot of confusion in the market place and it is hard for any of these companies to create a brand recall. Anchoring the target market with color and creating a recall is the most effective and powerful strategy.
Select a color that no one has yet used in your market. Yes, care must be taken to ensure you do not pick a color that is quite opposite to the world view of your customer base. For example, if most of the companies in your segment use warm color, try selecting a cooler color with a slight warmness to it. Try and match your brand vision with the color you chose and
How to choose the right color for your brand?
While personal preferences of the startup founders tend to be the way brands choose their colors, emotional reactions to different colors should be the starting point. Depending on the core values and vision of your startup, certain colors would suit your target audience better than others.
Here is a list of some colors and their emotional triggers*:
- Red for vitality, aggressiveness, passion and strength
- Pink for innocence, femininity, health and softness
- Orange for warm exuberance, cheeriness and fun
- Green for health, freshness and tranquility
- Blue for Positive: power, calmness, success, trustworthiness
- Purple for spirituality, royalty and sophistication
- Brown for earthiness, subtle richness and utility
- White for purity and honesty
- Gray for authority, practicality and somberness
- Black for boldness and distinctiveness
Read more about color theory and it’s impact.
When it comes to branding your business you must carefully consider your target market. Do you sell primarily to women or men? The answer to this question will heavily impact your branding strategy. Additionally, what age group is you primarily selling to children, teenagers, young adults, middle-age or senior customers?
The reason it is important to ask yourself these questions before you start designing your brand elements is that different genders and age groups respond to colors and shapes differently.
Color Preferences by Gender & Age
A study conducted in 2003 shows that blue is the preferred color for men and women; however, women also respond well to purple and to a less extent green, while men respond okay to green but do not like purple at all (it is one of their least favorite colors).
Additionally, women list orange as their least favorite color while men dislike brown. And both males and females find orange and yellow to be “cheap” colors.
Another study on color preferences conducted in 2007 found that:
- Women prefer soft colors while men prefer bright colors
- Men tolerate achromatic (shades of black, white, and grey) colors more than women
- Men prefer shades (colors with black added)
- Women prefer tints (colors white added)
Shades tend to be viewed as “deep, powerful and mysterious” while tints are viewed as “soft, youthful and soothing.”
Also of importance is that while adults prefer blue over other colors, research shows that children tend to prefer red.
Marcel Zentner, who conducted the study “speculates that adults may have learned to associate red with negative things such as blood and poison, and so that is why the preference shifts from childhood to adulthood.”
If your business sells children’s items you should keep red in mind to incorporate in places of your site; however, because adults will be doing the purchasing you may want to strongly consider blue as one of your brand colors.
Selecting & Incorporating Your Brand Colors
Why is it important to designate specific colors to represent your brand (aka Brand Colors)? It’s vital so that your company has a cohesive look and feel across all of your properties (website, social media sites, emails, business cards, conference displays, and so on) – a cohesive look and feel makes your brand memorable and gives it an identity.
Imagine if Coca-Cola used different colors on its cans, bottles, website, social media properties, etc. If that happened you wouldn’t see a red can and automatically know that it’s a Coca-Cola can – it might be any brand.
Designating specific colors for your company helps you create that same memorable effect.
Selecting brand colors that will resonate well with your audience is the key first step to creating a brand for your business – so don’t forget to consider the research presented above.
You’ll want to use these colors to design the following things right away:
- Unique logo
- Custom mascot Branding
- Social media graphics
- Email template
- Business cards
It’s best to use one designer to create all of these elements to ensure the cohesion of your brand identity.