The Psychology of Color
Did you realize that simply by changing the color of a product’s packaging or an interior space, you can completely alter how someone perceives that item, or space? There’s actually a science behind color theory and it’s rooted in a combination of the human brain’s perception of color and our specific cultural cues. Let’s start with a quick example from my own experience.
My husband and I live in an interior unit of a row of townhomes, meaning that we only have windows on the front and back of the house. As you can imagine, that limits how much natural light we have. In addition to that, the previous owners had painted all of the rooms in dark colors: dark browns, and greens. They even painted a tiny half bathroom dark green on the walls and yes, also on the ceiling. It was like walking into a cave! I finally couldn’t take the lack of light anymore and painted the entire house in lighter and brighter hues. And it worked. The space is beautiful now and feels both more spacious, and full of light!
This is just one example of the power of color. Color can evoke feelings of spaciousness, trust, reliability, warmth, or even danger. Restaurants and retailers use color theory to prompt customers to eat more and to buy their products, as well as to create a positive experience that will bring people back. You’ve likely heard someone say, “The food was great, but the ambiance just wasn’t inviting.” Many of those customers probably won’t return, despite the culinary skill. That’s one way that graphic (and interior) designers add value: by conveying the right image to your customers in order to optimize your product’s appeal to your target market.
We do this through our use of Color Psychology, which is the study of how color determines human behavior, influences emotions, and creates responses! Just like the effect of my newly painted house, this is the same theory we use in marketing and branding. That’s because color alters human behavior, and the entire aim of marketing and branding is to affect customer behavior.
With that, let’s dig into how color impacts Marketing and Branding. I touched on this topic briefly in my What’s in a Brand blog post, but in this post, I expand on this topic to explain what each color evokes in the customer’s mind.
Breaking it Down!
RED demands attention. It can create a sense of urgency, arouse passion, or stimulate the appetite. Whether it is a stop sign, or product packaging, this color is eye catching and prompts people to act quickly. Notice that a lot of candy bar wrappers are red. This acts to stimulate the appetite and to promote what is very often an impulse purchase: Eat Me Now!
Take a stroll through the mall and notice that all of the sale signs are bright red!! 40% OFF ONLY TODAY. This creates a feeling of urgency in the customers’ minds to buy something and it’s intentional on the part of retailers.
Red is also used to convey passion, romance, and love. Consider the popular chocolate-covered strawberry company Shari’s Berries, which uses a deep red in its branding and packaging. Chocolate-covered strawberries are often associated with love and/or passion. The company’s use of red in its branding parallels that association.
ORANGE is the color of enthusiasm, energy, adventure, vitality, refreshment, motivation, safety and affordability. Have you noticed that a lot of sports teams use this color in their logos? That is because it relays excitement and teamwork.
Many food product designers, such as Fanta, Cheetos, and Gatorade, use orange as well. These products are all related to refreshment, energy, and excitement. In my last blog, we talked about Home Depot using this bright color to attract attention. That’s because it is often also associated with affordability and safety in construction. That’s why many ladders are bright orange.
Keep in mind that any color’s connotation differs slightly across various shades of the same hue. For example, orange can vary from a soft peach, which conveys an easy-going (perhaps even tropical) attitude, to a dark or burnt orange that signifies pride and self-assertion like Harley Davidson, the specialized and elite company of custom motorcycles.
YELLOW has some very unique attributes. It is both the brightest color on the visible spectrum, and the first color that the human brain perceives. For instance, we tend to think of red cars as magnets for speeding tickets, but yellow cars are actually more so, as they are the first cars that any person will see in a crowd. Not surprising, Ferrari uses a yellow background in its logo.
Like red, yellow also stimulates the appetite. And experts believe that yellow causes an increase in the endorphins in the human brain, causing people to feel happy, warm and optimistic. Consider Banana Boat’s marketing of its suntan lotions. Their primary brand color is yellow, which is associated with both the sun’s warmth and the happiness that people feel when they are on vacation.
On the flip side, yellow can signal danger when it is combined with the color black. It makes sense that bees and wasps, along with many snakes are yellow and black, sending humans a signal to steer clear of them. This is also likely why the construction company, CAT, uses the combination of yellow and black on its machinery. The combination conveys the need for caution when using its machinery.
GREEN. Ahh! Just the sight or suggestion of green probably already resonated with you. What came to mind? Your first response may have been a general sense of freshness, or new life. We associate green with both of these and also with sustainability, the environment, technology and money.
Dark green is perceived as being masculine, stable and traditional. It is often used by financial institutions, or in very established, old-world advertising to connote a sense of solidarity, class and history. In contrast, light green conveys youthfulness and a high level of energy. And don’t forget about blue greens that evoke feelings of calm and a carefree lifestyle.
This can be a great benefit in interior design, as any of these shades can create a sense of relaxation and ease. However, the opposite is true in graphic design. Too much green in branding can cause people to feel lazy and overwhelmed, making them less inclined to act. Therefore, in marketing and branding, designers generally only use green in moderation.
That said, it is still a very popular color, given its positive associations. Some very famous companies incorporating various forms of this color are Spotify, Starbucks, and BP. With respect to Animal Planet’s new green logo. Federico Gaggio, VP executive creative director of the Discovery Networks, said: "The creative strategy behind the bold new identity was to bring our surprisingly human brand promise to life, observing how animal behavior often reflects human behavior, providing an entertaining insight into the nature of our programs, which are about people as much as animals." Notice that their branding tactics relay to their customers what the company really cares about. It’s all about psychology and now you are in the know!
BLUE is the most popular color on the color spectrum, as well as being, by far, the favorite of men. It represents trust, reliability, peace, tranquility, dependability and innovation. Blue also slows the heart rate, reduces the appetite, and represents reasoning.
For this reason, some people avoid painting their kitchen or dining area blue as it tends to diminish their appetite. On the other hand, it makes a perfect color for a library. If we translate that into graphic design, you’ve likely noticed that food packaging is rarely blue, but pet food packaging may be. Why is this the case? Because when we choose our own food, we perceive blue to be an abnormal, unhealthy or unappetizing color (with a few exceptions, like blueberries). But when we choose our pet’s food, which is generally less transparent, we are often concerned about the safety and trustworthiness of the manufacturer. Blue tends to alleviate the customer’s concerns and send a message of reliability.
Lastly, let’s examine an interesting case of Facebook’s use of blue, but not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg is actually red-green color blind. The company used blue in its logo because it was the color he could see the best!
Across the blue spectrum, light blue is associated with creativity and sky blue helps a person relax, whereas dark blue is elegant, trustworthy and intelligent. Georgetown University uses a form of dark blue in its logo to signify intelligence and its long history.
PURPLE is favored predominantly by women. It signifies wealth, grandeur, royalty, excess, extravagance, passion, femininity, dignity, sensitivity, indulgence, and wisdom. It is also often used by religious organizations, such as churches. The famous, often associated with Easter, chocolate company Cadbury is not only deliciously indulgent to the senses, but well-known for its recognizable purple branding color. Interestingly, in 2016 the company fought a case against the Nestle brand in the UK to trademark their specific purple Pantone color, which they lost. They were willing to fight this battle because of the marketing power of the specific shade of the Cadbury purple wrapper that has been a recognizable brand element for over a century.
Another famous purple logo is the sensitive world of Hallmark. It is used not only to sell greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, and Precious Moments statues, but also their ‘chick flick’ network of feel good films. Using purple speaks to their target audience: women. And let’s not forget the wellness brand Massage Envy, that brands itself with various soothing shades of purple to target women of all generations who are focused on taking care of themselves.
PINK is another color that these days we associate with women. This wasn’t always the case though. Prior to the 1940s, pink, as a derivative of red, was considered to be too strong a color for baby girls. People used pink for baby boys and soft, sweet blues for baby girls. That’s one example of how cultural cues can dictate how we perceive a color. Today though, people tend to perceive pink as a color of fun, femininity, a youthful spirit, hopefulness, playfulness, imagination, and passion.
As with all colors, our perceptions of pink differ across different shades. Hot pink for example conveys energy and excitement, whereas dusty pinks are seen as sentimental and lighter pinks are more romantic. Susan G. Komen, the breast cancer research fundraising group, uses various forms of pink and magenta in its branding to represent the power of passionate women coming together to find a cure.
Barbie, the popular, playful and imaginative child doll’s signature color is also marketed using the color pink, which is aimed at the company’s target audience: youths, many of whom are young girls who tend to prefer pink. Other famous pink brands, such as Cosmopolitan fashion magazine and Victoria Secret lingerie line, use pink to convey femininity and passion.
BLACK embodies power, wealth, luxury, sophistication, security, power, elegance, authority, and confidence. It is a very intense color that can also be associated with death, evil, and a sense of fear. Because of the diversity of its associations, black is used by a versatile group of industries. It can be used for branches of secret operations in the military, for security companies and for luxury fashion lines.
Even in the retail, fashion industry, black can be used in extremely varied contexts. Take for instance Chanel, the upscale fashion brand that sells jewelry, fragrances, and luxury handbags. Their simplistic black and white branding conveys elegance and luxury and resonates with the company’s sophisticated and wealthy clientele.
On the other hand, Nike, an American athletic and clothing manufacturer reaches an entirely different audience with its black swish logo design. Their audience includes fitness fanatics from all walks of life, looking to build on their athletic passions. To them, the Nike logo conveys a sense of power and confidence.
Lastly, while many companies that use black in their logos don’t always use a pop of color, studies show that when one is used it adds energy to the brand. Brands famous for this are National Geographic, Post-it, and of course the BATMAN symbol!
WHITE/SILVER represents purity, cleanliness, modernity, simplicity, innocence, and optimism. However, I will add that it should be used with caution, as it can convey laziness or a lack of completion. White, like many colors, is also perceived differently in different cultures. In China, white is associated with funerals (as black is in America). Therefore, it’s incredibly important to know your audience when choosing a branding strategy.
That said, sometimes white, with its less-is-more persona, is the perfect choice. Apple, the technology company is a great example with its very basic white and silver logo/packaging. The company’s initial design of six striped colors, created in 1977 has evolved into the simple and modern design that represents the technology of the future.
The broadcasting company abc, known for its primetime comedies, drama, and reality shows has maintained its primarily white logo throughout its existence.
Stepping away from simple white designs are companies like Lexus, the luxury manufacturer that sells premium cars. Using silver in a logo evokes a sense of a high-end product, with cutting-edge technology, subliminally inviting customers to be part of an elite group.
I think you can see the incredible power that color plays in marketing and branding. So the next time you see a logo or brand online, or in retail stores and restaurants, notice the colors that the company has used. The psychology of color is all around you and is intentionally harnessed to convey the image of the product, and to transform your experience with the company. You will never think about color in the same way!