The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding
The psychology of color as it relates to persuasion is one of the most interesting — and most controversial — aspects of marketing.
The problem has always been depth of analysis. Color theory is a topic of complexity and nuance, but splashy infographics rarely go beyond See ‘n Say levels of coverage.
Green Lantern can not transform lemons into lemonade, and I am similarly unable to make rational judgments about the spectrum that shades our environment. Yet why is such an unwaveringly superficial dialog potentially colorful?
Common misconceptions about color
It’s possible, as research indicates, that personal interest, perceptions, upbringing, cultural differences and meaning sometimes cloud the impact individual colors have on us. So the idea that colors like yellow or purple will elicit some form of hyper-specific emotion is about as reliable as your regular reading of palms.
But, if we humbly agree that clear solutions are not a guarantee, there is still plenty to know and ponder. The trick is to look for hands-on ways to make color choices.
The importance of color in branding
First let’s discuss branding, which is one of the most relevant issues related to color perception and the field where a lot of papers on this subject run into problems.
As mentioned, there have been myriad attempts to classify consumer responses to different individual colors:
But the fact is that color depends too much on personal perceptions to be reliably converted into precise sensations. Nevertheless, there are wider interaction trends to be found in perceptions of color.
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, depending on the product. Regarding the role that color plays in branding, results from another study show that the relationship between brands and color hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used for the particular brand (does the color “fit” what is being sold?).
A study titled “Exciting red and competent blue” also confirms that purchasing intent is greatly affected by colors due to their effect on how a brand is perceived; colors influence how customers view the “personality” of the brand in question. Who, for example, would want to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle if they didn’t get the feeling that Harleys were rugged and cool?
Additional studies have revealed our brains prefer immediately recognizable brands, which makes color an important element when creating a brand identity. One journal article even suggests it’s important for new brands to pick colors that ensure differentiation from entrenched competitors — personally, I think we’re getting into minutiae without additional context, such as how and why you’re positioning against a direct competitor, and how you’re using color to achieve that goal.
When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself. If Harley owners buy the product in order to feel rugged, colors that work best will play to that emotion.
Psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker has conducted studies on this very topic, and her paper titled “Dimensions of Brand Personality” points out five core dimensions that play a role in a brand’s personality.
Brands can sometimes cross between two traits, but they are mostly dominated by one. While certain colors do broadly align with specific traits (e.g., brown with ruggedness, purple with sophistication, and red with excitement), nearly every academic study on colors and branding will tell you that it’s far more important for colors to support the personality you want to portray instead of trying to align with stereotypical color associations.
Consider the inaccuracy of making broad statements such as “green means calm.” The context is absent: sometimes green is used to brand environmental issues, like Seventh Generation, but other times it’s meant to brand financial spaces, such as Mint.
And while brown may be useful for a rugged appeal — see how it’s used by Saddleback Leather — when positioned in another context, brown can be used to create a warm, inviting feeling (Thanksgiving) or to stir your appetite (every chocolate commercial you’ve ever seen).
Bottom line: There are no specific rules for selecting the colors for your brand. “It depends” is a frustrating answer, but that is the reality. And the context within which you work is an important factor. It’s the feeling, mood and picture your brand or product creates that is significant.
Color trends for men and women
One of the more interesting examinations of this topic is Joe Hallock’s work on “Colour Assignment.” Hallock’s data showcases some clear preferences in certain colors across gender (most of his respondents were from Western societies). The most notable points in his images are the supremacy of blue across both genders and the disparity between groups on purple.
It’s important to note that one’s environment — and especially cultural perception — plays a strong role in dictating color appropriateness for gender, which in turn can influence individual choices. Consider, for instance, this coverage by Smithsonian magazine, detailing how blue and pink became associated with boys and girls respectively, and how it used to be the reverse.
Here were Hallock’s findings:
Men’s and women’s favorite colors
Men’s and women’s least favorite colors
Additional research in studies on color perception and color preferencesshow that when it comes to shades, tints, and hues, men generally prefer bold colors while women prefer softer colors. Also, men were more likely to select shades of colors as their favorites (colors with black added), whereas women are more receptive to tints of colors (colors with white added).
Though in color theory this is a highly debated topic, I have never understood why. Brands can work easily beyond the gender norms — in fact, I would say that many have been praised for doing so because they defy expectations. “Perceived suitability” should not be so arbitrary as to presume that a brand or company can’t be good because the colors don’t fit the tastes surveyed.
Color coordination and conversions
The psychological theory, known as the Isolation Effect, states that it is more likely to remember an item which “stands out like a sore thumb.” Research clearly shows that participants can identify and recall an object much better — whether it’s text or picture — when it blatantly sticks out of its environment.
Two studies on color combinations, one measuring aesthetic response and the other looking at consumer preferences, also find that while a large majority of consumers prefer color patterns with similar hues, they favor palettes with a highly contrasting accent color.
This means, in terms of color coordination, establishing a visual structure consisting of equivalent base colors and contrasting them with complementary (or tertiary) accent colours:
Another way to think of this is to utilize background, base, and accent colors, as designer Josh Byers showcases below, to create a hierarchy on your site that “coaches” customers on which color encourages action.
Why is that so important? Though after reading this section you may begin to feel like an interior decorator, knowing these concepts will help to prevent you from drinking the Kool-Aid conversion rate optimization that misleads so many people.
Consider, for instance, this oft-cited example of a boost in conversions due to a change in button color.
The turn to red conversions improved by 21 percent. Nevertheless, in isolation we can not make precipitous claims about “the force of the colour.” The rest of the website is clearly oriented towards a green theme, suggesting a green call to action simply blends in with the surroundings. Red, meanwhile, offers a good visual contrast and is an additional green color.
We find additional evidence of the isolation effect in multivariate tests, including one conducted by Paras Chopra published in Smashing Magazine. Chopra was testing to see how he could get more downloads for his PDFProducer program, and included the following variations in his test:
Can you guess which combination performed the best? Here were the results:
Example #10 outperformed the others by a large margin. It’s probably not a coincidence that it creates the most contrast out of all of the examples. You’ll notice that the PDFProducer text is small and light gray in color, but the action text (“Download for Free”) is large and red, creating the contrast needed for high conversions.
A final but critical consideration is how we define “success” for such tests. More sign-ups or more clicks is just a single measurement; often a misleading one that marketers try to game simply because it can be so easily measured.
Why we prefer “sky blue” over “light blue”
Though it is possible to interpret various colors in different ways, the descriptive names of those colors do matter.
According to a study titled “A rose by any other name…,” when subjects were asked to evaluate products with different color names, such as makeup, fancy names were preferred far more often. For example, “mocha” was found to be significantly more likeable than “brown,” despite the fact that the subjects were shown the same color.
Additional research finds the same effect applies to a wide variety of products; consumers rated elaborately named paint colors as more pleasing to the eye than their simply named counterparts. It has also been shownthat more unusual and unique color names are preferable for everything from jelly beans to sweatshirts. For instance, crayon colors with names such as “razzmatazz” were more likely to be chosen than names such as “lemon yellow.”
Finding your own palette
We’re at the end of this article and there’s still no cheat sheet in sight to pick the right colour. Perhaps we may have posed more questions than answers. What a ripoff.
Truth is, the kaleidoscopic nature of color theory means we may never have definitive answers.
But just because a subject is peppered with plenty of “maybes” and “sort ofs” doesn’t mean that we can avoid thinking about it critically. Using the available research to challenge preconceived ideas and ask better questions; it’s the only reliable way of having better answers.