What’s your favourite colour? Most of us won’t have been asked that question since our schooldays – unless you’ve recently had a particularly dull experience on a dating app. It’s a query rarely posed in research.
The answer might change on any given day or you might find it impossible to pick one, and yet the ‘Psychology of Colour’ is something that marketers frequently refer to.
According to Dr. Max Lüscher – inventor of the Lüscher colour test – our colour preferences are completely subjective. So, if asked to make a colour choice we all make different, individual decisions that are impossible to predict en masse.
However, Lüscher (and many others) believe that our sensory perception of colour is something universally shared by all. i.e. when we look at the same colour we all perceive it in largely the same way and have a similar response to it.
This can provide a direct conduit to consumer thoughts and feelings in a very simple way.
For example, if you showed five consumers five colours and the question was “choose one” it would be pretty impossible to predict who would pick what. However, if you displayed the same five colours to the same people and asked them “how do these colours make you feel?” it’s likely that you could predict the response all five consumers would have. So, in the context of more effective branding and marketing, it’s in the field of influencing perception where colour has an important role to play.
Does colour really make a difference?
In a word? Yes. There’s a vast swathe of research to back this up – for example Hubspot decided to test the effectiveness of two different colours on a call to action button.
By simply changing the colour of the button from green to red, Hubspot found that its effectiveness was increased by 21%. No other change was made – just the colour – and conversions jumped by almost a quarter.
That’s fairly significant stuff. The Psychology of Colour taps into the way that colour influences human behaviour and decision-making i.e. how the use of colour can cue up certain human responses.
This can potentially be harnessed in marketing terms for the purposes of brand recall, resonance and affinity, as well as driving consumers to take action. So, how does it actually work?
Colour and branding
Over time it’s possible for certain colours to become permanently associated with a specific brand. For example, red with the Coca Cola logo or red and yellow with McDonalds packaging.
The emotional and intellectual response that we have to specific colours then becomes part of the association we have with that brand too. We may also have certain reactions when seeing branding for the first time.
On the whole, all of us (with some exceptions) largely share the same (or a similar) sensory perception of colour. On that basis, colours can communicate in a way that either reinforces or undermines a brand message. For example:
Black frequently speaks of luxury and power. In a brand context very few people would look at the use of black and consider it cheap or associate it with darkness, emptiness or sadness, which might be the connotations of choosing it in the colour test.
It’s a colour that can provide context to brighter colours and which is often used with white, especially by high street brands.
E.g. Nike, Chanel, Hugo Boss, Johnnie Walker Black
For obvious reasons this is a colour that we often associate with nature but also with earthiness, hard work and humble origins.
It’s viewed as a straightforward colour, rarely triggering suspicion and can also be associated with taste, as it’s the colour of chocolate and coffee.
E.g. UPS, Nespresso, M&Ms.
Red is an incredibly emotive colour for humans. It tends to stimulate appetite, which is why it’s so frequently used in the fast food sector, and its association with urgency can make it useful in a sales context.
Red is synonymous with energy, excitement, power and passion but can sometimes also be associated with anger, danger or aggression.
E.g. Coca Cola, Netflix, Levi’s, Kellog’s, KFC.
Stimulation is the primary purpose of shades of yellow, both in terms of mental processes and also the human nervous system.
It’s also strongly associated with creativity and happiness, as well as extroversion and warmth.
E.g. Shell, Yellow Pages, DHL, McDonalds, Ikea, Post-it
The natural link to the environment and the outdoors makes green feel like a relaxing and calming colour.
We associate it with everything, from money to health, freshness, growth and prosperity. It has few negative associations other than envy.
Green is also the shade that humans have one of the most intuitive relationships with and we can distinguish between more shades of green than any other colour.
E.g. Starbucks, Android, BP, Land Rover.
This is a shade that doesn’t occur in nature and so it has been found to act as an appetite suppressant.
It is also considered the colour of logic and wisdom, reasoning, calm and security – trust, loyalty and dependability are all associated with blue. That might be why blue is used in over 75% of credit card brand logos and is by far the most popular choice for Fortune 500 companies.
E.g. Facebook, Ford, Visa, Nokia, PayPal, American Express.
There is a fine line to tread with the use of purple – while it’s considered superior, prestigious and sophisticated it can also signal decadence, excess and suppression.
It’s also a highly imaginative and spiritual colour that tends to have significantly more appeal to women than men.
E.g. Zoopla, Yahoo!, E4, Cadbury.
In addition to individual colours, this approach can be broken down in many other different ways.
For example, some groups of colours or shades of colours are considered ‘warm and bright’ (yellow, pink orange and red) whereas others are ‘cool and bright’ (silver, turquoise, lavender).
Violet, navy and dark green could be considered cold dark colours whereas brown, purple and gold are warm darks.
Colours in these groups can be used together to trigger specific responses, such as trust, engagement or stimulation.
Where can the use of colour be effective?
For most organisations, colour will have specific relevance in four key areas:
Research tells us that colour helps improve brand recognition by up to 80%, which can considerably strengthen the impact of a logo.
If the ultimate goal for a logo is instant engagement, colour not only helps to achieve this but can also trigger a flood of associations before the consumer has even seen it up close.
With the right colours an instant visual connection is established, not just to the brand itself but to its values, personality and mission.
When choosing colours for liveries and logos the key question will be what associations do you want people to make most about your brand and which colour choices will support this?
Almost 85% of consumers cite colour as the primary reason they buy a particular product. Colour choices can switch consumers off, create notice-ability on the shelf, or entice a pick up to find out more.
In a physical environment, such as a store, colour choices could be the difference between consumers picking one product over an almost identical other.
Designing packaging for audience targeting also necessarily involves consideration of colour. Perhaps predictably, 57% of men like blue the most and green and black are also considered masculine shades.
Women also like blue but are more attracted to red and purple than black. For packaging targeting teens and under 30s, purple is often a first choice.
3. Marketing content (e.g. blogs, articles, whitepapers brochures, direct mail, social media posts)
According to the Institute for Colour Research, people make a judgment about your content in 90 seconds or less.
Up to 90% of the judgment made in that very small window is influenced by the colours they see. As a result, there are three key ways in which colour can be particularly useful in marketing content:
- Colour can have specific relevance when highlighting a call to action. If the colour choice is wrong that message might be easily ignored.
- The use of colour can direct the human eye towards what we want it to focus on. So, it can be used as a tool for ensuring that consumers see a priority message first.
- It can also be employed to ensure that content is legible or images are discernable. Colour can improve comprehension by 73% and reading by 40%.
4. Advertising (e.g. OOH advertising, magazine advertising, digital advertising)
Consumers today are saturated by advertising on a daily basis.
Strategic, careful use of colour can make messaging stand out. As mentioned, it’s also a key part of brand recognition – full-colour ads in magazines are recognised 26% more often than those in black and white.
Crucially, colour gives brands a way to exploit the tiny window of consumer attention in which an advert must take effect – colours communicate instantly, not just in terms of what is being sold and how we want consumers to feel about that but also who is doing the selling.
A note of caution
Although there are clear parallels in the way that many of us view colours and the responses that certain shades can trigger this is not entirely universal.
Factors such as gender, culture, age and experience can all change the accepted wisdom on how orange or red might make a consumer feel.
We all tend to have slightly different associations as a result of our life experiences with colourful objects and that means that we all understand the concept of ‘purple’ or ‘red’ slightly differently.
As a result, there is no magic colour that will ensure your CTA is always successful or that will get consumers to trust your brand. Context is everything – the context of your business and the context in which the colour will appear.
That’s why audience research and the process of testing colours on your target consumers will be essential.
The Psychology of Colour has the power to transform the impact of images and messaging in a branding and marketing context. It’s a tool that, when correctly used, can trigger brand recognition, stimulate engagement with ads or a logo, and embed key associations in the minds of the consumers you want to connect with.
It’s an investment that, once made, can continue to deliver over the long-term, ensuring that branding and marketing assets are being fully optimised and brand resonance is strong.