By Kate Salkin, Senior Interactive Designer
August 23, 2018
Color theory is a science and art unto itself. Some colors make us anxious, others make us calm and others even make us hungry. Knowing, understanding and applying any level of color theory to marketing executions is a vital step to a brand’s longevity. After all, there is no better leg up than understanding people’s wants and needs on a biological level. In fact, according to color theorist Graf1x, color is the first thing 90% of people will notice about a product or brand. So let’s take a deep dive into the world of ROYGBIV and gather a better understanding of how colors influence human behavior and help inform brand identities.
The color red plays a pivotal role in human emotion and physiological reaction. In fact, the mere presence of the color red has the unique ability to raise our blood pressure, heighten our respiration rates, increase our appetites and enhance our metabolism. After black and white, red is the very first color our brain recognizes when we are born. Red also has the longest wavelength in the color spectrum which results in red objects appearing closer than they really are and grabbing our attention the quickest. From the moment we are born, our brain has a strong, unconscious relationship with the color red.
- Summary: Red is powerful color in stimulating emotion and biological response. Use it wisely.
- Good Application – Food Marketing: Red’s unique ability to influence emotion and rapidly increase appetite is why nearly every fast food brand and many consumer package goods integrate red in their identity. Red is a great color to use when you need to make someone feel hungry quickly. You’ll never look at the grocery aisle the same.
- Bad Application – Finance Marketing: For decades both local and national banks have turned to red to quickly appeal to emotion and exude power, but with many cultures having strong negative associations with the color red, international banks like Chase, Charles Schwab and Morgan Stanley have it nowhere to be seen.
- Brands that Use Red: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Wendy’s, Coca Cola, Campbells, Kellogg’s
Behind red, orange has the second longest wavelength in the color spectrum. This means that orange also has the unique ability to quickly attract attention before almost any other color. Unlike red, though, humans naturally interpret orange with a more youthful energy. People report associating orange with health, excitement, warmth and enthusiasm. Of all the colors in the spectrum, orange is most closely associated with adventure and the release of inhibitions. But while orange is considered youthful and energetic, it is also a color that adults inherently don’t care for. In fact, according to CRM creator Help Desk, 33 percent of women and 22 percent of men report orange to be their least favorite color. This suggests that orange has a very special use case in a brand’s marketing and communication.
- Summary: Orange evokes enthusiasm and adventure, but adults don’t inherently care for it. Use it with intention.
- Good Application – Youth-Oriented Marketing: Of any color, orange is the most strongly associated with an unabated, carefree energy – which is a difficult feeling to evoke without words. Therefore, it is no surprise that orange is so often associated with brands and products aimed at energizing a younger audience.
- Bad Application – Zen-Oriented Marketing: Want your audience to feel a sense of calm? Stay away from orange. As noted above, orange evokes movement, energy and adventure so if you are marketing products or services geared towards meditation, psychotherapy or sleep, steer clear of orange.
- Brands that Use Orange: Nickelodeon, Hooters, Cheetos, Reese’s, Soundcloud
Towards the middle of the color spectrum, yellow shares qualities of both its warmer- and cooler-colored counterparts. Along with the color red, yellow shares the strong physiological ability to increase hunger and metabolism. Yellow is also associated with feelings of lightheartedness and cheerfulness but, in other cases, has the unique ability to biologically produce feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty. In fact, at its purest saturation, the color yellow reflects light at amounts that can stimulate the eye to uncomfortable levels. In 1989, The Wagner Institute for Color found that babies are far more likely to cry in yellow-painted rooms – which has led to a long-standing uncertainty about large amounts of yellow in design that persists to this day.
- Summary: Yellow is an unstable color that can produce both optimism and anxiety. Use it with a strong support from other design elements to properly communicate your intention.
- Good Application – Children’s Marketing: There is a reason so many products and brands that market to children contain the color yellow: yellow attracts the eye. Yellow in small doses also takes on a happy-go-lucky tone which evokes the spirit of most children. In small doses, yellow is a good thing.
- Bad Application – Luxury Marketing: Both men and women perceive yellow as a lighthearted, puerile color. Therefore, luxury brands that pride themselves on sophistication and subtlety (like Mercedes, Rolex and Gucci) should and do avoid the use of yellow in their marketing communications.
- Brands that Use Yellow: McDonalds, Cheerios, Crayola, Play-Doh, Pokémon
People trust green. Green has the unique ability of appearing both strong and trustworthy as well as peaceful and secure. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Most of our associations with green are thought to come from the positive associations we make with the green found in nature. This connection to nature and sense of calm is also thought to be why we so often associate green with safety. For example, the green stop light. Green is also one of the easiest colors on the eye and, therefore, registers as a calming color to the brain.
- Summary: Green is a stable color that evokes growth, health and harmony. Use it in marketing applications where summoning these qualities are important.
- Good Application – Green Marketing: For obvious reasons, green is so closely linked to nature that it is a visual homerun for those trying to make a connection between the environment (i.e. environmentally friendly, organic, all natural, etc.) and a particular product or service.
- Bad Application – Rebellion Marketing: There is a sense of trust and stability that comes with most shades of green, so if you are a brand like Hot Topic, Element or Rolling Stone Magazine that wants to integrate an element of mystery and rebellion into your core brand, stay far, far away from the stale, trustworthiness of green.
- Brands that Use Green: Whole Foods, REI, Animal Planet, John Deere, Starbucks
Blue is the most popular color in the world. Fifty seven percent of men and 35% of women call blue their favorite color, 53% of flags in the world contain blue, blue jeans are worn all over the world and blue is the most commonly used color in corporate identity. Blue tends to conjure feelings of loyalty, trust, cleanliness, confidence, tranquility and calmness. While these associations are often thought to come from the equally calming blue sky and the blue ocean, another reason behind blue’s popularity is tied to its ability to slow human metabolism and heart rate which, in turn, produces a calming effect. These qualities make blue a hugely popular color in healthcare, tech, finance and more.
- Summary: Blue is a safe and calming color that can evoke trust across a wide array of industries. Use generously but realize that your competition may be doing the same.
- Good Application – Startup Marketing: Startup brands have a tough road to household brand recognition. Why not let the color you use in your marketing do the work for you? Blue has been a go-to for startups to help communicate all the qualities customers, investors and shareholders look for in an organization.
- Bad Application – Food Marketing: Between blue’s ability to slow down metabolism and its rare occurrence in natural foods, blue is the largest appetite suppressant in the color spectrum. Therefore, any shade of blue should be avoided at all costs in food (especially natural food) marketing and photography.
- Brands that Use Blue: Facebook, LinkedIn, AT&T, Intel, IBM, Phizer, GE, American Express
Purple has the unique ability to bring good things to those who see it. Purple is said to uplift, calm anxiousness and encourage creativity. Artists and musicians are encouraged to paint their workspaces purple to maximize their creative potential. Part of this is because purple has the shortest wavelength of all colors in the spectrum and, thus, is the least overwhelming to the eye. Purple has also been associated with royal qualities and the avant garde. The singer Prince was a great example of a brand that used purple to exude both an element of superior inventiveness along with a touch of wacky. In an effort to encourage more creativity and imagination in the world, Pantone even named Ultra Violet the official color of 2018.
- Summary: Purple is the color for artistic expression, creative awakening and free thinking. Best used with a side of eccentric.
- Good Application – Quirky Marketing: While purple is associated with royalty, most of its associations are tied more closely with originality and eccentricities. Therefore, it is no surprise that zanier brands like Taco Bell and Aussie have attached themselves so closely with the color purple.
- Bad Application – Male-Oriented Marketing: While there are always exceptions to the rule, the biggest contrast between favorite colors among women and least favorite colors among men can be found in the color purple. Twenty three percent of women consider it their favorite color while 22% of men consider it their least favorite color. Therefore, if you are looking to market a product exclusively to men, avoid the unpopular color purple.
- Brands that Use Purple: Yahoo!, Taco Bell, Crown Royal, SyFy, Cadbury, Barbie, Aussie Shampoo
As you can see, the use of color influences our associations with brands on a biological level every day. Is the brand trustworthy? Is it healthy? Is it appealing to me? These are all considerations your brain makes within seconds of coming into contact with a brand and it is largely due to color theory. So, whether you are just getting a brand off the ground or working on the latest round of a brand campaign, there is no question that color is a great shortcut to evoke a brand message in your communications moving forward. The power is now in your hands. Use ROYGBIV wisely.
Looking for help with color theory? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get the conversation started.