The More Hue Know: The Psychology of Colour and Marketing

Graphic created by Josh Stevenson

The brain is an incredibly complex organ, 100 trillion neural connections all firing through 100 billion neurons. This makes the brain incredibly good at forming associations, both bad and good. For example, I had lime jelly for lunch at school when I was about six years old, got really ill about an hour after, and now cannot even look at lime jelly (or any jelly for that matter) without feeling physically nauseated. Thanks brain.

Whilst that connection is a little less than desirable for myself, the brain’s associative capabilities and linking of stimuli to emotion and memory make it a great tool to market towards. When a consumer looks at a brand or product, you want them to feel a certain way, and that is something that the right colour can help you achieve.

For decades, researchers have been looking into the effects that certain colours have on the brain, both physical and psychological, and whilst there are several mitigating factors that mean that not all colours are perceived equally between all people, there are some general trends that are worth noting.

Red-y, Set, Eat!

One of the most successful examples of colour marketing come from fast food outlets. McDonald’s, KFC, Five Guys, and Burger King, to name a few, all heavily feature red in their logo and marketing. Why? Because red promotes hunger. Seeing the colour red increases blood flow inside the body, and the more blood that flows to the digestive system, the higher your metabolism and thus, you get hungry. The colour red also instils a sense of urgency (think of most sale/clearance signs), and therefore it pairs well with the idea of ‘fast food’.

The other clever thing about the colour red is that it makes our brain overestimate the amount of time we have spent on something. So, again, it makes sense for fast food outlets to rely on this colour so that we believe we have been waiting a long time for food, look at the clock and be impressed that less time has passed than we thought. Fast food indeed.

As Good As Blue!

Did you know that blue is the colour most likely to be legible by people with colour blindness? That already makes it incredibly useful from a marketing perspective, but blue is also known to promote security and peace, lowering the heart rate and bringing our mind and body a sense of tranquillity.

No prizes, then, for guessing which brands favour a blue colour scheme. Social media platforms! Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn all use blue to market their brand. Studies have shown that blue is perceived as a friendly colour, fostering the community feel that social media platforms are looking for. By giving us a sense of tranquillity, blue also poses an association between our ‘down time’ and social media, making us more like to use it when we have spare time or want to relax.

On top of all that, blue also is the opposite to red in terms of perception of time. Blue makes our brains underestimate time, thus allowing us to get lost down the rabbit hole of Twitter threads or Facebook memes without realising that we should’ve been in bed three hours ago. Obviously, not speaking from personal experience there… *cough*

Tickled Pink

We all know that when Valentine’s Day approaches (yes, I know I’m a little late), red is the colour most often associated with it. Red is for love, right? Well, yes, but pink is also a big winner in the romance department, and on the marketing side of things. Pink makes us crave sugar, and what better way to upsell all that Valentine’s chocolate than wrapping it in pink packaging?

Pink is also the colour associated with softness, caring, nurturing and hope, all qualities that link unanimously with the themes of love, romance and relationships. It combines the stimulation of red, whilst toning down it’s aggressiveness with the purity of white.

Setting the Tone

Now, not all colours elicit such an in-depth, physiological response. But they do still carry meaningful connections to emotions and ideas that can relate to your brand.

Green is mostly associated with nature and money. It has been found to help alleviate depression and anxiety, and harmonise the brain into decisiveness. This makes it popular with environmental brands and causes.

Purple signifies wisdom, imagination and spirituality. Perhaps because it is a colour that does not actually exist. Confused? Well, there is no visible wavelength of light that is the colour ‘purple’. Unlike with green and orange, which can also be seen by looking at the midway point between the colours yellow and blue, and yellow and red, respectively, the only way we can even see the colour purple is by looking at red and blue at the same time. Purple is popular usually within religious and royal contexts, as well as for brands which mean to spark creativity. Purple can also be used to signify luxury, along with gold.

Yellow, as no doubt you already know, means joy and optimism. It can be used to promote happiness for brands with a sad focus, e.g charities such as Children in Need and Dogs Trust, or to draw attention and give the illusion of positivity to a brand. Orange has a very similar effect, although it errs more towards creating excitement and aiding digestion, being halfway between red and yellow.

Shades of brown symbolise protection and support, and so can often be found in conjunction with black which people perceive as the colour of authority, strength, intelligence and control.

This is why black also pairs well with grey and silver. Grey denotes practicality and solidarity, whilst silver provides a sense of modernity and technological advancement and innovation. This makes it incredibly popular with tech companies such as Apple.

And lastly, white. Popular with cleaning products and children’s brands because of its association with cleanliness, purity and innocence. For this reason, it again pairs well with the majority of colours and lends a brand a fresh, dependable quality.

Don’t Overmix

As I mentioned at the beginning, whilst there are general trends that colours seem to evoke, there are certain factors that affect how people perceive colour, and should be kept in mind when choosing colour combinations for marketing.

I have already mentioned the strong link our brains have between colour, memory and emotion, and this is further demonstrated by the studies that have been done into colour and the negative associations some people carry. For instance, red also being the colour of caution and discipline such as red lights and stop signs. Yellow has been known to cause anxiety in people if looked at for too long, and blacks and greys can be depressing and ineffectual if overused.

Culture, gender and age also all play a key role in our perception of colour. For example, green is the colour of warning signs in Malaysia, but it denotes trustworthiness and reliability in China, and in the west, it is a symbol of envy, as well as the associations I mentioned above. In some countries, blue is the colour of masculinity, in others it is red and the same can be said for femininity. Furthermore, the tendency for young adults to gravitate towards darker hues changes as people age, leading into a preference for a mixture of light and dark hues in middle age, and changing again to all pastel by the age of 55.

The Colour Instinct

Whatever colours you are thinking of using for your branding and marketing, the main takeaway is to remember your audience. What is suitable for a teenage girl’s clothing company is probably not going to apply to a furniture supplier. Keep it readable, simple, and eye-catching and you’ll have all the tools of the shade!