I recently caught up with co-owner and marketing mastermind behind Boston co-retail space For Now, Kaity Cimo. She runs the space with friend and business partner Katharine ReQua. They opened a year ago and have played home to over 80 brands in that time.
Color Psychology Marketing: Painting Your Brand’s Identity
There’s a lot of buzz around color. Unfortunately, many business owners, marketers, and advertisers end up asking the wrong questions when it comes to hues: what is the best color to market my brand with? What color leads to the highest conversion rate?
These types of questions miss the point. While it may seem intuitive that colors have some type of innate symbolism and power to them — red means love, green means earth, yellow means sunshine and happiness, etc. — this idea of universal understanding through chroma has been largely debunked. One look at the variety of implications that a color can have across cultures should be enough to convince anyone that our understanding of hue relies on context. As such, the same color can have vastly different effects depending on what’s surrounding it.
So, is there any way to distill all the nuances of color into a single, succinct guide? Yes and no. Like all arts, there are certain principles and rules of thumb that generally hold true. However, the true masters are those who know when and how to break the rules in order to better express their visions.
To get you started, we’re going to outline some basic principles of color psychology marketing. However, it will be up to you to put the pieces together and use them to fully express your brand’s unique identity and stand out from the droves of brands applying these rules purely systematically.
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A better understanding of color psychology
The realization that colors rarely have power or meaning in and of themselves brings us to the most important features of proper color psychology: context and contrast. Mastery of color requires an understanding of the full picture, including the culture(s) your business is operating in, how competitors are using color, and how each color meshes and clashes with the other colors you’re already employing in your branding.
Numerous studies confirm that our color preferences are based largely on the contexts of our own personal experiences, including our gender identity. For example, people who are cold favor warm colors, and vice versa.
There are certain color meanings that are seemingly universal, such as red and black’s association with anger, but others, like purple, can mean largely different things depending on the surrounding culture — Poland was the only country in a study of five that associated purple with anger and jealousy, for example.
Outside of personal and cultural contexts, business climates and stylistic backdrops can have a drastic effect on how different colors are received. For example, in the context of a spy movie, red and black might indicate seduction and luxury. However, turn that into a horror film, and suddenly the same colors signify blood and death. Throw that same color scheme on a soda can, and you’ve got Coke Cherry Zero.
Of course, sometimes the context of a color is limited just to the scope of the branding or design itself. In such small frames, it makes more sense to refer to it as “contrast”.
For example, imagine following the popular idea that red is the best color for CTA’s (calls to action) to its logical conclusions. You’d have to believe that a red “buy now” button would work just as well against a white background as it would against a red background. Clearly, this isn’t the case: a red CTA on a red background will perform abysmally, but the same CTA against a white background will bring the viewer’s attention right to it. The contrast between red and white is a gamechanger.
Breaking down the colors
While proper color usage is heavily reliant on context and contrast, there are some basic principles that you can follow when making visual decisions. Let’s take a quick look at what some colors generally represent and some stats about them.
- Blue: Blue is the most popular color across all genders. According to a study by Joe Hallock, 42% of people choose blue as their favorite color. Blue exudes intelligence, authority, reliability, and calmness.
- Red: Red is one of the most universal colors. Across all cultures, it represents rage and draws people to action — just think of stop signs and other warning signs. Approximately 8% of people report red to be their favorite color. Red can be a good choice for CTAs and action items in the right context.
- Yellow: Another action color, yellow is one of the least popular colors, favored by only 3% of the population. When used correctly, yellow can give off a sense of happiness, optimism, and excitement.
- Green: 14% of the population favors green, tying it with purple for second most popular color. A green color scheme can provide a sense of earthiness and nature, balance and reassurance, and acceptance (green lights).
- Purple: Purple is a highly gendered color — not even one percent of men favor purple, but 23% of women in Hallock’s study reported it was their favorite. Purple is a highly spiritual color that gives a feeling of royalty and creativity.
- Orange: Orange is favored by 5% of the population. It elicits a warm, rejuvenating, and uplifting feeling in people. However, marketers need to be careful with orange, as it is often viewed as a “cheap” color.
- Black: Black is not technically a color. Black can be used to signify luxury, simplicity, and elegance as well as death and depression. It is favored by 7% of people.
- White: White is also technically not a color. It’s favored by 2% of the population and evokes simplicity, purity, and cleanliness.
How to use color psychology marketing
Colors are tools that should be used to express your business’s unique identity. They aren’t something that should be approached in a checklist fashion, thinking that all herbal supplements need green packaging, all suntan lotions need orange and yellow, etc.
The key to proper color usage is making sure that your colors line up with your business’s personality — just because every other business in your niche is using red and black for their logos doesn’t mean that your company should as well. In fact, doing so could make it harder for your brand to stand out.
Instead, you should find a way to walk the line between expected and unexpected. While it’s true that certain colors do have specific connotations, going all in with what people expect will make it more difficult for your brand to stand out.
If you’ve ever walked into the supplements aisle of your local natural supermarket, you probably know this all too well. Every single bottle is either green or brown, making all the brands blend together. If you’re a supplement brand with a spiritual bent, throwing a dash of purple into the mix would make your packaging jump out at anyone entering the aisle.
While much of color usage is fairly abstract, there are at least three concrete ways you can start employing color:
- Gendered marketing: There is no denying that genders generally prefer different colors. Men tend to favor bolder colors, while women prefer softer ones. If your product is trying to appeal to one gender in particular, consider using colors that are traditionally masculine or feminine — pink or purple for women and blue for men, for example.
- Contrast: You can use contrast to bring attention to your brand or specific parts of your design. Just like the supplement example above, a stark color contrast to your competition can do wonders for your brand. Similarly, using opposing colors in a design can highlight specific items.
- CTAs: CTAs go hand in hand with contrast. If you want your audience to complete a specific action, your best bet is to make it very obvious where they should be clicking next. Contrast is the most effective way to do this. If you have a blue background, for example, using red for your CTA will make it stand out and instantly draw the viewer’s attention directly to it.
Where to use colors
Simply put: pretty much everywhere. In today’s multimedia landscape, there are few instances where color would be out of place or unwanted. Applying the above concepts to advertisements, websites, and email and social media campaigns will get you great results if done properly.
The key to success with color is consistency. Consistent brand presentation can increase revenue by 23%. That means that whichever color scheme you choose, you should apply it in the same way across all your advertising channels to increase your brand recognition.
How are the pros doing it?
Interested in seeing just how effective small color changes can be? Let’s take a look at the results some brands have gotten from focusing on color.
Moz, a marketing tool company, was able to boost one of their websites’ conversion rates by 187.4% just by changing the CTA button from this:
Shifting from the relaxed green to the vibrant yellow made a big impact on their audience, drawing their attention to the CTA and putting them into action.
Similarly, Hubspot also found that switching from a green CTA to a red one improved their conversions by 21%.
The effect that color can have on brand recognition is easy to see but harder to quantify. That said, taking a quick look through some of the world’s most recognizable brands should make it clear just how important it is:
Out of these four examples, two of them put a huge emphasis on color. McDonald’s is known as the golden arches, and Target’s store credit card is called the REDcard.
While these two may put color completely front and center, Starbucks and Google would be almost unrecognizable without their signature color schemes — just try to imagine a Starbucks without that subdued shade of green or think of a monochromatic Google. A thought experiment like that should make it absolutely clear just how impactful good color choices can be.
All in all, color theory marketing is all about expressing your brand’s identity. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is not think too hard: try out some colors, and see what resonates with you. If a scheme strikes a chord with you, it’s likely to do so with others as well. Trust your intuition, pair it with some performance marketing metrics, and you’ll have great success navigating these polychromatic waters.
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