Colours have an outsized impact on our perception of the products we’re viewing, even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. In an environment where consumers make split second decisions, brands can use smart colour choices to design more inclusive, and more compelling brand narratives.
A study by Kantar Millward Brown singled out colour as one of the most important factors in purchasing decisions, driving intuitive or automatic responses about a brand even before a consumer has any conscious thoughts about it. When given three or four product options that were identical except for colour variations, 80% of respondents chose products based on colour alone.
Brands have tapped into these cues for decades. Blue and green tend to project stability, creativity, nature, health and optimism (Think Dell, GE, Intel, Spotify, Android, Starbucks, Subway), while red evokes feelings of urgency and passion. It’s no coincidence Virgin Atlantic, CNN, Time, KFC and McDonalds use red.
But this impact goes beyond selling more burgers. Colours inspire action, evoke specific moods and even enhance memory. Clinical interventions using colour have been proven to be effective in easing difficulties in dyslexic and autistic readers and improving the memory of Alzheimers patients.
The Right Colours for Emotional Resonance
Most company or agencies engaged in a rebranding exercise will attest to the mixed responses that refreshed logos and colour palettes elicit, especially for well-loved brands. When Lufthansa revamped its livery in 2018, it’s first major update since 1989, the responses were predominantly positive, with notes that some missed the yellow in Lufthansa’s iconic crane logo.
But colour decisions are framed as much by logic as emotion. Not long after the revamp, Lufthansa updated its livery yet again when they realised the new blue looked almost black under outdoor lighting conditions. From websites to products, signage and packaging, accounting for colour early on in a product’s life cycle is easiest — it minimises time and money spent to make products accessible retroactively.
Testing Colour for Cultural Signalling
Colours mean different things in different cultures. In the West, America or Europe, red often denotes passion, action, even aggression. For China and some other Asian countries, it represents good fortune and happiness.
How can companies take these differences into account when choosing colours for their marketing? Early research, usability testing and real-life sampling can yield interesting and unexpected results. Find out what colours are culturally important (and which ones are more insignificant) to your target demographic and how these values align with your brand personality.
Beyond cultural associations, brands have experimented with colours for political and environmental reasons — corporations fly rainbow logos to celebrate Pride month or express solidarity with people of colour on social platforms. Brands have also embraced
colour to expand to new audiences. From Apple’s early offerings in Silver and Space Grey, the intentional infusion of colours has created opportunities for personalisation, and connected the brand with younger audiences — with trends suggesting that green is to climate-engaged Generation Z, what pink was to the millennials.
Announcing Rebellion and Creating Accessibility
Colour choices often represent a break from the old order. Take blockchain, internet payment and fintech companies like Kraken, Klarna, Robinhood, and others, the bold, saturated colours, pinks and neon greens represent an ideological and visual departure from the staid blues and reds traditionally favoured by banks and financial services companies — welcoming new users, and creating democracy in the digital age.
It’s good to remember that a thoughtful brand palette goes beyond obvious emotional impact to address challenges around legibility and user accessibility. Stripe created a tool to improve visibility of the various elements on their online interface. If early rounds of usability testing suggest that some of your colours don’t hold up, going back and iterating on your palette might save time and resources down the road.
Early colour prototyping is essential to the design process
When it comes to colour palettes a good place to begin is with the buyer. Consumers should be able to connect with the colours you choose. Study their needs, and test a hypothesis for validity. In an increasingly busy marketplace, colour can be the trigger, the first chance of being noticed and remembered at a busy intersection.
Successful marketing relies on deep, lasting connections with your target audience on an emotional level, and colours have a powerful impact on emotions. Brand colours are more than just an aesthetic decision — they impact how potential customers feel about your product, company and brand. Three principles — emotional resonance, real-life testing, and accessibility — can guide you through the design research process, always with the end-user top of mind. It’s time to put your colour choices to test.