The Psychology of Color in Marketing

by Paul Scondac on September 19, 2016

This content originally appeared on Act-On's blog and was authored by Nicki Howell.

Customers form opinions about your products and services in a matter of seconds (90, to be exact). But what’s surprising is the majority of these conclusions are fed by something entirely outside the customer’s conscious awareness: their response to color.

Food giant Heinz discovered the power of choosing the right color in marketing when they made the kid-friendly EZ Squirt ketchup in spinach green. It seemed crazy, but it was an instant hit and led to an entire rainbow of ketchup colors – and ultimately, 25 million units sold. Like most fads, this one faded after its initial boom, and was discontinued in 2006 (with the exception of the random St. Patrick’s Day bottling). But it was profitable while it lasted.

Colors and Marketing: A Quick Guide

So if color is such an effective marketing tool, how can B2B marketers leverage this tool to drive better results?

Whether it’s in a website redesign, collateral materials, or other marketing efforts, color can help improve your results. But to maximize your efforts, you must know your target audience well (most marketers do), including what they look for from you, and you must understand how colors drive emotion. Here’s a quick guide to selecting color with greater purpose.

The primary colors

In theory, every color of the rainbow can be made by mixing the three primary color: blue, red, and yellow. (Read about how Isaac Newton’s breakthrough set the stage for today’s understanding of colors.) Each color has a whole palette of emotions it can provoke, depending on its use and context, but there are elemental emotions associated with each.

Blue

What it means. Blue is used by brands to communicate trust, strength, openness, dependability, calmness, and confidence.

Brands that use it. Along with financial companies, major social media brands – Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – are using blue to build trust and openness. Facebook is “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Twitter is “giving everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” And LinkedIn is working “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.”

Major technology brands such as HP, Intel, Dell and PayPal also leverage this color to communicate dependability and trustworthiness.

Red

What it means. Red is a powerful color, evoking many emotions, including power, excitement, and a sense of urgency. Some authorities say it provokes hunger, which could be one reason why it’s used by chain restaurants like KFC and Wendy’s. Here’s how Wendy’s uses red in their Twitter feed:

Other brands that use it. Many major B2C brands such as Target, Netflix, and Levi’s use red in their branding.

Pinterest uses red, as does the BBC, and Marketing Week.

Yellow

What it means. Yellow communicates optimism and clarity. As Business Insider explains, “Brands use yellow to show that they’re fun and friendly.” The human eye processes yellow first, which explains why it’s used for cautionary signs and emergency rescue vehicles.

Brands that use it. IKEA is among the many brands that use yellow to attract and engage customers. When entering the store, you’re met with bright colors, open spaces and a sense that you’re there to do something fun (unless you’re overwhelmed by the sheer size of the store!).

Yellow is also used for road signs, traffic caution signals, and wet-floor signs. McDonald’s arches are golden, and the bright color captures the attention of highway travelers. Shell Oil, imdb.com, Pennzoil, Ferrari, Batman, and Caterpillar all proudly proclaim themselves yellow.

Secondary colors

secondary color is a color made by mixing two primary colors.

Green

What it means. Green triggers feelings of growth, peace, and nature.

Brands that use it. Starbucks leverages this color (that mermaid in the center of the company’s logo has been green since 1986). On the company’s website, you can see that they are communicating a message of peace through color when saying “We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.”

Animal Planet is another brand that opts for green. Just check out the cover of their brand book:

They use green to convey a message focused on nature, peace, and synergy – precisely the emotions they want to evoke in website visitors.

Orange

What it means. Orange says that your products and services are carefree, fun and playful. But use orange carefully; its downside including suggesting a lack of serious intellectual values and bad taste. For example, for a financial provider, orange may communicate that customers shouldn’t take them seriously (which may be why so many opt for blue – which says dependability and trust instead).

Brands that use it. Television network Nickelodeon successfully leverages orange. The company’s mission is to entertain kids.

Harley Davidson manages to combine playful and caution in one product, and logo:

Amazon uses several shades of orange as an accent; one as part of their logo, another as part of their web palette. They want to “build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” This lives up to the orange promise; after all, who doesn’t think finding anything you want is fun? Note that the “Try Prime” language under the logo is in trustworthy blue.

Purple

What it means. Historically, the color purple is associated with royalty and wealth, and also with sacredness (e.g., religious robes) and courage (Purple Hearts). This color also communicates creativity and wisdom, and triggers emotions associated with quality, richness, luxury, and decadence.

Brands that use it. Hallmark uses purple to evoke the feeling of quality in their products. You can see this in their logo, which features a crown.

In contrast, Yahoo uses purple to communicate creativity. You can see this when they say “Yahoo was the original guide to the Internet, connecting users with their passions and helping them to discover the mystery and promise of the World Wide Web.”

And of course, purple helped Prince build an iconic brand.

Other colors

Pink’s not a primary or secondary color, but it’s a tint of red that packs a very targeted branding wallop.

What it means. In Western culture, pink is tied to the concept of femininity. It’s typically used when a brand wants to show love, nurturing, or caring. According to fatrabbit, “bright and warm pinks, such as fuchsia or magenta are vibrant, youthful and encourage a sense of confidence … while calm pinks are friendly and represent the carefree days of childhood.”

Brands that use it. The Susan G. Komen Foundation uses pink (most famously in the pink ribbon) for breast cancer awareness campaigns.

Retailer Victoria’s Secret also uses this color; they even launched a specific brand titled “PINK.”

Black isn’t just for villains; it’s authority and power as well, and it can be shorthand for sophistication. Use it strategically and sparingly, as too much black can be negative and oppressive.

White projects clarity, cleanliness, innocence, purity, and freshness. White space is always a good thing; it opens an area up and adds breathing space to a crowded image. It’s also excellent for contrast. In fact, some of the most popular brands in the world (Google!) use white to create more space and stand out.

The World Wildlife Foundation black-and-white panda logo is an example of a very appropriate use of black.

Stark black and white motifs can be very compelling.

Tips for Using Color for Greater Results

Consider your target audience. The color guide above is a good place to start, but naturally, there are many different variables, including gender, that play an important role. For example, in general, women don’t like gray, orange, and brown and instead favor blue, purple, and green.

Men have much the same preferences, but prefer black to purple. Also, colors are not universal when it comes to geography. Read this Shutterstock blog post for a primer on how colors are used around the world.

Keep it simple. When using color to evoke emotion, keep it simple by using one prominent color and offsetting it with a neutral hue. Using fewer colors avoids evoking too many emotions at once.

Use contrast. Select dark colors and contrast them with light colors. Or select complementary colors, which are directly opposite each other on the color wheel; purple and yellow, for example.

Opt for bright colors for calls to action. Bright colors — red, green, orange, yellow — support higher conversion rates. It’s easy to take advantage of this tip, and it’s easy to test which one will give the best results.

Test, Measure, Adjust

Using color isn’t an exact science. The key is to test, measure and adjust your efforts. As you continue to do this, you’ll determine which colors translate to success and capture the most leads and results for your brand.

How do you use color in your marketing? Please share your experience and results.

Photo “Covers #PRINCE” by @DrGarcia used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

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Paul Scondac
Marketing Manager at UpCurve Cloud
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