You see red, you feel passion. You see blue, you feel calm. Those types of color-emotion mappings form the basis of the pseudoscientific field known as branding color psychology.
Color psychology is the theory that colors affect human behavior and emotions. There’s some research to back this up—for instance, one study found that the color red can make people have a stronger grip. Another study discovered that when people exercise in a green room, their heart rate is lower than when they do in a red room.
That kind of power is appealing to marketers. Imagine you were responsible for the marketing of a burger joint. You could tell your boss that with the right branded colors, you could induce a sense of joy, hunger, and love every time your target audience saw your carefully designed logo. You’d be unstoppable.
This allure has caused the field of branding color psychology to absolutely flourish in recent decades. In branding, color psychology is thought to influence how consumers think of a brand—and even persuade them to make a purchase. Do a quick search for “branding color psychology” and you’ll see what I mean.
Let me make my position clear: most branding color psychology is bullshit, despite the popularity of the subject. It’s an oversimplification. The scientific evidence is sparse and in some cases contradictory. Without nuance and proper analysis, color psychology in branding is worthless to companies and their consumers.
What’s Wrong With Branding Color Psychology?
“But it’s scientific!” scream the proponents of branding color psychology. “Real researchers have found links between color and emotion!”
Those people aren’t completely wrong. There are some connections between color and emotion. The problem is that people misinterpret those findings, apply them too generally, or just straight-up inflate their importance.
This means that in the field of branding color psychology, marketers prefer to believe in an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. They want to design a red logo for their dating app because red equals love.
Why do so many otherwise intelligent marketers fall prey to these fallacies? There’s actually another psychological term that explains what’s happening: the fluency heuristic. In general, the easier something is to process or grasp, the more readily humans believe it. So many branding color psychology memes offer that fluency, making it an appealing concept.
What Does Effective Branding Color Psychology Look Like?
True and effective color psychology doesn’t follow those simple links. For example, in the Western world, red does have some links to passion. One 2018 study found that for men, the color red does increase heterosexual attraction to a small degree. However, that same meta-analysis found no effect on women. Furthermore, in China, red is associated with happiness and fortune—not romance or passion.
Color psychology changes based on more than just cultural significance, too. Individuals will develop different responses to the color spectrum based on their personal history, color preferences, upbringing, cultural differences, and context.
That’s not even getting into the variation within colors themselves—do branding color psychology peddlers really expect us to believe the color teal and the color navy convey the same emotion because they’re both the color blue?
The lack of scientific evidence hasn’t stopped the tremendous proliferation of branding color psychology infographics. These are popular because they offer a tempting 1:1 mapping of color to emotion. Novice branding marketers might get drawn in by the idea that yellow makes customers associate their brand with clarity, or that green will cause your target audience to feel peaceful.
But these branding color psychology memes and charts flatten the nuance. They’re simplistic, one-dimensional representations of a very complex and highly subtle subject.
How Branding color psychology works—if you do it right
1. Induces Specific Emotions
Most branding color psychology is bullshit. But some of the science behind it is real.
As I mentioned above, research shows that color-emotion associations do exist. Humans are highly visual creatures, and it makes sense that over the millennia, we would have evolved certain biases toward certain colors in particular contexts. (Just think of how you react when you see a brightly-colored insect, for instance.)
2. Conveys a Meaningful Message
Color definitely has the power to convey a meaningful message, but when it comes to branding, it’s more complicated than most people want to believe.
No startup CEO wants to hear this, but there’s no escaping hiring a designer to do the job right. You can’t make yourself a logo with the color purple and expect all customers everywhere to automatically associate you with wisdom. (I mean, just look at Taco Bell.)
3. Establishes What The Color Can Mean To Your Target Customers
You have to conduct your own research to figure out what color means to your customers, in your culture and industry, and in comparison to your competitors. You will have to conduct competitor research. You’ll have to run a thoughtful cultural analysis of your customers.
This process is harder than just picking a color because it conveys the one emotion you want, but—when done carefully—colors can be used far more effectively.
What’s the Best Branding Color Psychology Advice?
There’s no color psychology advice that fits every brand. Instead, there are guidelines that every brand should follow when choosing a color palette. The best advice I can offer is to speak with your customer base, understand their associations, and use that research—personalized, company-based research—to decide on the best color palette options for the brand.
Beyond that, research has found that there is one metric to correctly map color to your brand: whether customers judge the color is appropriate for your brand. If customers understand how you’re positioning yourself, and they agree with the color you used to convey that emotion, then they’ll think of your brand more positively.
However, even this study had limitations—it only looked at single-color logos, and focused on red versus blue since the study of those colors is well-documented.
The authors drew the conclusion that blue was deemed more appropriate than red for functional products like a bank, while red was considered more appropriate than blue for sensory-social products, like a nightclub. Even within those parameters, it’s easy to find exceptions. Wells Fargo is branded in red and yellow but is still a successful bank. If you look up pictures of highly successful nightclubs, many show up in blue.
That’s not even getting into how typography, names, or taglines are associated with brand colors. Only you can figure out what your customers think is appropriate for your brand in conjunction with all your other branding choices.
4 Ways to Get Started With Branding Color Psychology
- Carefully consider the feelings you want your brand to evoke.
- Conduct a nuanced customer analysis. Who are your customers? What do they value about your brand? What do they already associate with it?
- Do your research—but don’t trust universal claims.
- Consider what your competitors are doing and ensure you’re distinct. Look at Shell and BP or Starbucks and Dunkin’. Despite filling the exact same niche, they use diametrically opposed brand colors. You should do the same.
Color Psychology in Branding: Coke vs. Pepsi
I will give you one final case study to explain why branding color psychology is mostly bullshit: Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Both offer the same type of soft drink. Both occupy very similar markets. Coca-Cola is branded in red, while Pepsi is predominantly the color blue. These colors are emotionally opposed according to previous research. And yet both are highly successful beverages. Why is this?
It’s because branding comes down to more than just color selection. Each company is known and recognized for its font, slogans, color palette, and overall brand image. Color has some influence, yes, but a successful brand goes far beyond the color red versus the color blue.
Final Thoughts on Branding Color Psychology
I know exactly how tempting it is to believe in the easy answer. It’s why the branding color psychology myth is still prevalent among marketers today, despite being debunked by expert marketers, and despite many of those infographics contradicting each other.
I understand why people want to believe that using the color yellow in their brand will make their customers feel happy and buy their products. But by now, there’s no excuse for not doing your job and conducting proper research to figure out the right colors to associate with your brand. Color psychology can help your brand, but only if you put in the work to go beyond the easy answer.
Zulie Rane is a freelance writer. She previously worked in sales and marketing departments for tech companies. Today, she writes for companies in various sectors, including cybersecurity, marketing, and data science.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do you mean by branding color psychology?
Branding color psychology is the belief that specific colors can easily induce specific emotions in your target audience. While this does have some standing, it also depends on various factors and hinges more on color theory.
Even though it’s easy to say warm colors inspire lighter, happier emotions and cool colors are limited to more serious brands, it’s not always that simple. The meaning that is conveyed in your brand through the use of cool colors or warm colors depends more on your brand personality and the message you put across.
What are some things to consider when deciding on brand colors?
To begin with the color scheme, your target audience’s color preferences as well as cultural differences are worth keeping in mind. Alternatively, color associations and color combinations used when settling on your brand colors rely more on aesthetic value.
What impact do brand colors actually have?
When it comes to the color wheel as used in branding, color perception and color combinations can convey different meanings. While the color green is typically associated with prosperity or the environment and the color orange is associated with enthusiasm and fun, these colors are not limited to these meanings. Color meanings can vary across different cultures, however, the use of bright and contrasting colors generally grabs attention, while darker colors induce calmer or more serious emotions.
What are some guidelines to follow when establishing your brand?
When starting out, positioning your brand personality with relevance to your target audience is vital. In doing this, color theory, and market research, as in colors that historically perform well with the demographic, are worth considering. The meaning of your brand colors at the end of the day relies more on brand identity, color preferences, and your marketing efforts.