The psychology behind the colour of your brand

Branding your product or business can be a big challenge, which involves many decisions. Among those, one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make is the colours you’re going to use. We spoke to marketing psychologist Paul Buckley to find out more.

The number one thing Paul says to remember is that there’s no set rules. “If you look at marketing literature, you’ll see people say ‘this colour means this, that colour means that.’ But it doesn’t without context,” he explains. “You can’t just make blanket statements. You’ll see people saying dark, rich colours mean sophistication but it depends again.

“If you’ve got something like dark green on an After Eight package it’s reflecting the dark chocolate, it’s trying to imply sophistication in tandem with the gold and a  sort of British restraint, I suppose. But the same colour green on a ribbed bottle, that’s what they used to use for poisons. And the same colour green on a wine bottle would tend to imply it’s red wine.”

There are of course certain issues that brands need to be careful with – particularly when things could be understood to mean something that isn’t intended. For example, Paul says that he worked with the ministry of agriculture on consumer labelling in the food industry. One of the issues that they found was manufacturers who were putting red hearts on oat based cereals, which “implies that it’s good for your heart”. Trading Standards told manufacturers that this wasn’t allowed but they claimed it was “just a symbol” – so they were told to use another symbol, a red triangle or a green heart. But of course people wouldn’t have the same associations with those things.

The choice of colours that you should choose is massively affected by what kind of product you’re selling, Paul says. For example, in the food industry people tend to stick to “what they call appetite colours”. He explains: “Appetite colours, other than for milk and fish, would be some variant on red, yellow and green because it suggests natural ingredients.”

The science behind stand-out visuals

“Totally nobody in the food marketing industry would consider using turquoise in a food product,” Paul says, because “they rigidly stick to” appetite colours. Apart from one very obvious exception: Heinz beans.

So what was Mr Heinz doing when he chose turquoise to market his baked beans? “He went to the colour wheel and the opposite to orange on the colour wheel is turquoise. So he thought when people open the can, they’re going to get a nice contrast.”

So even though it’s not an appetite colour, Heinz has kept its turquoise branding because it’s part of the heritage of the brand and in 1901, appetite colours weren’t thought about. “But,” Paul says, “I would think virtually nobody would consider using turquoise on a natural product now.”

However, there are exceptions to this – and marketing to kids is one of the significant ones. Paul uses the example of children’s cereals. “They use really garish artificial colours like turquoise, purples, pinks, bright yellow. Put that on adults’ cereal packaging and it’ll put them off because they’d associate it with artificial colourants and additives.”

He sums up: “So if you’re selling stuff to kids, bright colours are good. If you’re selling stuff to older people then probably you’d be better with more muted colours because you’re implying sophistication a bit more.”

Taking products internationally comes with a whole new barrage of challenges, with the different associations that exist overseas.

Paul explains: “For example, it just so happens my front door is bright red with brass fittings on it and I live at number eight. For Chinese people, that’s phenomenal. They love things in bright red with gold on them and the number eight is a lucky number. I live in central Bristol and I get a constant stream of Chinese people getting their photograph with my front door.

“Now to somebody who’s British, a red front door with a brass number eight on it. So what? But for the Chinese it’s good luck.”

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