The Psychology Of Color In Targeted Marketing16 min read

The sky’s blue, the crimson sunset, the emerald of the trees, and the rich colors of nature enchant us every time we see them, filling us with emotion, passion, and power.

Moreover, these same colors affect us in many other ways that every designer must know. Colors can change our moods, affect our decision-making, and alter our buying habits and spending patterns. Good marketers know which colors to use in their brand identity, product design, and business logo.

Hence, the psychology of colors should never be underestimated from the design and marketing perspective.

Why Do Colors Affect Us?

These psychological effects of colors are deeply rooted in our unconscious, connecting to the ancient beginnings of mankind and what colors meant to them. Additionally, throughout history, colors have played a vital role, and their associations created by our forefathers have stuck with our collective culture.

In this article, we will look at each color’s psychological effect, be it ancient man or color’s history, and explain why colors affect us the way they do. Knowing that will make us all better designers and marketers as we understand their effect on our audience.

So, let’s begin.

Firstly, it’s important to note that there is no good or bad color in branding and design – using color in the wrong context evokes the wrong connotation and changes how the colors harmonize.

In other words, we can use all colors for branding and invoke a different association, but as designers and marketers, we should be aware of the color’s message.

Let’s begin when the study of color began – with the color wheel discovered and invented by Isaac Newton in 1666.

Newton saw how a prism split a beam of white light into the color wheel we know today – the 6 primary colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. There are 16 million colors, tones, and shades, but those primary colors were the beginning of our understanding of color itself.

Red

Red has been a significant color historically. After identifying black and white (light and dark), red is the most symbolic color in ancient civilizations.

Red is vibrant and refreshing, evokes excitement and intensity, and belongs to the warm color family, symbolizing passion and pleasure.

However, red has a negative connotation and symbolizes danger, aggression, and discomfort.

Why does red have diverse connotations?

Let’s start with red as a symbol of the danger of violence. To understand this better, let’s put ourselves back in the place of ancient man; in a violent, turbulent, and tribal landscape, red would be associated with blood, clash with our tribes, or wild animals in nature.

To see red in those times meant seeing the blood of a fellow tribesman. This is why red symbolizes danger – losing one’s blood and life force. At the same time, when people are aggressive, their faces often flush, which is another sign of a dangerous situation.

Red’s association with the blood’s color can also mean the opposite – it can symbolize a life-giving source of food. Ancient mankind used to hunt for their food, and while preparing and eating the nourishing meat of the animal, they would see its red blood and muscle, knowing that this would sustain the tribe.

Research has shown that the combination of red and yellow makes us modern-day people hungry. This is why many fast-food brands use red to design their logo, packaging, and related marketing materials.

Imagine yourself an ancient man again – sitting down with the tribe, red meat in your hands and the yellow life-giving sun above you. This symbolized life and the ancient man took every opportunity to eat and be nourished. That ancient instinct is still pervasive inside us, and when we see those colors, we feel it is time to take the opportunity to feed ourselves.

Many businesses use red in their logos for these specific attributes, like Mcdonald’s, Red Robin, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola.

Red was used in Byzantine clothing to show status and wealth. This association has been passed down to our generation, making red signify status and authority. Today, many businesses like Netflix, Time, and Pinterest use red for status.

Also, red can have different meanings depending on the culture. For instance, in Indian culture, it symbolizes marriage – women wear red henna or sindoor to signal that they are married. And in China, red symbolizes luck and fertility, with small red envelopes given during the Chinese New Year as a sign of good fortune for the new year.

Thailand marks every day of the week with a different color, marking Sunday with red. The opposite is true for African cultures, where red means death and grief.

Yellow

Yellow is the color of sunshine & gold and an intense, warm, energetic color of happiness. Historically, yellow is considered among the first colors to be used in prehistoric cave art because of the ease of deriving the pigment from clay.

Ancient Egyptians used the color extensively due to its association with gold, considering it eternal and indestructible.

Yellow has all these associations as it is the most visible spectrum color, the color of the life-giving sun, symbolizing energy, radiating heat, power, and beauty.

Yellow signals happiness and joy for branding, as it is used in the logos of Snapchat and Mcdonald’s. It is used to grab attention and can be used for emergency and cautionary signs. So, if you need to grab attention fast, use yellow.

Businesses use its powerful associations to grab attention, such as Denny’s, Best Buy, Forever 21, Cheerios, and Nikon, to name a few.

Of course, Yellow also has a negative connotation – as it can represent cowardice, betrayal, or even illness. This is because we can find yellow pigments in toxic materials.

Yellow also has different meanings across cultures. In Asia, the color Yellow symbolizes royalty and courage. Whereas in the Middle East, it is seen as a color of mourning and grief.

Blue

Blue is the color of a cloudless sky and is also associated with clear water – it symbolizes life and freedom; and is one of the foundations of the world. Because of this, blue soothes us and symbolizes stability, confidence, loyalty, and trust. It can transmit the qualities of solidity, health, and reliability.

From an ancient man’s perspective, the sky was among the most stable elements he saw. Regardless of the clouds and rains, it has always been there as a deity taking care of the world.

At the same time, the sky and the blue stretched far off past the horizon. It must have seemed never-ending, a boundless, limitless expanse – no wonder it makes us all think of freedom.

Blue is used in branding to express confidence, loyalty, and stability. It symbolizes harmony and reliability, and many businesses associate it with trust, reliability, and confidence to create their brand identity, logos, and other design elements. Examples include Ford, American Express, Twitter, Facebook, and Oral-B.

Of course, blue has negative connotations, as it can indicate sadness and depression. But why is this so?

Consider how ancient man would view Winter time:  everything is blue, cold, and frozen. There was no warmth, there may be no light, and food sources during those winter months. In those times, blue meant death and despair, and suffering.

As with the other colors, blue can also embody various connotations, depending on different cultures. For instance, although blue means masculinity in North America and Europe, it represents femininity in China and parts of the East,

In other parts of Asia and Hindu culture, blue means immortality (partly due to its association with their god Krishna).

Traditionally, blue has regional meanings in certain parts of Europe. In Ukraine, it means healing; in places like Turkey or Greece, it is worn to protect from evil.

Green

Green is right in the middle of the spectrum, making it a balanced color. If we consider the eye going on a journey across the spectrum, it is the point where the eye would rest, sitting under the calming shade of a willow tree.

Historically, green symbolizes growth, prosperity, nature, and health. To ancient man, it indicated the beginning of a new growing season of Spring (the rebirth season). Seeing vegetation grow meant that the hard winter was over, and the world was ready to start growing again! The ancient man could relax and feel confident, knowing that the world would provide again for his needs.

Green is also highly associated with money, which is its recent use. Still, it echoes the same qualities of growth and prosperity with which it was associated earlier. In marketing and branding, green is used for natural products and the brands’ logos to signify growth, calmness, and prosperity.

Many food and nature-related brands use green’s relation to growth, such as Whole Foods Market, Animal Planet, MorningStar Farms, and Tropicana.

At the same time, green also has a negative connotation and is often associated with sickness. Also, fairy tales often tell the story of a Green Ogre or monster.

Firstly, when an ancient man was ill, if a member of the tribe had eaten something poisonous, they would vomit and be sick. The pallor of their face would often change to a greenish hue. And because of that, color is also associated with sickness.

Once again, as with all colors, green’s meaning can change based on location. For example, in Mexico (as shown on its flag), green represents freedom and independence; in Islamic culture, green has a special meaning of symbolizing the Prophet Muhammad.

To show green’s far-reaching differences among cultures, it represents infidelity in Far East cultures, which means wearing green hats symbolizes that their wives have cheated on them.

Black

The classic black color has many different connotations. It brings mystery and allure, signifies sophistication, power, and knowledge, and can also arouse fear. It appeals strongly to teenagers and counter-culture movements; and stands out firmly when contrasted with other colors, adding a dramatic touch.

Where do all of these different emotions and feelings of black originate?

As for fear, allure and mystery come from the age-old fear of the dark. As we stare into the night or the dark, there is a sense of the unknown that lurks in the darkness. It excites us, waiting to see what will emerge from that blackness.

Black is also the absence of color and can be described as a ‘rebellious’ color. It pushes against the other colors; it is different and unique. And this is why it is associated with rebellious counter-cultural movements, with a teenager’s revolutionary spirit.

At the same time, this sense of uniqueness translates into black signifying prestige, an experience, or a company logo that is out of the ordinary. Coupled with another unique color like gold, it can convey a strong sense of luxury and power.

Businesses use black in their brand identity, logos, and other marketing associate it with uniqueness and sophistication. Some powerful brands that use black are Gucci, Chanel, Prada, and many media outlets, such as the BBC and The New York Times.

Of course, as with the other colors, black has a highly negative side, and excessive use can create a sense of gloom and protest. Just as our ancient forefathers saw the dark clouds in the sky, black and grey’s excessive use conveys a feeling of dread and depression.

Once again, black has different meanings that change culture by culture – in Latin America, for example, black is associated with masculinity, but in China, it means wealth, while representing evil in Thailand. In the Middle East, black has a dual meaning of mourning and rebirth.

White

The purest of colors, white symbolizes innocence, serenity, and success. It symbolizes freshness, renewal, and solemnity. Consider our ancient caveman fathers again, and ask yourself: Where would they see the color white?

Mostly, they would see white in the clouds, the pure white pillars in the air, and wouldn’t see much other than snow and some flowers. Rocks, mountains, fields, animals, and themselves would be ravaged by the elements and not shimmer white.

So, to them, white was a unique color like black. Hanging in the heavens on the clouds would be something they aspired to or looked up to. The clouds were untouched by the ravages of the elements – they were pure, simple, signifying lofty goals to attain.

White also has a negative connotation  – as too much of it may be perceived as clinical and unfeeling. Hence, like black, white is used in balance with other uplifting colors to convey a message of purity without appearing emotionless.

Apple is one of the best-known examples of using white in brand identity, branding, and logos, fully exploiting its association with uniqueness.

Depending on the culture, white is also a color of sometimes opposing meanings. For instance, in parts of Asia and Eastern culture, white is the color of death, sterility, and mourning; but it symbolizes a high rank and status in Egypt. And in Latin America, white symbolizes peace.

Purple

Purple is not widely used in branding and design because its reputation is sometimes controversial. It can be seen as a spiritual, magical, whimsical color, while others perceive it with nobility, and some see it as oppressive and destructive.

Where do these associations originate in our history? As for our ancient people, purple was another scarce, unique color. It wasn’t abundant and would only arrive as budding flowers during the spring and summer. And even then, it may have been hard to find. It may have been on birds as they flew high above our ancient brethren.

Purple is unique in the spectrum as it lies between warm red and cool blue, making it cool and warm simultaneously.

It was associated with nature, but not in the same way as green – it was a color of nature attaining higher, elevated status, of the green plants growing into something beautiful and unique. All of this makes purple represent spiritual awareness, balance, and wisdom.

Historically, purple pigments were expensive to create, so the color was rare and only for people of high status. For that reason, purple has remained a symbol of royalty and nobility, leading to some attributing negative feelings of snobbishness, egotism, and oppression to the color.

When creating a website design and marketing materials, several companies use purple to capitalize the whimsical and regal connotations, such as Cadbury Chocolates, Wonka, and Hallmark.

In branding design, purple works well for spiritual, religious, or therapeutic-associated brands or whimsical, magical brands (such as fun food). It can also signify high status (especially when coupled with a color such as gold).

Orange

Orange belongs to the group of warm, earth colors and symbolizes health, ambition, vitality, and optimism. It would have been a common sight in many ways to our forefathers – an orange-like hue would have been present in soils; and seen in fires, on animals, flowers, and in many different places. This way, orange was seen as a life-giving, positive, and vibrant color.

Orange in crowded areas such as malls, theatres, or restaurants because of its association with vitality and non-threatening nature. This has led to the color often communicating affordability (its commonness in nature) or adventure (it’s part of the vibrant environment).

Various brands use these associations to indicate this affordability or sense of fun and adventure, such as Amazon, Fanta Orange, Harley Davidson motorbikes, and Firefox browser.

Orange also can be associated with more than just warmth and happiness. We know it is the universal color for Halloween; still, it’s more than that. In the Middle East, orange can mean mourning; in Asian cultures, it can even be considered a sacred color (such as in Indian cultures) or a color of courage and love (as in Japan).

Pink

Pink in modern culture is associated with femininity, fun, playfulness, and sweetness (often seen in logos for sweet foods like ice cream and donuts), and these days, it is often used to target women.

But Pink was not always like this.

Since pink is such an intense, vibrant color, initially, it was seen as a color suited to little boys. This was because red (which today also has associations with women) was seen as a man’s color (because it too is solid and vibrant), and so pink was seen as a companion to little boys.

Even in Japan, pink is connected with masculinity – the pink cherry blossom trees symbolize fallen Japanese warriors. Yet, today pink can promote innocence, girlhood, nurturing, love, and gentleness, indicating fun and energy.

Many brands use pink’s associations to show their sense of either femininity or fun (or sometimes both), such as Barbie, Baskin Robbins, or Taco Bell.

In other cultures, Pink does not have as many meanings as we would think – in Latin America, it does not hold any close associations and is used as a color for buildings. In the Middle East, it also contains no special significance, and even in China, it has no traditional connotation.

Brown

Brown (and beige) are considered neutral colors – they do not strongly influence our emotions and are often used in interior design as background colors. The reason is apparent when we again think of our caveman ascendants  – they would have seen brown everywhere, almost constantly. Rocks, earth, soil, animals, insects, mountains, trees, almost everything had a shade of brown.

And so, to them, it became what it is still to us –  a background. It was neither extraordinarily positive nor highly negative. It was so abundant that it held no particular connotations.

Historically, lower class and barbarians wore brown from as far back as Ancient Rome. Franciscan monks wore brown during the middle ages to show their poverty and humility.

In modern times, brown is being revived and rebranded – and is now a symbol of nature, health, and organic products; its historical connotation is being replaced with many positive attributes.

Yet, for all these reasons, brown is not often used as an intense branding design color – it just doesn’t have the power of the other colors unless a specific health or natural association is required. It can be used as an accent color or to make the different colors pop, but brown alone isn’t strong enough for branding.

Despite this, a few companies use brown in their branding to highlight their association with organic and natural products, such as Ugg or Cotton.

Brown has different connotations around the world. In Latin America, Brown is seen as a disapproving color that can cause sales to plummet, while it represents mourning in certain Asian and Eastern cultures.

Conclusion

So, we can see how every color can evoke a specific set of emotions. So, as designers, we should take the time to consider these different implications as we settle on a branding palette.

Many people choose a brand’s color out of aesthetic considerations without thinking of its profound effect on the mind and its hidden ability to change mood and behavior patterns.

So as a designer, instead of just choosing a color randomly, consider how that color will affect the customers, the brand’s customers.

Ensure that the brand and logo coincide with the company’s ideals and that the customers respond emotionally by using and remembering what we have discussed here.

Happy Designing!

Disclaimer: This is a guest post contributed by Darryl Marks

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Jamil Ali Ahmed

Jamil is an Organic Search Manager at Cloudways – A SEO friendly hosting Platform. He has 14 years experience in SEO, and is passionate about Digital Marketing and Growth Optimization. Jamil is a Minimalist, Observer, Loves Nature, Animals, Food, Cricket & Mimicking 🙂

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