Colour has clout, and is much more important in branding than many people think. Make sure you harness this power in your brand.
Colour is one of the most primitive, instinctive forms of communication we have. On both a conscious and subconscious level, colours convey meaning — not only in the natural world but also within the artifice of society and our visual culture.
Colours can set a mood, convey an emotion, attract attention or make a statement; and harnessing colour psychology and the feelings that colours can conjure or create, is one of the most powerful tools a designer has.
In the world of branding and visual identity, a lot of hype is often centred around the logo. A brand colour is often seen as an afterthought — at times (especially in rebrands) — a client will cling on to the old brand colour as a keepsake, and often not see that changing it is as integral to the strategy, as changing the logo.
But a brand colour is precisely what people will recognise, and subconsciously associate with your brand. It is this combination of colours, or lead brand colour — not specifically the logo — that people will remember. Think Cadbury’s iconic purple, or Tiffany’s iconic robin egg blue — colours that have become synonymous with both brands (and trademarked by them too). In 2012, Cadbury won a landmark hearing to win the exclusive use of its signature Pantone 2685C — as used in its Dairy Milk packaging.
Indeed, some brands are so iconic that it is possible to identify them from just a single Pantone colour without an accompanying logo or design system. That shows the true, subliminal (and therefore extremely powerful) strength of a brand colour.
Colour is one of the most primitive, instinctive forms of communication we have.Colour is one of the most primitive, instinctive forms of communication we have.
In fact research by Color Communications found that it takes about 90 seconds for someone to form an opinion of a brand. Within that time, between 62% and 90% of decisions are influenced by colour alone.
So if you make the wrong decision on the colour for your brand, you’re passing up on a great opportunity to make a strong first impression , which would be a huge shame.
Read more about the mechanics of Colour Theory in our related article here, or continue below with our step by step guide to help you make the most informed decisions.
Colours are imbued with multiple layers of meaning — some formed from primitive responses based on millions of years of evolved instinct; to the complex, cultural associations between colour and emotion we make based on learned assumptions. According to a study called The Interactive Effects of Colour, colours are most effective when consumers believe that the brand’s colour ‘fits’ the brand — and speaks to them on a certain level.
Read my post about the Meaning of Colour but, for example, a company selling to discerning organic-focused foodies, should use green or brown in their branding rather than vibrant yellow or acid orange, associated with processed food.
If a colour speaks to a customer, what is it you are wanting to tell them about your brand? Leading on from what we discussed above about foodies — the fast food industry has undergone significant brand colour re-alignments over the past few years, specifically because they want to change their perceived brand values… through colour. McDonalds has been synonymous with red and yellow since it was founded in 1955. They are colours associated with speed and efficiency, and research has also shown both colours stimulate appetite.
However a backlash against unhealthy processed food and intensive farming, have meant McDonalds have undergone a colour re-brand. Extensive research found that red has become more associated with bad food than with fast food, so they changed their colours to natural colours — greens and browns — to allude to seemingly healthier credentials. They manipulated our emotional response to colour, in order to change our opinion about what we think their food is like , and how healthy it is, on a subconscious level.
The best brands have one leading, core colour associated uniquely with them. It is rare to find strong brands with multi-palette options — German fintech company N26 have had a good stab at this, but it is arguably weaker than Monzo's trailblazing neon coral-pink. Interestingly, the neon was chosen by Monzo as a talking point for customers — to help spread the Monzo name through peer-to-peer word of mouth. Young professionals, getting their card out to pay for a round of drinks on a Friday night, would have a flashy talking point to chat to with their curious mates. Despite Monzo's financial woes in 2020, it was a deft marketing move that was key to their initial viral success.
Colour may seem like an afterthought, but it should be one of your first thoughts — and just as important as your logo. I would argue even more so. Your choice of brand colour should be rooted in your brand strategy; different to your competitors and meaningfully, conceptually represent what your company is about. It should embody every strategic touchpoint of your brand, and have a logical rational behind it. Too often brands are jettisoned by a CEO who just happens to like a certain colour, which has nothing to do with the strategy, and it is a crying shame. Don't let this be your brand — it will never forgive you!
If you're lucky enough to be one of the decision-makers in coming up with your brand colour, below are some technical tips as to how to work up a strong palette with purpose.
After you've thought about meaning, you can move on to thinking about the technicalities and mechanics. Get started by choosing your colour base and extrapolating from there. One to two neutral colours will be the canvas onto which you’ll paint. Neutral colours can be split into “warm” or “cool” and are generally defined as black, white, ivory, silver, grey, brown, tan, gold, and beige.
As a general rule — blacks, browns, tans, golds and beige are considered warm; while white, ivory, silver, and grey are considered cooler.
Once you have your neutral colours, start adding to your palette. Choose a pop colour which will be the main ‘hook’ colour that will represent and embody your brand. This is the colour that will grab the attention of your audience, and what people will remember about you as a snapshot in their mind (remember Cadbury and Tiffany’s).
Choose this colour depending on your brand values — what your brand stands for, and what you want it to convey. As a rough guide, cool colours like blue and green tend to have a soothing effect. Warm colours, like red and orange, are lively, feisty and excitable. Often people choose a cool palette of main / neutral colours and then a pop of warm colours to bring it to life.
A call-to-action colour is one that is chosen because it stands out. It is a colour which tells a viewer what to do, in the use of things like a button, link or way of navigation on a website. It should be complementary of your main brand colours, but a contrasting colour on the opposite side of the colour wheel in order to give it that ‘attention-grabbing’ factor that will make you stop and take notice. It is not your brand colour, though.
For example, if you have a calming blue / green colour scheme going on — then it might be a good idea to use a bright orange or red as a CTA colour as this will still complement it whilst at the same time be very different to everything else. Use it sparingly, and viewers will learn that this colour only appears as a means of communicating a specific action.
After you have worked through these steps — employing a set of loose rules as well as instinctive feelings based on your brand values — you should have come up with a system that best represents your new brand identity.
— Cat How, Creative Director & Co-Founder