news: Colouring Perceptions: How Colour Theory Works in Marketing
August 20, 2020

Colouring Perceptions: How Colour Theory Works in Marketing

Feelings and colours go hand in hand. We see red when we’re angry. We feel blue. We get green with envy, struggle with grey areas, and on and on. In fact, there’s a whole discipline of colour psychology devoted to how colours change our moods and emotions.  

Using subconscious colour associations is a common Jedi mind trick of marketing. We use it in our strategy and creative work, building subliminal associations to match a brand’s character and personality. Doesn’t that just tickle you pink? Here’s how we do it.  


How Culture Can Change Colour Perception

How people interpret certain colours doesn’t just depend on the colour itself. It’s also affected by things like culture, age, religion, or gender, so always consider these when you’re changing up to a fresh new look. 


Gender Roles and Colour

Here’s one example: it’s common in North America for new parents to paint their nurseries “feminine” pink for girls and “masculine” blue for boys. But before World War II, those roles were much less defined – pink was the strong male colour, and soft blue was just fine for young girls. If you ever doubt the power of marketing, remember that it was the driving force behind that swap. 

Personal Beliefs and Colour Theory 

In Islamic tradition, black is forbidden as a colour of mourning, but that’s all you’ll see at Christian funerals. Patriotic citizens respond strongly to the specific colours of their nation’s flag. What we’re saying is, you have to put in the legwork to learn how your chosen colours could be perceived by new groups, cultures, and audiences. Especially if you’re planning on expansion into new areas. 

Universal Colour Psychology 

Say you pick any random person from any culture on Earth. Is there any part of colour theory they’ll agree on? Actually, yes (at least, as far as we know): the importance of the primary colours – red, yellow, and blue. 

Primary colours and their combinations (from Blendspace by TES)


Primary Colours & Perception

These three primary colours can be combined to make – well, all the other colours. Every single shade and gradient you’ve ever encountered (about ten million of them, unless you’re a lucky woman with the ridiculously cool condition of tetrachromacy) is some combination of these three, plus various levels of darkness or light.  

Blue Colour Theory 

Let’s start with blue. Obviously, the colour of big, clear skies and peaceful water is going to cause some big feelings deep in our primate brains. Generally, blue is used to show calmness, trust, and security, like you’d feel while sunbathing on a tropical beach.  

So, it makes sense that many companies draw on blue for those same feelings. Look at Facebook, Dropbox, or Bitwarden – their colours are a fuzzy thought blanket, reassuring you that your data and information is safe.

But – wild card! This is a fine line. In some cultures, blue also means depression or loneliness. That’s not so fun for connecting with potential customers. Knowing your target audience and choosing the right shade and saturation is key. 

Red Colour Theory 

Red is a colour that’s impossible to miss. Our brains are wired to notice this colour immediately because it shows up where our attention is needed most. Injuries, fire, juicy ripe fruit, sunrise and sunset, the leaves of autumn, times of high emotion…there’s a reason why stop signs and traffic lights rely on this to save lives.  

Red is a raw and passionate colour, full of emotion and urgency. It can be used for both positive and negative feelings, cueing us to take immediate action. When combined with basic human instincts like hunger or fear, this is basically a human brain hack. It’s why so many fast-food restaurants (and horror movies) use red in their logos. 

Yellow Colour Theory 

And of course, we can’t forget yellow: the colour of warm sunshine, bright flowers, firelight, and juicy citrus fruits that your body needs. In the right amounts, yellow brings feelings of warmth, happiness, comfort, and health. You’ll usually see it as an accent colour in logos for just this reason.  

But remember: as Charlotte Perkins Gilman pointed out so well, you’ll know that too much yellow at once can feel overwhelming, frustrating, or even sickly. Pro tip: avoid those dull, greenish shades that might remind people of sallow skin or illness. 


Going Beyond the Basics

Here’s where colour theory gets tasty: mixing primaries provides thousands of new choices for your company to try out. These also have their own connotations, historical and otherwise. 

Want to give the impression of freshness and nature, like Starbucks or Whole Foods? Choose a green that calls a rich springtime meadow or forest to mind.  

How about a sense of mystery, luxury, imagination, or confidence? Wonka candies and Yahoo have this locked down, with purples once used to represent royalty and status in ages past.  

And if you want approachability and friendliness, you can’t go wrong with a splash of orange, like Firefox and Amazon. Even technology companies using simple black and white – we don’t even need to show you the logos for Apple and Sony – create the feeling of efficiency, performance, and a rapidly arriving future. 

Colour theory in action for many logos (from Impact BND)


A Spectrum of Possibilities

Even though this is now 1000+ words long, these ideas go far beyond what we touched on. When you’re in the market for a rebrand, it pays to consult an expert designer who can nail down the exact colour combo you need. Your colours say as much as your words do. 

For maximum style points, choose those new shades as part of a larger marketing strategy: branding, design, social media, digital presence, and the whole shebang. And would you believe that at WJ, we’ve got all of that under one roof? That means you don’t have to aimlessly white-knuckle your way through the year ahead.  

Find what’s next for your brand and for you. Our DMs are always open!