August 20, 2020

Colouring Perceptions: How Colour Theory Works in Marketing

You may not always be aware of it, but colours and their effects are built into how we interpret the world. After all, we see red when we’re angry, feel blue when we’re sad, get green with envy, encounter grey areas…and the list goes on. Subconscious colour associations can impact your perception and influence your behaviour.

There is a whole discipline of colour psychology devoted to how colours affect our moods and emotions, and it’s something that savvy marketers (hey, that’s us!) have known about for decades and use in our strategy and creative work to build brands that connect on an emotional level with their target audiences. Today we’ll go over some of the theories about using colour in logos and imagery and show you just how important it is to consider when building an effective brand.


The Colour of Culture

How people interpret certain colours doesn’t just depend on the colour itself. It’s also affected by factors like culture, age, religion, or gender – and all of these are important to consider when you’re building brands and determining the right hues and shades.

Here’s an example of how culture can change colouring perceptions. It’s common in North America for new parents to paint their nurseries pink or blue, based on a longstanding tradition that those colours represented femininity and masculinity, respectively. But not many people know that before World War II, those roles were much less defined – pink was often seen as a strong “male” colour, while the softness of blue was also suited to young girls. (The main force behind the modern change? Strong marketing by clothing companies!)

Personal beliefs can also impact interpretations. In Islamic tradition, black is forbidden as a colour of mourning, whereas its common practice in Christianity. Patriotic Canadians may love the red and white combination inspired by our flag, while other Canadians may be indifferent. Knowing how your logo and branding could be perceived by new groups, cultures, and audiences should play a part in choosing a colour scheme, especially if you’re planning on expansion into new areas.

One thing does seem to hold true everywhere, though: the primary colours of red, yellow, and blue are the most important to consider and form the basis of all the rest.

Primary colours and their combinations (from Blendspace by TES)


Primary Colours & Perception

These three primary colours can be combined to make the huge variety of hues and gradients that we can see, often reminding us – on some instinctive, primal level – of the natural world.

Let’s start with blue – the colour of clear skies and deep water, both of which are big features of the human experience. This overarching presence gives a sense of calmness, trust, and security like you would feel while relaxing on a beautiful, cloudless summer day. So it makes sense that many companies draw on blue for those same feelings – look at Facebook, Dropbox, or Bitwarden. They need to subconsciously assure you that your data and information is safe, and this is how they do it. It’s a fine line, though – in some cultures, blue also means depression or loneliness, so knowing your target audience and choosing the right shade and amount to use is key.

Moving over to red, it’s a colour that’s impossible to miss – our brains are literally adapted to notice this colour above many others. It’s the colour of blood, fire, many ripe fruits, a setting or rising sun, and changing leaves on trees – all things that would be important to see throughout human history. And when we’re angry, embarrassed, or in love, our cheeks go red. So what does this tell us? Red is a raw and passionate colour, full of emotion and urgency, and can be used for both positive and negative feelings. Its presence makes us want to take immediate action. When combined with basic human instincts like hunger or fear, this is a powerful cue – which is why so many fast food restaurants (and horror movies) use red in their logos.

Lastly, there is 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, so its use as an accent colour in many company logos makes sense. However, too much at once can feel overwhelming, frustrating, or even sickly – especially if it is a dull shade that reminds your audience of sallow skin or illness.


Going Beyond the Basics

Mixing the primary colours gives a whole palette of new choices from which your organization’s look can be taken; green, orange, violet, pink, brown, gray…and literally thousands upon thousands more. Historically, these have been used to represent certain feelings, too.

Want to give the impression of freshness and natural qualities, like Starbucks or Whole Foods? Choose a good green to remind your audience of a rich springtime meadow or forest. How about a sense of mystery, luxury, imagination, or confidence? Follow in the footsteps of Wonka candies or Yahoo and select from an array of purples, which have often been 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 – think of Apple and Sony – create the feeling of efficiency, futuristic achievements, and top performance.

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


A Spectrum of Possibilities

The ideas behind these colours (as well as all the others) go far beyond what we can discuss in a single blog. When it’s time to show your brand’s personality to the world, don’t be afraid to talk to an expert designer who can help pinpoint the exact colour combo that works for you. Experienced designers know how to connect your brand to your audience through all sorts of visuals, and colour is no exception to this. We take great care in ensuring that the colours chosen in your brand represent the emotion that you want to convey and connect with your audience. When done as part of a larger marketing strategy, your choices showcase the differentiators that set you apart from the pack.

At WJ, we’ve got all of that under one roof – and we show off those capabilities every day with our own logo, materials, and branding. If you need a consultation and an exceptional eye for details, we’re always ready to chat!