The power of color

On, Ruth Mortimer discusses the power of colour in relation to choices consumers make, how they percieve brands, how color translates through varied cultures and how brand can protect the impact of "owning a color".

Starbucks green. Coca Cola red. UPS brown. Each brand has it's own identifable color. Recently, when new Economist billboards in London only had a picture of Brains from The Thunderbirds there was a consensus that people would know the brand just from their well known red background. There have been cases of brands going to court and suing over a competitor's using similar colors. Drug manufactures have been embracing color as a way to distinguish themselves- Prilosec purple, Viagra blue, and Prozac green. And there are a growing number of companies like Pantone which are specialize in creating corporate color identity and product color programs.

The following are some excerpts from the article:

Colour is no longer simply an element of design, but a standalone statement about the brand.
When retailer EasyGroup announced a move into the mobile market last month with its signature orange branding, it ran into opposition from Orange, the incumbent orange brand in the telecoms category.

"We use orange simply and that's why it's so important to us as it strengthens our fun, no-frills brand," explains James Rothnie, director of corporate affairs at EasyGroup. "We're not using a whole mass of colours, it's not complex. All our businesses use the same colour and the same font. It's a way of establishing your identity in the mind of the consumer."
Orange has equally strong ideas about what colour means for its business and the telecom has trademarked its chosen shade. This gives Orange the upper hand in negotiations with EasyGroup, although the two brands have now agreed to work on a compromise.

"It is neither party's interest to cause confusion, and we intend to work together to find an amicable solution," explains Orange spokesperson Sarah Taylor.

Orange's moves to protect its colour as its brand are no longer unusual. According to the Institute of Color Research, human beings make subconscious judgements about any new situation or item within 90 seconds of their initial viewing. Between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on colour alone.

Angela Wright, a colour psychologist at agency Colour Affects, adds: "Colour is noticed by the brain before shape or wording. Since such a high percentage of our response to colour is unconscious, brands are sending a message to consumers whether they know it or not."

Brands must also consider the demographics of their target audience when working with colour. There are marked differences in how colours are perceived depending on nationality and cultural background.

Jill Morton, chief executive of consulting firm Colorcom, says that she sees both regional and gender differences in offering colour advice to brands. Although Colorcom's research shows that black represents high quality among consumers around the world, she adds: "It's interesting that US females rank gold first - a bit flashy - but in Western Europe, women rank colours like dark blue and platinum, a more subdued metallic."

The age of target consumers is also a factor. Colour Affects' Wright cites the case of Pepsi rebranding its white, red and blue cans to blue for its GeneratioNext campaign in 1998 as an example of a brand's colour clashing with its brand and target market.

She says: "Pepsi was promoting the brand as young and lively but they had introduced this terribly solemn, grown-up blue. The customer didn't know who to believe: the words or the colour. It just threw confusion into the mix."
Jez Frampton, chief executive of brand consultancy Interbrand, adds: "Pepsi rebranded into blue to differentiate itself from red Coke - in some markets, certain brands own a colour. But blue is an establishment colour and used in over 60% of corporate identities."

A number of brands have recognised the importance of colour in appealing to kids. Heinz now offers its tomato ketchup in a variety of colours including green and purple to entice younger consumers. US storage container brand Ziploc has created plastic bowls that change colour with temperature. Frito-Lay in the US has even created Cheetos crisps that turn tongues green or blue.

Colours can now be trademarked as a single entity without the need for a shape or design. Brands cannot simply trademark the broad term 'red' or 'green', but must register a shade on the internationally recognised Pantone scale.

The Patent Office applies common sense when it considers if a trademark application in the same business area would confuse consumers. Lawrence Smith-Higgins, head of marketing at the government body, says: "We compare the colours by sight even if the Pantone numbers are different. Identical trademarks can sit side by side as long as they are in different areas and unlikely to cause confusion. Silk Cut and Cadbury's have identical Pantone numbers but consumers are unlikely to confuse the two."

It is clear, however, that colour cannot be the only element on which to build a brand. No brand can be sold on one element of its offering. In addition, there are consumers, such as the 270 million colour-blind people worldwide, who cannot appreciate colour branding.

Dr Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, associate professor of marketing at Rutgers University in the US, who is researching colour-blindness, explains: "It is a problem if colours are used to signal specific information about the brand that is not accessible otherwise. Also if colour contrasts are too high - certain colour combinations can also be illegible. For some, red lettering on a black background appears totally black. And when the colours are 'translated' by the colour-deficient person they will appear unappealing."

But for most brands, the battle is to get their colour recognised by the other 6,377,641,642 potential consumers on the planet. Interbrand's Frampton warns: "If your brand is powerful enough, it can go beyond cultural codes of colour. You aren't chosen purely on colour - it's the whole package that counts."


The brain makes subconscious judgements of brands within the first 90 seconds of viewing them. The mind absorbs colour before design or wording and it is estimated that as much as 90% of the information taken in about a new brand is related to colour.

Colour should not be used simply for differentiation from competitors. You need to choose a colour that fits your brand message.

Research your target market as colour preferences can change with age, background and gender.

When stretching your brand into different countries, check to see if your colour scheme is associated with any deep-set prejudices that might cause the launch to fail.

Trademark your colour so that others in your services and goods category cannot cause confusion by using your brand shade.


WHITE: The colour for weddings in Europe and North America. The traditional mourning colour in China and South America. The most important priestly colour in India, where religious colour associations are more important than in the West.

BLACK: The European and North American colour for funerals. The colour of mourning for distant relatives when combined with blue in China.

RED: The colour of prohibition and warnings in Europe. Unpopular in Ireland when used with blue and white as this represents the British flag. Very popular in China as the colour of communism. In India, it is a Hindu symbol of love and generally denotes life, action and gaiety and is also a wedding dress colour for Sikhs. Should be avoided in Paraguay, along with green and blue as these colours are political.

PINK: The colour for baby girls in the UK and baby boys in Belgium and Eastern France. Seen as a male colour in Japan.

BLUE: The colour for baby boys in the UK and baby girls in Belgium and Eastern France. Seen as informative and trustworthy in Europe. Used in Sweden with yellow for the national flag and it is not seen as acceptable to use the national colours for commercial purposes. Dark blue has associations with the Kuomintang army in China and may give offence. In India, blue means truth and has intellectual appeal, although again dark blue is unpopular as the colour of the lowest castes. In Japan, blue is a female colour.

YELLOW: The colour of caution in Europe. An Imperial Chinese colour which denotes grandeur and mystery. In India, it is the colour of merchants and second only to white in terms of sanctity. Used along with white at mourning anniversaries in Japan, becoming brighter year after year. In Malaysia, it is the colour of the Sultans and can never be worn by Malays. The colour of despair in Brazil.

ORANGE: Popular in Holland, where it is national colour but unpopular in southern Ireland, where it stands for the Protestant Church. It is a symbol of Thursday in Thailand.

GREEN: The colour of the environment in Europe and a significant colour for all Muslims. It has has religious significance in Malaysia but is used commercially too. Popular in Mexico as a national colour.

PURPLE: The colour of royalty, especially in the UK. The colour of soothing in India but also associated with sorrow. The overall colour for sorrow in Brazil. Has religious connotations in Peru, especially in October, and is otherwise best avoided.

BROWN: Unpopular in Germany for clothing as too political following Hitler's Germany. It is thought to bring bad luck in Brazil.

According to an Adweek article from last April, "before the late 1990s, color was usually assigned a minor role in advertising—it was far less important than images, words, shapes and music. Some say the shift began in 1997, when Ogilvy & Mather put a blue letterbox around its IBM commercials. It gave the spots a fresh and cinematic look, says Ogilvy's Chris Wall, senior partner and executive creative director, and tied the work to the brand's heritage, summed up in its nickname, Big Blue. It was also a simple way for IBM to mark its territory in the commercial blur." Of course for ages color has played a significant role, it's just that recently companies are embracing it and coming to terms with the fact that it is a very important piece to their overall branding mix.

Related fun: What's your pantone color?- based on your birthday.

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