Orangemen and Green Hats: How to Send the Right Colour Signals

Jul 23 2012

Here are three questions about colour that I will answer before you finish reading this:

  • Have carrots always been orange?
  • Is darker chocolate always more bitter?
  • What colour of hat should you never offer a Chinese man?

We all know that colours have powerful meanings, and semiotics is the study of all signs and their meanings. Signs include shapes, smells, facial expressions, body movements, sounds and colours.

There are four key principles in semiotics that are very relevant to the discussion of colour.

1)   Signs have meaning

2)   Meaning depends on context

3)   Meaning comes from what things are NOT

4)   Meaning changes over time

Let me illustrate these principles with an example. In nature, orange is the colour of fire, sun, rust, autumn (in Europe at least). It is also the colour of many fruits and vegetables such as pumpkins (which is why orange is the colour of Halloween). In many cultures orange is associated with energy, vitality, excitement and warmth because of these meanings from nature.

Orange has meaning.

In Thailand, orange (or saffron) is the colour of monks, in Hinduism orange symbolizes the supreme being, and in the UK orange is the colour of Northern Irish protestants.

The meaning of orange depends on context.

In Thailand orange is also the colour of  Thursday, whereas green is the colour of Wednesday. When I wear a green shirt, not only do you know that it’s Wednesday, but you also know that it’s not Thursday.

In fact, many meanings in culture are more about what you are not, than what you are. For example, in the UK green is the colour of Catholicism and in some parts of the UK you are either orange or green. You cannot be both, and you must be one or the other.

Moreover without colour clues you don’t know if fruit are ripe or unripe (which would also be green), or whether they are the lemons or limes rather than oranges (which is more sour and less sweet).

Meaning comes from what things are  NOT.

To illustrate the final principle we need to look at the history of meaning. Orange is an important colour in the Netherlands as you can see from this picture of the celebrations for the Queen’s birthday (in early May). The importance of orange goes back to the 17th century when the House of Orange was associated with the struggle for independence in Holland. Although orange is not in the current national flag it remains the colour of the national football team.

Back in the 17th century, Dutch farmers cultivated carrots in the colour of orange to support William of Orange and his struggle for independence. William of Orange became William of Scotland and that’s why Northern Irish Protestants wear orange.  In honor of William, the first Dutch flag was orange, white and blue, but the dye used for the orange colour was not stable and was changed to red.

Somehow the orange colour of carrots was more permanent, and is now the standard colour in many countries. In reality, carrots come in a range of colours (the original cultivars from Afghanistan more than one thousand years ago were purple and yellow). Was this one of the greatest pieces of colour branding of all time?

Meanings change through time.

Orange only became a colour word in the 16th century around 100 years before William of Orange. Before that the label Orange was only used to describe Orange trees and fruit, and other objects with a similar colour were described as ‘gold’ or ‘amber’ or simply yellow-red.  The word derives from ‘naranga’ which is a Sanskrit word originally used to describe Orange trees which are common in some parts of India.

This is typical of many colour words that often derive from things in nature and only enter a language when the word becomes useful. This is often because of a technological advance that makes it possible to produce the colour as a dye (remember the Dutch flag). In nearly all languages, orange is one of the last words to be used to describe colour as an abstract concept and the order is quite predictable.

White and Black come first, Red is next, Yellow and Green then become used, and then Blue (which is quite difficult to make as a dye). Finally, Brown, Orange, Purple and eventually Pink and Grey start to be used as words in themselves. And that is where most of us stop. Most humans, across most cultures, have a colour vocabulary of eleven words.

Let me take a well-known example of how different signs are used to provide identity and meaning.

If we know that something is a liquid the meaning may be that it can be drunk to manage the balance of minerals and water in our bodies.

If the liquid is brown, then we know that it’s not water and not orange juice, but could be a puddle in the rain, tea, coffee or other drinks.

If the brown liquid comes in a can, we might identify it as a fizzy drink.

We would be reasonably sure it’s a cola if it was served in a glass with ice. Finally, if the can was red or blue we would know that it was a certain brand, with a positive or negative meaning for us, depending on our previous experiences. [Notice that the colour would be enough, without the brand name.]

This is how signs create meaning. In fact, Coca-Cola are responsible for another great example of colour branding. Santa Claus has only been dressed in red for less than 80 years.

The cola wars are a good example of the third principle of binary opposition, where a challenger brand defines itself by NOT being the leading brand. Pepsi also positioned 7UP as the UNcola for a long time. Apple’s advertising is another example of focusing on what you are not (in Apple’s case they are not Microsoft).

What semiotics calls signs are sometimes called mental shortcuts or heuristics in the language of cognitive psychology. These are the rules of thumb that we all use to make our decision making quick and simple (and often unconscious). The identities and meanings that these shortcuts represent make life so much easier for us. Can you imagine going to the shops and having to properly consider every purchase you make and the costs and benefits of each choice? It’s much easier to use rules of thumb, such as the ‘leading brand’ or ‘the brand I ought last time’ or ‘the one in the red can’ and move on to the next item.

Colour is important to humans both biologically and psychologically. The human brain is not a computer or a reference library, and exists to use the information that comes through our senses to make predictions about what we should do next. We tend to think of our brain and body as separate (a fault of Western philosophers such as Descartes), but the brain is really just a central messaging point for the nervous system that runs throughout our body. In a way, you can think of eyes, ears, nose, mouth and other touch sensors as simply different specializations of the skin that surrounds our body and is controlled by the whole nervous system.

The senses are the only way we can know about the outside world. Although we talk about five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell), in reality there are many more than this, including such things as pain, movement, heat and cold as well as others (neuroscientists have counted over 30).

The eyes have evolved from light sensitive areas of skin (some areas of our skin remain sensitive to light) into complex machinery for collecting information from the light sources in our environment and converting it into signals to the brain.

Vision is a very special sense for humans and is one of the reasons for our great success in the world. Human vision is more highly evolved than that of any other animal, helping us to spot fruit in the forest, detect predators when they are far enough away to evade and read the signals that other humans give us.

The main hypothesis for why colour vision developed in humans is so that we could pick out food in the forest, and you can see what advantages that would have in the pictures below.  There is a more recent competing theory arguing that it may also be because it helps us read other people as our detection of colour pigments is especially focused in the areas close to skin tones. That is, the reason we have so much visual acuity in the red/green area of the spectrum is because it helps us tell when other people are blushing!

Vision is so highly developed in humans that in the modern world sometimes we focus too much on how things look and too little on how they feel, smell and sound. Vision accounts for around 90% of all sensory information and by some estimates around one third of all the brain’s functioning.

Vision is so dominant that it tends to override out other senses. That’s why if I give someone a glass of limejuice with red colouring it will taste of strawberry. It’s not because their nose and tongue cannot detect lime, but because their eyes detect strawberry and ‘the eyes have it’, as they would say in the British parliament.

This kind of trick even fools wine experts, who base their views on colour and wine labels and not just on the actual smell and taste.  In some experiments they are more easily fooled than normal consumers, as they have so much expertise and previous experience that it prevents them from perceiving the actual taste in the mouth when a white wine has red colouring added.

You taste what you expect to taste, and if you are expecting to taste a red wine then that’s what you taste. More than 50 experts from Bordeaux tasted a coloured white wine as “jammy” and “crushed red fruit”. Experts were equally tricked when given the same bottle with different labels. A prestige grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded”, while vin de table was “weak, short, light, flat, faulty and with a sting.” Only it was the same wine!

Our experience of the world is a construction of the brain not a reflection of what is really happening. The brain’s construction focuses on the most important signs and ignores the vast majority of the information coming through the senses. Signs such as colour are to the brain what road signs are to a driver. They warn it in advance of what is ahead.

I can share another example of the impact of colour from my experiences working in product development and sensory testing. I was involved in some work to optimize a chocolate product. Research had shown that consumers desired a product with more cocoa flavor, but when more cocoa was added they didn’t like the product because it was too bitter! Eventually, we found a solution through a designed experiment with different product formulations. What we needed to do was to make the chocolate slightly darker in colour but without altering the cocoa content. The new product had just the right cocoa flavor, no bitterness and was a great hit!

In the same way, the darkness of beer is often the most important driver of perceptions of alcoholic strength. We perceive a beer with darker colour as more alcoholic, with the usual effects on our behavior too.

Businesses can use colour to help their customers create and reinforce meanings, and let me share some well-known examples of brands that use colours to help reinforce their core brand values.

Although Tiffany’s colour doesn’t have specific cultural meanings, its pastel shade creates a feeling of specialness and it’s uniqueness is now strongly associated with their brand.

Cadbury’s is a brand very close to my heart as I worked there for more than ten years, and the Cadbury purple has strong associations with nobility, high rank and quality that are very relevant to the brand.

In a similar vein, Whiskas uses similar colours to reinforce their brand story of the cat as the emperor or empress of the house.

And breast cancer awareness ribbon in pink, takes associations with femininity and sexuality to create an iconic symbol of a cause (it might not be quite so powerful in Japan where pink does not have the same gender associations).

Louboutin use the associations of RED with passion, danger and excitement to reinforce their brand values.

Whether you are in the UK or Asia, green is the colour of nature, and associated with meanings such as fresh, natural and growth. In fact, the words for growth and green come from the same roots in English.

Finally, green is also associated with luck, and not just on St Patrick’s Day.

Green also has one special meaning in China .I was running a workshop in China earlier this year, and as with many workshops, brought along four sets of coloured hats to create some team spirit and fun for the activities. In the end, one of the teams became the ‘no hats’ because around half of the team members (the men) refused to wear their hats.  This goes back to an old Chinese story about a cheating wife who gives her husband a green hat for his business trips so she can see him coming when he returns home. So the expression ‘wearing a green hat’ (戴绿帽子 or dài lǜ mào zǐ) now stands for a cuckold.

You should never give a green hat to a Chinese man!

Which is a neat way to summarize my main message.  Colour is one of many signs in human culture and perhaps the most powerful one for communicating meaning. This makes colour a powerful business tool, and also a dangerous one.

So always make sure that you are sending the right colour signals.

[This is an edited version of a talk for Intage Thailand Client Forum "Color Culture Investigation" on 25 July 2012.]

One response so far

  1. Very Good ideas!

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