The Colour of Business

Mar 10 2014

When you see a pink ribbon what do you immediately think of? If you’re like me, you will make a connection to the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, which has made a pink ribbon its own unforgettable icon.

Our visual perception dominates the senses, and colour is the most powerful of our visual sensation, which is why I place it at the top of the sensory hierarchy in the esSense® sensory branding framework presented in Brand esSense.  That’s because colour primes humans like nothing else, not only because of its powerful symbolic value, learned through nature and culture, but also because it can have a direct physical effect on our bodies.

Colour primes our mind and body with direct physiological effects as well as less direct symbolic meanings. Red environments are know to increase blood flow and stimulate nervous system responses, changing the way we see the world around us. In one experiment, those waiting for a red or yellow web page to load were more agitated than those waiting for the same page with a blue background.

Red has been shown to increase perceptions of attractiveness and sex appeal in men and women when viewing the opposite sex and is described as a ‘hot’ colour.  By contrast, blue has been shown to have a positive impact on those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and is described as a ‘cold’ colour.

Perhaps the greatest sensory branding exercise of all time happened in the 17th century when Dutch farmers started cultivating orange-coloured carrots in order to support the House of Orange and its struggle for independence. The Prince of Orange, Willem III, later ruled Scotland and then England and Ireland, where the orange colour still retains meaning as it does in the Netherlands. The Dutch football team wear orange strip, although the orange component of the Dutch flag was changed to red because orange dyes were unstable at that time.

Companies such as Cadbury, Tiffany, Harrods and Christian Louboutin have all fought for exclusive rights to use their own colour. In Cadbury’s case, the purple colour has a long association with the brand, and also with relevant values such as royalty and aristocracy and links to silk and soft fabrics. All of these associations support the brand’s story.

Likewise, the colour red has become strongly associated with Coca-Cola and is often the default colour for other brands entering the cola category. That’s why Pepsi feel the need to be very emphatically blue, to make it clear that they are different.  Red is often associated with stimulation, and is common in food categories as red and other warm colours can stimulate the appetite (think of all the fast food brands you know).

Innocent are another brand with a very strong colour identity (owned by Coca-Cola).  Their white colour is perfectly aligned with the brand story of innocent idealism and the purity of their ingredients and supporting values.  By contrast, Harley-Davidson is overwhelmingly black, signifying their rebellious nature, and implied lack of purity. Black also has associations with luxury and exclusivity, as in Coco Chanel’s iconic little black number.

Victoria’s Secret use pink (the same colour as the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign) but with a less innocent association to feminine sexuality. Orange is also an energetic and vibrant colour, used frequently by youth brands to communicate excitement..

How is your business using colour? Colours prime the mind and the other senses with powerful messages about what your business brings to its customers through their rich symbolic meanings and direct physiological effects.

Blue is the most globally used colour for businesses, perhaps because of its relatively safe associations. However, there are so many more colour meanings that can help create value for your brand. Why not try colouring your business?

You can read more about the business of colour in Brand esSense.

[This article was first published in Asia Franchise & Business Opportunities Magazine Q1, 2014.]

2 responses so far

  1. Nice article on a very interesting issue.
    According to A.S.C. Ehrenberg’s research, color is, together with typefaces, logos, celebrities and tone of voice, a distinguishable brand asset that helps brands become salient in consumer’s minds.
    However, most brands in any given category share the same color pallet. Therefore, I’d suggest color is not such a distinguishable asset as a brand’s typeface or logo, since you cannot legally own a color but you can own a typeface or a visual identity.
    So, in conclusion, in order to gain more saliency one should focus either on break color paradigms on the category or focus on more ownable distinguishable assets.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I largely agree, although I don’t think there are many successful examples of breaking colour paradigms, and it’s usually better to adapt the colour paradigm or add other distinguishable assets to the colour palette - think of Innocent who use white but in a very distinctive way and with other own able assets.

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