Part 2: Creating a Color Strategy for Brand Management

It’s a platitude to say that ‘we eat with our eyes’, however, we can semiotically take this a step further to say that we consume meaning through colour. 

Our perception of the world is immediately influenced by colour.  Even though there are a variety of ways to describe colour, the most common involve the specification of brightness, lightness, chroma and hue.

We use colours to recall, recognize, categorize, create hierarchies and differentiate similar objects.

colour meaning

Having a deeper understanding of colour helps marketers influence consumer preference and behaviour.  Colour primes our minds in how we experience all five senses.   Colour affects how products smell or taste, how we react emotionally to packaging, and how we experience retail spaces.  Identifying a brand’s colour strategy begins with understanding the impact of colour on our senses.

“The idea that color can transmit meaning, emotional or cognitive messages, has its foundation in two areas. One is the convention that some reactions to color are inborn, intuitive, and universal to everyone. The other lies in the body of learned associations that are dependent, in part, on realities that are known to everyone and, in part to meanings that are learned with in a particular time and place.”

John Pile 1997

1. The taste of colour

The connection between colour and taste is one of the strongest.  Our formative experiences form memory-colours, whereby we associate colours with learned experiences.  There are strong associations of colours that define consistent foods in our lives, eg.  Red might be for a strawberry, yellow for a lemon or banana, green for an apple, etc.

Gordon Shepard (2016) in his book Neuroenology explores how the brain creates the taste of wine.  He describes it as a combination of cognitive associations that affect our experience of wine.  In the first sense of engagement, colour plays a major role because it is the sense that is engaged first.

wine colour

Moreover, studies have shown that cold colours (blue and green) are considered more thirst-quenching than drinks with warm colours (red and yellow). It is important to balance this with the understanding that red and orange are also perceived as being energizing (discussed below). Which does suggest an explanation of the sport drinks’ market divisions of coloured liquids between these two spectrums.

This colour-logic of warm/cool is present in other categories; painkillers like Neurofen use red and yellow to signify pain, whereas throat lozenges are often blue or white in colour, illustrating a soothing effect.

Colours can also directly influence our experience of taste. A taste/colour research study looked at the impact of colour on sweet, sour, bitter and salty:

  1. Green statistically increased the sweet taste threshold sensitivity while Yellow decreased taste sensitivity; Red did not affect the taste sensitivity of sweet.

  2. Yellow and Green decreased sensitivity to sour, with Red having no effect.

  3. Bitterness was decreased by Red, with Yellow and Green having no effect.

  4. Salty was not affected by any colour.

2. The smell of colour

Colour also affects our judgement of the intensity and pleasantness of our olfactory senses:  fragrances, odours and smells.  In a study on the connection between colour and our sense of smell, the lack of visual stimulation from colour can also negatively affect odor recognition by up to 50%.

3. The sound of colour

“the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”

Wassily Kandinsky

Since colour and music both evoke emotions, there is evidence that people can use colour associations to mediate the perceived emotions of music.  People that have chromosthesia have sound-colour synesthesia and experience once sense through the other, enabling them to hear colours.

There is also a cross-cultural link between many languages and the words different cultures assign to colours.  Vowels with high brightness ratings and sonority ratings were overrepresented in words for colors with high luminance, while sonorous consonants were more common in words for saturated colors.

4. The feel (haptics) of colour

Colour influence senses

A study looking at color-temperature correspondence illustrates that people physically associate the colour red with warmth and blue as being cooler.  Additionally, colour primes our expectations of a temperature; however, experiencing a temperature first, does not influence colour associations.  The choice of colour can also affect how we experience temperature.  A study demonstrated that participants could hold a hot vessel longer when associated with blue and similarly a cold vessel longer when paired with red.   This obviously has implications when we start to think about format and packaging colouring.

Darker objects look heavier than identical lighter ones. Lighter colours, such as pastels in design, are experienced as being lighter in weight than darker colours. When we consider packaging, darker packaging is perceived as more durable because dark suggests heavier.  Lighter packaging is perceived as being more convenient.

5. Under the influence of colour

Colours can also affect us psychologically.  They can make us more energetic and aggressive.  A colour psychology study looking at the impact of the colour red on males in sports showed that the presence of the colour enhances male performance in contests.  In a study influenced by this, a further study was conducted looking at the influence of red jersey colours on physical parameters in combat sports. It found that:

‘Participants wearing red jerseys had significantly higher heart rates and significantly higher pre-contest values on the strength test. Results showed that participants’ body functions are influenced by wearing red equipment.’

In the same way that the different colours we wear affect our emotions, the colours of the designed world in which we live can have similar effects.

6.The experience of colour

Colour has symbolic, emotional, and physiological effects on a conscious and subconscious level when we enter a physical space, such as a restaurant.

The psychology of what colors are used in restaurant design has an impact on the way we experience a servicescape.   It is well known how warm colours, such as red and orange, stimulate the appetite and attention of the human brain.  In our experience, a lot of fast food brands are using this palette of colour to convey a friendly, energetic, and stimulating message with their products.  It might be the reason why the color orange is associated with the second deadly sin, gluttony. 

Brand colour strategy

More formal restaurants tend to use the cooler colours to relax their customers.  They are creating an experience which is at the opposite of the energy of the fast-food brands.  However, this is not to suggest the whole restaurant interior is blue or green, but that that it is an accent for the design.   The use of white makes a space looker larger; green suggests nature and harmony; blue and purple, used less dominantly, make a space more relaxing and authoritative.  Some of the other colour connotations from culture have been detailed in an earlier discussion

Colours can also make us less energetic.  Baker-Miller Pink, also known as P-618, Schauss pink, or Drunk-Tank Pink has been proven to affect us emotionally.

Baker Pink, Drunk Tank Pink

A bubblegum-pink color; in the early 1980s, psychologists daubed jail cells with drunk tank pink paint and discovered that the color calmed aggressive prisoners.  Soon, enterprising football coaches began painting their visitors’ locker rooms with the same shade, hoping to pacify their opponents.  Buses painted their seats pink and discovered that vandalism rates declined; door-to-door charity workers wore pink shirts and their donations rose threefold.

A study on the effects of colour on the moods of college students found that cooler-neutral coloured dorm rooms were more calming. 

There is also a study of the effects of the introduction of blue light-emitting-diode (LED) lamps on suicides at train platforms and railway crossings in Japan.  Looking at the data from 71 train stations over a decade from 2000, the study finds there was an 84% decrease in suicides.  However,  a follow up study has challenged these findings as overstating the correlation, suggesting that the lights would have a much smaller impact that previously estimated, and the impact of blue LED’s is still inconclusive.

However, emotional reactions to colours are personally subjective. A study of healthcare environments illustrated that perceptions of colours were polarised as either positive or negative.   Blue rooms were perceived as calmer and more restful for some but seen as cool and depressing for others.  In contrast, a red room was light and sunny for some but too glaring or exciting for others.

Implications for a colour strategy

Brand experience starts with our senses.  This brief dip into the world of how colour suggests that there are many considerations into the use of colours across different touchpoints of brands.

How does your brand-experience map against how colours can influence the five senses, from product to retail experience?

Creating a Color Strategy for Brand Management

Introduction: Creating a Color Strategy for Brand Management

Part 1: Understanding the cultural meaning of colour

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