Part 1: Creating a Color Strategy for Brand Management

“We are animals who can discriminate colours but we are, above all, cultural animals.”

Umberto Eco

It is believed that colour was first used in communication about 500,000 years ago  in the form of earth pigments, and we have continued to engage with it ever since. For brands, the cultural meaning of colour continues to evolve as an important issue. The following is the first article from a series of blogs on this topic.

When we think about colour in marketing, we often focus on how colour differentiates brands, how it helps us navigate, create hierarchies, positioning and recognise different offers.  Layered into this is what specific meaning does colour convey? What emotions do they evoke?

All meaning comes from culture, therefore, understanding colour from a cultural perspective helps to contextualise subjective views.   This enables marketers to engage with, and influence consumer behaviour.  With increasingly diverse markets and opportunities, there is a need to be mindful about using the most dominant visual factor.  All brands have the capacity to be consumed globally, and so, it’s worth considering what your brand means in different markets.

What is colour?

From a physiological perspective, colour is created by:

  1. The properties of an object to absorb and scatter light. 

  2. The experience of colour is further influenced by the observer. For example, a dog can only distinguish between blue and yellow hues, not from red to green, like humans.  Since all animals have different eye design, no two animals see the world the same way.

  3. The context: background and surrounding colours.

“It is clear then that when we say we perceive colors in objects, it is really just the same as saying that we perceived in objects something as to whose nature we are ignorant but which produces in us a very clear and vivid sensation, what we call the sensation of color”

Descartes, 1644

The culture of colour

 The cultural meaning of colour originate from three different factors:

  1. Innate properties

  2. Personal experience

  3. Cultural context

Frank Mahnke broke this down further into six different levels, with biological or intuitive reactions as the foundations of how we experience colour.   Brand activity is most active in three of these layers of meaning.

All these different layers should be considered in understanding your brand’s colour strategy.

The semiotics of colour

Kress and Leeuwen believe that colour is metafunctional and its meaning is not limited to affect.  They propose that colour semiotically communicates:

  1. Ideas, e.g. Classes of people, places and things. e.g. Such as a flag or a brand.

  2. Interpersonal communication, e.g. Social roles such as police uniforms.

  3. Textual functions. e.g. To differentiate different rooms or doors within a system.

We learn the meaning of colours, socially, as we grow; since each culture has its own fabric of meaning, these colours form a unique tapestry of connotations.  These also evolve over time. 

For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century pink was a colour worn by little boys and blue by little girls.  It is believed that Mamie Eisenhower, wearing a pink dress to President Eisenhower’s Inauguration in 1953, cementing in American minds that girls wear pink.  This convention has been concreted as marketing has reinforced these gendered colour roles.

The cultural meaning of colour

However, in recent studies, infants and pre-school children prefer primary colours over secondary, with both genders preferring blue over pink.  The gendered colours are something that is learned.  Girls prefer pink by the age of 2; at the same age, boys start to avoid pink. In cross-cultural studies, blue is the most generally preferred colour amongst adults.  Though there are cultures where other colours are more popular eg. orange in India.   

The language of colour

In everyday life, our reactivity to colour demonstrates a sort of inner and profound solidarity between semiotic systems. Just as language is determined by the way in which society sets up systems of values, things and ideas, so our chromatic perception is determined by language.

Umberto Eco 1985

The study of colour is made more complex in that colours are named, communicated, and understood differently around the world. It is believed that colours are arbitrarily associated with distinctive connotations across cultures

This poses significant challenges and opportunities for the management of brands globally, or in speaking to multi-cultural societies.

Hupka et al (1997) conducted a cross-cultural comparative study to explore the colours of fear, anger, envy, and jealousy. They looked at a range of countries:

Germany, Mexico, Russia, Poland, and the United States. All these countries associated red and black colours with anger and fear, whereas the colour associations for envy and jealously were different, e.g., Americans associated green with envy, while the Germans and Russians were linked envy with yellow colour.  In Chinese and Buddhist culture, yellow represents imperial quality and humility or renunciation respectively.

Colour can also be very specific to a culture.  Miho Saito (2015) explored the distinct popularity of white in Japanese culture, which is more popular than for any other country.  In Japan, white was mostly preferred because of its associative image of being clean, pure, harmonious, refreshing, beautiful, clear, gentle, and natural.  He explored the appeal of white to neighbouring Asian countries and found this was unique to Japanese culture.  While white is perceived as elegant, clean, and beautiful to Chinese, they also see a negative side to the colour in its lifelessness and loneliness.  


Different colour vocabularies

There are some aspects of linguistic relativity to be mindful of.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview and cognition.   Recently this has been challenged by John McWhorter, who believes it is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around.  The semioticians, Yuri Lotman & Upensky, believe that languages are inseparable from culture.  Within the confines of this discussion, we can say that the language people speak makes them more inclined or influenced to think a certain way (not that they can’t think a different way). 

Does language influence how we think?  The implications of this can be explored quickly by looking at the urban myth that Eskimo’s have many words for snow.   The Koyukon Indians have 16 terms for snow, which means that they think about snow in a more detailed way, than someone who doesn’t live in the sub-Arctic.  In English, we think of time in a linear perspective; the past being behind us and the future in front.  In comparison, a Mandarin speaker perceives time as being both horizontal and vertical, with the past above and future below.

This discussion on colour would have limited direct meaning for the Australian indigenous language, Warlpiri, who have no colour-talk or colour-practices.  The Bassa language of Liberia, has only two terms for classifying colour: hui (cool colours) and ziza (warm colours).

This has been explored by Adam Jacot de Boinod

If we look at something as universal as the range of colours, 21 languages have distinct words for black, red and white only; eight have those colours plus green; then the sequence in which additional colours are brought into languages is yellow, with a further 18 languages, then blue (with six) and finally brown (with seven). As with colours, so with the rainbow. The Bassa people of Liberia see only two colours: ziza (red/orange/yellow) and hui (green/blue/purple) in their spectrum. The Shona of Zimbabwe see four: cipsuka (red/orange), cicena (yellow and yellow-green), citema (green-blue) and cipsuka again (the word also represents both the purple end of the spectrum). It is just Europeans and the Japanese who see seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The colours of identity

Colours signify countries and cultures. Colours are used in the world of paints to communicate national identity:  Prussian Blue, Nile Green, Cambodian Yellow, Turkish Turquoise.

We use colour to differentiate cultures through flags and maps.  We also have been using colour to differentiate political parties, e.g. in the Roman Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, religious and political differences were separated between the Greens and the Blues, lower classes vs the upper classes (and their different belief systems), respectively. Modern Thai politics are expressed through red vs yellow shirts; French ‘yellow jacket’ protesters in 2018 were called the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes; to the red vs blue partisan divide of today’s American politics.  This American divide has started to effect brand purchasing behaviour in red and blue states.  At the time of writing, the old Red Russia is experiencing a similar brand ‘cancellation’ because of its war on Ukraine.

Soldiers’ uniforms have also reflected national status from the British Redcoats (Lobsters) to their opposite in the Napoleonic army blue ‘national uniform’, through to WW2 with the Italian blackshirts and the German brownshirts, to the Green berets.  Noting that recent studies have shown that red has a positive impact on males in sports; so, the British Empire might have had an accidental advance.  Although, there have been suggestions that red was adopted to hide blood, it’s more likely that it was a trend started by Tudor colours.  Also, in a service branding response, the British Navy of Nelson wore blue uniforms.

Colour branding of identity

In branding, this can become a convention for brands that are symbolic of the style of food and philosophy of eating in a country.

Whereas, other brands try to identify as representatives of the values of the culture.

Brands with national colours

Colour can also be used as a context for connecting to a culture.  It is well known that red is popular in Chinese culture, symbolising luck, happiness, and joy. It is integral to celebrations and believed to ward off evil.  Many western brands have adopted the backdrop of red in their advertisements to attract this large market.

Colours can also communicate through format to different types of consumers.   A brown stubbie of beer has a place in blue-collar culture, as opposed to a long-necked clear bottle of beer doesn’t.  A dark green bottle of wine communicates a very different consumer group or occasion from a clear bottle of Rose.

Our colour choice in products is part of how we communicate our own socio-cultural identities.  We might have personal preference for colours but it is the meaning that we make sense of; we want this meaning to be congruent with what others know.  When we develop brands, we look for a deeper understanding of the cultural context of the brand and how this is perceived by the consumer.

Some colour questions to consider:

  1. What are the meaning-associations with colour in your culture?

  2. Is your brand in different cultural markets or does it aspire to be in different countries?

  3. Does your brand have consumers that are from different ethnicities in the one market?

  4. Is your brand’s colour linked to a cultural identity?  How?

  5. How is your brand’s identity different from its cultural frame?

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