Teodora Miscov
Teodora Miscov 18 September 2017

From #FF0000 to #FF00DC

The use of colours in marketing has always been surrounded by a veil of mystery - but can this code be decyphered?

“Is your red the same as my red?” – we’ve all heard this thought-provoking question. The more we think about it, the more unnerving it is. It may be that what I see as blue, others might perceive as green. As Sir Isaac Newton stated, “The Rays have no Colour. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this Colour or that.” It all depends on our perception – nicely presented here via a great simulator of different types of color blindness. And by the image below, which does not contain even one red pixel – it’s all an illusion, a phenomenon called colour constancy. On the side are the greys which we perceive as red.

Colour seems to affect animals as well – this is apparent through a study taken on monkeys which aimed to observe whether colours initiated behavioural changes. When presented with an apple in front of researchers dressed in different colours, they observed that the monkey took the apple every time, with one exception: when the researchers were wearing red. Interestingly, this submission to the colour red affects us, too: Olympic boxers are more likely to win if they are wearing red rather than blue and people’s performance on IQ tests is impaired by the colour red. These examples come from Darren Bridger’s book, Neurodesign, which goes on to explain their effects from an evolutionary perspective – red is associated with heat and bleeding, maybe even a flushed face signifying readiness to attack. When it comes to what effect colours have in marketing, Daryll Scott, our Human Technology Director, also has a great level of expertise.

“Wow - there is a MASSIVE body of research on how different colours provoke different emotions. Shades of colours come in and out of fashion. And - there is a massive emotional difference between colour and black and white.” Daryll Scott, Human Technology Director at Lab

There are countless claims about what different colours mean, the emotions they evoke in viewers and how marketers should use them. We all know them – red for excitement, green to suggest nature and health, blue is peaceful etc.  The ‘Red Button’ story is also vastly known, claiming that a company’s profits surged after they changed the button that provoked action from green to red. While that may very well be true, this one example can’t lead to the conclusion that red is the universal ‘buy’ colour. As is the case with everything, it is important to adopt a critical point of view and understand what, if any, truth lies behind these claims.

That isn’t to say that colour doesn’t play an important role in marketing – quite the opposite. Daryll uses the following simple example to show how colour influences perception. The first image features a wide variety of vibrant colours – at first glance, one can’t deny that the level of engagement, even if not astronomical, is good and evokes positive emotions.


The second image is completely black and white, and after glancing at the first one for a while one can feel a weaker emotional response to it in comparison. Even though compositionally the image is exactly the same, the lack of colourful vibrancy makes for poor engagement from the viewer.



The same product can be made to look unappealing and even repulsive with slight colour adjustments. The last image features a high-contrast, muddy palette that evokes a negative emotional response in the viewer – the product now looks undesirable, all just because of a slight colour adjustment.

This very simple example shows what a difference colour makes – it can evoke different emotional responses, even using the same structural composition. But one conclusion that can also be drawn from this little exercise is that it wasn’t changing just one colour that made a difference to the image’s interpretation. When thinking about colour, it is important to understand that it needs to be thought about in context.

Gregory Ciotti asks a thought-provoking question when it comes to colour in marketing: “Why is such a potentially colorful conversation so unwaveringly shallow?” Indeed, the discussion around colour is more complex than it is usually discussed, and there are numerous examples of colours having different meanings depending on context. For example, green can mean nature (Animal Planet logo, Wholefoods) but also timeless class (Lacoste, Jaguar). Brown can stimulate one’s appetite (chocolate ads) or suggest seriousness and tradition (J. P. Morgan). Thus, it becomes clear that the question is not which colour is traditionally associated with the company’s product, but which colour fits best within the identity of one’s brand (as per this study).

The way in which people respond to colours and the emotions they evoke, are volatile and dependent on a multitude of variables such as evolutionary factors, their past experiences or the culture they belong to. In the end, as Gregory suggests, the kaleidoscopic nature of color theory means we may never have definitive answers.

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