Colour Psychology in Marketing: What is it and how does it work?

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As cliché as it may sound, we live in a colourful world and live colourful lives. Without you even realising it, colour affects most of your daily decisions and even has an impact on your mood; and brands know this.

Colour psychology has been used by brands for decades, influencing you to buy their products or services. But what exactly does colour psychology mean, and how are brands able to tap into the consumers’ minds through colour alone?

The Millrace team has been contemplating the exact same questions – after all, colour affects every part of life, especially content marketing. Let’s explore these questions together and find out why colour is so important to brands.

What is Colour Psychology?

Does blue get you feeling blue? Do you easily get tickled pink? Are you green with envy at these puns?

There are a plethora of colour-related puns and phrases that most of us are aware of, and the reason these are so easy to remember is because of colour psychology. Colour psychology is the study between colours and the emotions people feel towards them or because of them. Bruce Hilliard researched how we perceive colours, and this can be split up into two categories: innate reactions and learnt reactions.

Innate reactions can be characterised as reactions from the brain’s operating system, whereas learnt reactions are simply learnt reactions! These are specific to the individual and can be affected by gender, age, and culture.

In the interest of science (and general office shenanigans), the Millrace team were all asked for their instinctive reactions to colours and the emotions and objects we associate with each to put innate and learnt reactions to the test.

Here are the results:

Name/Colour

Red

Feeling/Object

yellow

Feeling/Object

green

Feeling/Object

blue

Feeling/Object

purple

Feeling/Object

Laura

Anger

Fire Extinguisher

Happy

Football

Mellow

Shower Gel

Sadness

Uniform

Brave

Chocolate

Laura - feeling/object

Anger/Fire Extinguisher

Happy/Football

Mellow/Shower Gel

Sadness/Uniform

Brave/Chocolate

Carys

Anger

Apple

Happy

Tennis Ball

Envy

Grass

Sadness

T-shirt

Energetic

Fruit

Carys - feeling/object

Anger/Apple

Happy/Tennis Ball

Envy/Grass

Sadness/T-shirt

Energetic/Fruit

Ellie

Anger

Phone Box

Happy

Raincoat

Sickness

Plant

Sadness

Blu Tack

Jolly

Grape

Ellie - feeling/object

Anger/Phone Box

Happy/Raincoat

Sickness/Plant

Sadness/Blu Tack

Jolly/Grape

Sam

Anger

Fire Engine

Excitement

Rubber Duck

Envy

Tractor

Sadness

Water

Anxiety

Grape

Sam - feeling/object

Anger/Fire Engine

Excitement/Rubber Duck

Envy/Tractor

Sadness/Water

Anxiety/Grape

Owen

Anger

Balloon

Depression

Lemon

Envy

Plant

Sadness

Bluebell

Proud

Plumb

Owen - feeling/object

Anger/Balloon

Depression/Lemon

Envy/Plant

Sadness/Bluebell

Proud/Plumb

Joseph

Anger

Car

Happy

Daffodil

Envy

Apple

Calm

Bluebird

Energetic

Chocolate

Joseph - feeling/object

Anger/Car

Happy/Daffodil

Envy/Apple

Calm/Bluebird

Energetic/Chocolate

Some intriguing results team Millrace; there are some standout correlations between some feelings and objects, and some anomaly results too. The most obvious correlation is the feeling of anger associated with the colour red as everyone in the team answered the same. Yellow is a close second with most answering ‘happy’, and feelings of sadness are mostly associated with blue. Where we run into the most differences is between colours and associated objects; all answers are valid, but most vary in categories, with yellow having the most variety, from sports to plants, and random but iconic items such as a rubber duck and raincoat.

It’s probably fair to assume that objects are highlighting the learnt reactions of the team as they show the most variety, showcasing how learnt colour reactions depend on a number of factors. However, how do we decide the reaction type of feelings? Are they innate or learnt? We could argue that the feelings of anger for red are innate as the entire team answered with the same result. Or is this a learnt reaction, an answer that we have been conditioned to give through culturally created connotations? Both could be argued for or against as colour is both a personal and impersonal experience due to the employment of colour psychology in our everyday lives.

Brands utilise the feelings that are typically associated with colours to convince you to buy into their products or services, which is both clever and somewhat invasive; but in a competitive marketplace, all impactful and effective marketing techniques need to be used to be noticed.

Colour Psychology and Branding.

The next question we need to ask is: ‘What is the difference between everyday colours and brand colours?’ The most obvious takeaway from the team’s first set of answers is that anger is associated with the colour red, yet so many brands use red in their branding, and we don’t feel angry when we look at a can of Coca-Cola, do we?

Branding colours appear to have some different connotations than those of singled-out colours. Here is a breakdown of the emotional differences between everyday colours and brand colours:

Name/Colour

Everyday

Branding

Red

Anger

Passion/Excitement

Red

Everyday: Anger

Branding: Passion/Excitement

yellow

Happiness

Happiness/Youth

yellow

Everyday: Happiness

Branding: Happiness/Youth

green

Envy

Prosperity/Youth

Green

Everyday: Envy

Branding: Prosperity/Youth

blue

Sadness

Trust/Professionalism

Blue

Everyday: Sadness

Branding: Trust/Professionalism

purple

Pride

Creativity/Luxury

Purple

Everyday: Pride

Branding: Creativity/Luxury

As you can see, there are some similarities between the everyday and brand colours, but also some stark differences and juxtapositions, most prominently between green and blue. Another difference between everyday colours and branding colours is how and where they are utilised; brands will often use more than one colour, and too much or too little of certain colours can create entirely new emotions and connotations. For example, yellow creates feelings of happiness, but too much will cause feelings of anxiety and unease to arise, which can be seen in one of the teams’ answers of ‘depression’ with associated feelings for yellow. While red connotes passion or excitement if used in alternative ways, it can represent love or even danger which we can see in the teams’ answers of fire extinguisher and fire engine.

With so many colour combinations and types of emotions that can be created with a slight change of a colour palette, it can be difficult for new brands to pick their brand colours. So, we put the Millrace team to the test again and asked them to think of the first brand that came to mind with each colour to see what brands are doing it right:

Name/Colour

Red

yellow

green

blue

purple

Laura

Red Cross

Ikea

Starbucks

TUI

Purple Bricks

Laura

Red Cross

Ikea

Starbucks

TUI

Purple Bricks

Carys

Coca-Cola

Selfridges

Harrods

NHS

Ribena

Carys

Coca-Cola

Selfridges

Harrods

NHS

Ribena

Ellie

Hartley’s

Thomas Cooke

Spotify

Greggs

Cadbury

Ellie

Hartley’s

Thomas Cooke

Spotify

Greggs

Cadbury

Sam

KFC

Snapchat

ASDA

Barclays

Starling Bank

Sam

KFC

Snapchat

ASDA

Barclays

Starling Bank

Owen

Liverpool FC

McDonald’s

Waitrose

Cardiff City FC

Cadbury

Owen

Liverpool FC

McDonald’s

Waitrose

Cardiff City FC

Cadbury

Joseph

Coca-Cola

McDonald’s

Starbucks

NHS

Cadbury

Joseph

Coca-Cola

McDonald’s

Starbucks

NHS

Cadbury

If doing these tests has taught us anything, it’s that colour is subjective; we had some varied but some similar answers for associated colours and brands. Cadbury is the most popular choice for purple with half of the team choosing it, closely followed by Coca-Cola for red, McDonald’s for yellow, Starbucks for green, and the NHS for blue.

These brands are quite infamous as far as branding and brand awareness goes, and most use one main colour with one or two secondary colours; Coca-Cola, the NHS, and Cadbury’s use white, whereas Mcdonald’s uses red, and Starbucks use white and black. Therefore, we can deduce that the most iconic and successful brands use one primary colour but use it well. These are also the brands that invest heavily in marketing and spend millions of pounds per year on advertising; with the most notable being that of Coca-Cola who have consistently spent around $4 million for the last couple of years on their advertising campaigns.

And of course, there are other colours you can use for your branding other than red, yellow, green, blue, and purple; white, black, grey, orange, and pink are also popular choices that similarly have their own connotations and associated feelings.

But now we ask you, can you name a brand whose primary colour is brown?

Did it take you a while?

The Millrace team also took longer to answer this question than for red, yellow, green, blue, and purple combined. So, our next question is: ‘Why are brands not using brown in their branding?’

Is Brown the New “It” Colour for Brands?

Just like every other colour, brown also has its own place in colour psychology. Brown has a number of connotations in everyday use and branding, such as: dependability, security, earthliness, but also isolation and loneliness. Through brown’s connotations of earthliness, there are subsequent feelings of isolation which isn’t what you want to be associated with your brand. It’s no coincidence that the colour brown as only one common idiom, which is ‘as brown as a berry’. Brown is a difficult colour to work with, none of the typical brand colours of red, yellow, blue, or purple accompany brown well in a conventional sense, other than green of course. But unless you’re a landscaping company or sustainable charity, you wouldn’t want the earthly connotations that come with pairing brown and green.

I bet you’re wondering what the Millrace team had to say for themselves when asked to think of a brand that uses brown. Here’s how they did:

  • Laura: Cambridge Satchel Company
  • Carys: Thorntons
  • Ellie: Louis Vuitton
  • Sam: Hershey’s
  • Owen: Coffee #1
  • Joseph: UPS

Thorntons, Louis Vuitton, Hershey’s, and UPS are valid answers, and Cambridge Satchel Company and Coffee #1were close but not close enough – both are actually black and white with a touch of brown. But we can’t blame the team, there’s a reason why this question is so tricky to answer, and that’s because brands just aren’t using the colour brown in their logos and branding. But someone has to use brown if no one else will, and the fashion industry picked up on this.

Much like how ‘Millennial Pink’ had a firm grip on us all back in 2016, 2020 saw the resurgence of the colour brown in fashion. Brown has been the fastest-growing colour in womenswear and 2020 saw a 24% increase in the colour’s use. Whereas colour psychology for branding saw brown as secure yet isolated, the fashion industry saw brown as elegant, timeless, and soothing. It was reminiscent of the 70s, a fashion trend that also surged in popularity in 2020 through to 2022, and the general public soon began to incorporate more and more brown into their wardrobe.

As brown became increasingly popular in fashion, it didn’t take long for homeware to catch on and soon bedrooms and living rooms across the world were utilising the colour brown in their décor. Brown quickly became the “it” colour from 2020 onwards, therefore, does this mean that more brands could be adopting the colour brown in their branding.

With the new connotations produced by the fashion and home industries, brown is now seen as tranquil and elegant as well as earthly and dependable, it’s no longer the black sheep of the colour psychology family, the colour that couldn’t be paired with anything, it’s now the most desired colour by consumers.

So technically, more brands could start using brown in their branding. Branding is all about showcasing the personality of the brand and grasping the attention of the consumers so they can buy into your products or services.

Why branding is so important.

As obvious as it may sound, branding is vital to presenting your business correctly so you can reach the right people. And as we’ve seen, colour and colour psychology is a huge part of this. Of course the other parts of branding are just as important, such as the brand name, logo design, the typeface you use, as well as brand colours.

It’s important to choose the right branding as all these elements combined highlight your brand’s personality, morals, and aims, and are what make you, YOU! Your branding can say a lot without having to say anything, therefore, you should take the time to invest time and research into things like colour psychology to see which colours fit best with your goals and target market.

This year, Millrace added a fresh coat of paint to our branding and went through a brand refresh. We transitioned from pink and playful to green and mature, while still staying approachable; with a more sophisticated typeface, and new, clean logo, we were able to focus on the direction Millrace was headed.

The new green showcases our company morals and aims for working with and for sustainable businesses and causes, while the muted colour palette represents our professionalism; a meaningful rebrand that was led by our values and culture, supported by our ideas.

As your brand evolves and grows, you may have to go through a brand refresh as we did, and that is completely fine (just look at Apple’s original logo!). Just remember that there’s more to it than picking a colour palette that looks pretty, colour can have a major impact on how you are perceived by consumers due to colour psychology, so choose your colour palette wisely so you’re not stuck in a grey area with unclear or ineffective branding.

We like a chat, so if you have any questions or just fancy saying hey, contact us on 02922 801280 or email hello@millracemarketing.co.uk

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