Color serves many purposes in marketing: It associates brands with broader sectors and industries, it drives emotion and creates emotional cues, it can even directly influence purchasing decisions. In fact, consumers make subconscious judgments about a product within the first 90 seconds, and 62–90 percent of that judgment is based on color.
In this handy guide, we’ll delve into various color meanings, color psychology, and color symbolism to underline best practices, what to watch out for, and ideal color combinations to get brands their desired effect. Read on for how red, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple, and black can influence consumers.
Why color meanings matter
One of the first explorations into the meaning of color was undertaken by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a famed German poet, playwright, novelist, and, oddly, mineral collector. At the time of his death in 1832, he held the largest mineral collection in Europe.
It was this 17,000-piece mineral collection — as well as his experience as an amateur botanist — that inspired his pursuit of the meaning of color.
His Theory of Colours, first published in 1810, is based on the idea that our perception of colors trigger certain emotions. As Goethe wrote: “Since colour occupies so important a place in the series of elementary phenomena […] we shall not be surprised to find that its effects are at all times decided and significant, and that they are immediately associated with the emotions of the mind.”
At the time of his writing, Goethe’s assertions were derided as bunk science that contradicted the work of Isaac Newton, a British scientist who used prisms to identify the rainbow color spectrum in the 1600s. Today, however, Goethe’s words seem prescient.
Color has become one of the most important components of advertising for the very reason Goethe pointed out: Colors have a major influence on our emotions and emotions often drive people to buy products.
Oft-cited research from the University of Loyola, Maryland suggests that color boosts brand recognition by up to 80 percent. Meanwhile, a 2011 Touro Law Review article noted that people make subconscious judgments about products within the first 90 seconds, and that “between 62–90 percent of that assessment is based on color alone.”
Whether it’s rich, earthy browns, regal amethysts, calming blue skies, or lovely red roses, the descriptions Goethe used to describe color in his seminal text continue to inform modern color theory. Read on for some of the defining characteristics associated with the most powerful colors in the spectrum.
1. Red: Exciting, Passionate, sometimes Aggressive
Meaning of red
Red is a complicated color. On one end, it can seem natural and organic — for instance, a cardinal sitting on a tree branch, a blazing sunset, or the pure red of a ripe raspberry. On the other hand, it can seem dangerous, primal, and sexual. As Goethe noted, red “conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness.”
Coca-Cola — perhaps the brand with the most iconic use of red — told Business Insider in 2015 that its color of choice dates back to the beginning of the company when it painted its “syrup barrels so that tax agents could easily tell them apart from alcohol during transport.” Put simply, red was used to help the company stand out from the crowd. Or, as the company itself wrote: “There is no Pantone color for Coca-Cola red, but when you see it, you know it.”
Elsewhere, red is a common color on national flags; Time called red the most patriotic color. When it comes to symbolism, use of red on flags could mean power, wealth, and even revolution. These associations are replicated by brands. As brand-consultancy firm Wolff Olins wrote, its design for Bobby Shriver and Bono’s HIV/AIDS-awareness campaign, (RED) “inspires, connects, and gives consumers power.”