Everyone expresses themselves through color. From the moment we pick out our clothes in the morning, to the shade of lipstick or scarf we put on, to the time we put on our pyjamas at night, color factors into how we convey emotion, identity, meaning.

So if color is so fundamental, it only makes sense for brands to adopt a color strategy that conveys their core values to consumers in a single glance. Unfortunately, color is also one of the most fluid and frustratingly subjective things to quantify.

Psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud collaborator Carl Jung famously said, “Color is the mother tongue of the subconscious.” So if the effects of color are so difficult to codify, how can brands and designers tap into this primal conduit to a consumer’s emotional core? The answer lies in an industry that’s almost completely dominated by seasonal (aka “subjective”) color trends: Fashion.

The Importance of Seasons

Fashion designers embrace a simple truth when it comes to consumers and color: Seasons change. A lot. In order to keep up with fast-paced seasonal color expectations, Michael Kors actually added two new seasons — “Resort” and “Pre-Fall” — to its spring/summer and fall/winter calendar.

Other brands are also experimenting with additional fashion seasons. This allows designers to experiment with colors and trends, extending popular looks into shoulder seasons that bleed from three-month runs to six-month shelf lives.

Considering that researchers have studied people’s reactions to color for decades — and that the only real conclusion they’ve agreed on is that one size never fits all — the addition of new seasons makes sense. The fashion industry has changed the calendar itself to satisfy as many customers as possible for as long as possible.

In order to keep up with fast-paced seasonal color expectations, Michael Kors actually added two new seasons — “Resort” and “Pre-Fall” — to its spring/summer and fall/winter calendar. Image by Galyna Andrushko

Telling the Story Behind the Color

Color is a constantly shifting target, but getting your color branding just right takes a lot more than chaotic experimentation. It takes a lot of work. Years of work, in fact.

And forecasting relevant color trends for years to come takes more than market research. It takes a driving narrative that sets a consistent tone for designers to play off during the long journey from concept to reality. J.Crew Senior Menswear Designer Elizabeth Kimball describes the importance of story in the color branding process:

“We are big on color, but also stories. There is often a story, a painting, an artist, or a mood and inspiration for why we pick the colors or use them in certain combinations for a particular season.” The story J.Crew wants to tell always drives the color choice for their brand, not the climate of the current market trends.

At the same time, attitudes toward color change all the time. Yellow may be bold one season and tired the next. However, fashion brands spend hours forecasting these changes so they can adapt and even outpace fickle color trends. The result is that fashion leaders end up setting color trends — not reacting to them.

For instance, Diesel and Vans both prominently featured rose quartz — a subtle shade of pink — in their spring 2016 lines. Within weeks the color proliferated across most every brand, particularly those marketing to millennials, and lived up to its title as Pantone’s Color of the Year.

Diesel and Vans both prominently featured rose quartz in their spring 2016 lines. Within weeks the color proliferated across most every brand. Image by Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz

While the adoption of rose quartz might seem reactionary, brands that quickly adopt the hippest shades are years ahead of the competition — and the trends.

According to J.Crew’s Kimball, “Work on the color for a clothing collection starts about 15 months in advance — sometimes up to 24 months in advance for active brands!”

Your Shade Or Mine?

Authors Tom Fraser and Adam Banks argue against stagnating and conforming to rigid notions of color identity and meaning in their book, Designer’s Color Manual: The Complete Guide to Color Theory and Application. “One objection to the idea of fixed color effects is that there are no fixed colors,” Fraser and Banks conclude. “Even among perfectly sighted people, color is subjective.” If your yellow is another man’s orange, how can any two people be expected to react to color in the exact same way?

Meanwhile in Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism, art historian John Gage stresses how language itself tries to cope with the inherent fluidity of color. “Even in the Middle Ages, languages like Old French had words that could mean either blue or yellow, red or green,” he writes. So how do brands influence consumer attitudes when they can’t even agree on the exact color?

Like so many things, it’s all in how you use it.

Appropriate Colors

The commercial success of a new seasonal line often doesn’t hinge on the quality of the design or the caliber of the palette. It’s all about perception. Do consumers agree with the color choices?

Writer, content marketing strategist and consumer color-branding enthusiast Gregory Ciotti notes in his piece about the psychology of color in branding that, “When it comes to picking the ‘right’ color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself.”

A study titled The Impact of Color on Marketing found that up to 90 percent of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product. That speed indicates that consumers are reacting to the appropriateness of the color being used to market the product almost exclusively. They know within seconds if the color is “right” or not.

While certain colors almost always align with certain emotions or traits, dozens of academic studies agree that, “It’s more important for the colors to support the personality you want to portray instead of trying to align with stereotypical color associations.”

90 percent of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product. Image by lexey anashkin

Crew even goes so far as to create its own internal color codes and combinations to get its branding just right. “While many companies use Pantone or CSI, we like to do things our own way. For us it doesn’t set any limitations. Anything can be a color!” says Kimball.

“One of our designers cut a string from the lining of a coat from the 1930s that was perfectly aged in a warehouse in Minnesota. That could be your next favorite pair of jeans or chinos or sweater.

Above all, brands need to choose the colors that tell their story in a compelling way. While you can never eliminate preconceived notions of color, a decisive palette with a strong perspective will influence the emotional reaction of consumers. This story-driven approach to branding is one of the great strengths of the fashion industry and is why it’s companies like J. Crew are on the bleeding edge of color branding research and practice.

The Power of the Unexpected

Pink was almost exclusively a color for boys until the turn of the 20th century, and it wasn’t until advertisers positioned pink as a color for girls that it became the accepted norm for women and women’s issues like breast cancer. Color norms are subject to change, and when brands break expectations — like perceived gender norms — the rewards can be sweeping and immediate.

Ciotti encourages pushing boundaries instead of reacting to tired expectations. “Perceived appropriateness shouldn’t be so rigid as to assume a brand or product can’t succeed because the colors don’t match surveyed tastes,” he says. Another study on the interactive effects of colors and products on perceptions of brand logo appropriateness found that, “When people know how brands are attempting to position themselves, people consider colors congruent with those positions to be more appropriate.”

That’s further evidence that people respond to storytelling with perspective. Whether it’s a classic color scheme or an aggressive gender-bending campaign, successful branding is all about appropriate color usage that fits your unique story. And the most important part of your story might not be the colors at all, but the names you give them.

Whether it’s a classic color scheme or an aggressive gender-bending campaign, successful branding is all about appropriate color usage that fits your unique story. Image by Ko Backpacko

A Rose By Any Other Name…

“Naming colors is one way of manipulating their psychological impact.”—Designer’s Color Manual: The Complete Guide to Color Theory and Application

Color names are part of the storytelling, and should be pivotal to branding. “Gray” doesn’t evoke the same emotions as “slate.” “Charcoal” is different than “black.” And people notice.

A Psychology & Marketing study on the color naming influences on decision making found that subjects “far preferred” names like “mocha” over “brown” when shown products that were identical colors. Brands need to remember that colors themselves are inherently subjective, so consumer reactions to their names is equally so.

Naming colors, particularly when it comes to clothing, can be a challenge, though. Kimball points out some of the limitations and dangers of winging it with your own color names. “Things get pretty creative when we’re naming our colors. You can only have so many ‘navy’ and ‘dark navy,’ and our color names can’t go longer than two words and have to sound like the color, so needless to say it’s pretty fun. ‘Heather Penguin’ is one of my favorites.”

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Kimball courtesy of J. Crew

The key, as always is a strong brand perspective and commitment to story.

À La Mode

Like all storytelling tools from prose to motion pictures, color is a powerful emotive tool that can resonate with your audience—if you know how to use it.

“Color is emotional for us, and for our customers too. Color can make a person light up a room or feel cozy at home,” Kimball concludes. “Color is how (most of us) see the world. It can be the difference between if we love or hate something. It expresses emotion and personality. The right color clothing can bring out a person’s eyes or make them look sick, so its kind of a big deal.”

Brands and marketers can borrow a page from the fashion industry. Embrace the ephemeral nature of color and shifting consumer reactions and incorporate them into your brand’s identity. Make change part of your brand’s message, and set color trends instead of scrambling to react to them.

Use the colors that tell your story, and consumers will listen.