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The psychology of color in branding

There have been numerous attempts to classify consumer responses to different individual colors. Still, the truth is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings.

Misconceptions around the Psychology of Color

Why does color psychology invoke so much conversation but is backed with so little data? As research shows, it’s likely because aspects such as personal preference, experiences, upbringing, cultural differences, context, etc., often muddy the effect individual colors have on us. So the idea that colors such as yellow or purple can evoke some hyper-specific emotion is about as accurate as your standard Tarot card reading. The conversation is only worsened by incredibly vapid visuals that sum up color psychology with awesome “facts” such as this one:
“Yellow is psychologically the happiest color in the color spectrum.”

Now it’s time to look at some research-backed insights on how color plays a role in persuasion.

The Importance of Colors in Branding
First, let’s address branding, one of the most critical issues relating to color perception, and the area where many articles on this subject run into problems. There have been numerous attempts to classify consumer responses to different individual colors. Still, the truth is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings. There are broader messaging patterns to be found in color perceptions. For instance, colors play a fairly substantial role in purchases and branding. In an appropriately titled study called Impact of Color in Marketing, researchers found that up to 90 percent of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product.

In regards to the role that color plays in branding, results from studies such as The Interactive Effects of Colors show that the relationship between brands and color hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used for the particular brand; in other words, does the color “fit” what is being sold.

The study Exciting Red and Competent Blue confirms that purchasing intent is greatly affected by colors due to the impact they have on how a brand is perceived. These colors could influence how consumers view the “personality” of the brand in question; after all, who would want to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle if they didn’t get the feeling that Harleys were rugged and cool?

Additional studies have revealed that our brains prefer recognizable brands, which makes color incredibly important when creating a brand identity. It’s suggested that it is paramount for new brands to target logo colors that ensure differentiation from entrenched competitors specifically; if the competition all uses blue, you’ll stand out by using purple.

When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness’ about the product is far more critical than the specific color itself. So, if Harley owners buy the product to feel rugged, you could assume that the pink plus glitter edition wouldn’t sell all that well. Psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker has conducted studies on this very topic via research on Dimensions of Brand Personality, and her studies have found five core dimensions that play a role in a brand’s personality:

Brands can sometimes cross between two traits, but they are mostly dominated by one. High-fashion clothing feels sophisticated; camping gear feels rugged.

New research shows a real connection between the use of colors and customers’ perceptions of a brand’s personality. Certain colors broadly align with specific traits, e.g., brown with ruggedness, purple with sophistication, and red with excitement. Nearly every academic study on colors and branding will tell you that it’s far more critical for your brand’s colors to support the personality you want to portray instead of trying to align with stereotypical color associations. Consider the inaccuracy of making broad statements such as “green means calm.” The context is missing; sometimes, green is used to brand environmental issues, such as Timberland’s GREEN standard, but other times it’s meant to brand financial spaces. Moreover, while brown may be useful for a rugged appeal (think Saddleback Leather) when positioned in another context, brown can be used to create a warm, inviting feeling (Thanksgiving) or to stir your appetite (every chocolate commercial you’ve ever seen).

Bottom line: There are no clear-cut guidelines for choosing a brand’s colors, but the context you’re working within is an essential consideration. The feeling, mood, and image your brand creates play a role in persuasion. Be sure to recognize that colors only come into play when they can match a brand’s desired personality, i.e., the use of white to communicate Apple’s love of clean, straightforward design. Choosing one color over another doesn’t make much sense without this context. Very little evidence supports that ‘orange’ will universally make people purchase a product more often than ‘silver.’

Color Preferences by Gender
Perceived appropriateness may explain why the most popular car colors are white, black, silver, and gray, but is there something else at work that explains why there aren’t many purple power tools?

One of the better studies on this topic is Joe Hallock’s Colour Assignments
Hallock’s data showcases some clear preferences in specific colors across gender.

It’s important to note that one’s environment -- and especially cultural perceptions play an active role in dictating color appropriateness for gender, which in turn can influence individual choices. Consider, for instance, this coverage by Smithsonian Magazine  detailing how blue became the color for boys and pink was eventually deemed the color for girls (and how it used to be the reverse).

The most critical points in these studies are the supremacy of blue across both genders (it was the favorite color for both groups) and the disparity between groups on purple. Women list purple as a top-tier color, but no men list purple as a favorite color. Perhaps we have no purple power tools, a product primarily associated with men?

Additional research in studies on color perception and color preferences shows that when it comes to shades, tints, and hues, men prefer bold colors while women prefer softer ones. Also, men were more likely to select shades of colors as their favorites. Colors with black added whereas women were more receptive to tints of tones and colors with white added.

Keep all this information in mind when choosing your brand’s primary color palette.


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