The psychology of color plays a seriously important role in marketing and advertising, so in this post we will explore how to choose the colors you use wisely, based on your specific marketing and advertising goals.
Tech startup founders and small business owners—and in fact anyone who needs to advertise or market their products or services—needs to master this design area. If you’re doing your own design work it’s essential to understand the basics, but even if you’re working with a professional designer, it helps to have a sense of what you need in terms of color.
By the end of this post, you will understand the basics of the psychology of color, see how it intersects with marketing and advertising and feel comfortable using color to further your own specific marketing and advertising goals.
Your brain on color
Color and the way humans perceive it plays a crucial role in marketing and advertising. There’s an entire field of research dedicated to it, in fact! Color psychology is the study of how colors influence human emotions and behaviors. Our reactions to color are based on a complex series of interactions between our cultural background, our family upbringing and our personal tastes.
Color can affect our perceptions in both obvious and subtle ways. The hue of a product can convince us that it tastes fresher and can even enhance the effectiveness of medication (and placebos). Blue is used to tint pills that calm or induce sleep, while yellow or red are usually the colors of choice for stimulants.
Every brand and business uses colors deliberately in their product designs, packaging, advertisements and websites. High-level marketing and advertising rely in part on the ability to select colors that support the brand and the company’s mission. The psychology of color can and must be used to trigger the right responses from consumers if you want to ensure that your advertising and marketing materials will have the impact you want.
How colors get us to buy stuff
Among consumers, colors are closely connected to buying decisions. Color is the primary reason 85 percent of consumers give for choosing what they buy and up to 90 percent of impulse decisions about products are based solely on color. Researchers have also found that 42% of consumers form an opinion of a website based on the site’s design, including color, more than any other factor. And 52% of the time inferior design and the poor use of color will influence a consumer’s decision to avoid returning to a particular site.
Consumer research has found numerous links between consumers’ purchasing decisions and specific colors—connections you can use as you make branding choices.
Here’s the scoop:
Orange, red, royal blue and black appeal to impulse buyers.
Teal and navy blue are the comfort zone for bargain hunters.
When it comes to clothing, softer colors like pink, sky blue and rose are the sweet spot for traditional shoppers.
Consumers have emotional reactions to colors they see in marketing, and those reactions come with specific expectations. Part of those expectations have to do with how appropriate the “fit” between the color and the brand seems to be. We expect to see red and yellow on a sign for Denny’s or McDonalds. But how would we feel if we pulled up to a restaurant for a meal we knew would be hundreds of dollars—the most exclusive dining establishment in the city—and saw a similar red and yellow sign? Cheated in advance, right? That’s a bad fit!
The same reasons cause Americans to mistrust a bank with a bright yellow and orange sign. We also find brown paper packaging super appealing when it’s wrapped around high-end organic coffee or soap. Yet the same paper is totally unappealing when covering bottles of fresh-squeezed juices that look best when they show off their own flashy colors through a clear, unobtrusive label.
And how well do you think a cure for baldness would sell in a lavender box? About as well as a feminine hygiene product in a black and gray box, probably—or worse, a brown one.
These preferences aren’t because we’re insecure about our own gender or because we don’t like brown in packaging. Our connection to color is actually evolutionary! We are programmed to avoid brown produce which could be rotten and so can be hesitant about brown hues. We implement survival strategies, which have trained our brains to prefer certain colors in certain situations. For example, there is research that suggests men really do prefer blondes—probably because blonde hair is a sign of youth and because fair-skinned individuals show age quicker, making it easier to tell if they’re too old to mate. Similarly, there’s a reason people find red appealing, especially in the context of food. Back in our primate days, the ability to spot ripe, red fruits was a serious advantage, and that programming is still in there.
So, now that you’re aware that you can exploit eons of biological programming on behalf of your brand, are you on board?
Successful marketing and advertising also anticipates cultural differences in color perception. The same color can mean very different things to different audiences. Take yellow. In most European and North American cultures yellow has a playful, bright, cheerful meaning, making it a common choice for things having to do with families and children. Germany is the European exception, where you go yellow, not green, with envy.
For the rest of the world, yellow is all over the map. In China, yellow can have vulgar connotations. In many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, yellow is imperial and sacred (not purple, which is associated with royalty in European cultures) often worn by members of the ruling or royal classes. In Japan, yellow is the color of courage, so telling a Japanese person that they have a “yellow streak a mile wide” wouldn’t be as insulting as it would in Texas.
Many cultures associate yellow with gold, and therefore with success, quality and money. In India yellow is the color of commerce, and in many African nations yellow is reserved for those of higher social rank. Conversely, in many Latin American cultures yellow is associated with mourning and death. Egypt shares this morbid association, but in general yellow is connected with prosperity and happiness in the Middle East.
As a citizen of the marketing world, you owe it to yourself and your brand to design to your target user’s culture associations.
Action-oriented colors that will inspire anyone
The best color for call-to-action buttons has spawned extensive research, yet the results are not entirely clear. What we do know is that context is important to buying decisions, and sometimes the optimal button color depends on overall design and the specific brand and product. That said, there are a few rules of thumb that are good to follow. First, your call-to-action button color must be easy to see, but not an eyesore; it should complement the website’s overall design yet contrast with it enough to eliminate any searching for it. Second, call-to-action buttons generally, and checkout buttons in particular, should be big, clean, and simple, set against plain backgrounds that aren’t distracting.
General research has found that there are three colors that tend to perform best for call-to-action buttons. Red is easy to see, stands out against most designs, and suggests urgency and excitement. Green is a more calming color, but sometimes it helps to soothe certain shoppers into a decision, especially if your service or product is in any way connected to relaxation, peace, psychology or the environment. Finally, the orange/yellow range is associated with warmth, happiness and action. Seen Amazon.com lately? Lots of that orangey-yellowy color.
Testing, testing, testing: are your colors working for you?
Testing is really the only way to make sure you’ve nailed your marketing color strategy. Multiple iterations of A/B or split testing might be needed before you can determine which colors are working best, and remember, you can really only test one at a time. First, eliminate any colors that have negative connotations in any of your cultural markets. (After all, why test them if you already know the answer?) Then, whittle down your list of possibilities, which should all support your brand while contrasting with each other well.
Now you’re ready for your “bracket tournament.” Really, that’s all that split testing is; you’re just testing one color against another allowing the better candidate to move forward until you determine the optimal color. Meanwhile, maintain the rest of your strategy, keeping your calls to action big and above the fold.
Once you’ve tested, you can confidently implement your color choices for each element of your design, from calls to action to backgrounds to text.
How to use colors precisely to further your specific marketing and advertising goals
Take a closer look at each type of color and individual color to get a better sense of how to use them:
Red, orange, yellow and all of their variations are the warm colors. In general they are energizing, enthusiastic, happy, passionate, playful and positive.
Red (primary color)
Positive associations we commonly have with red include comfort, confidence, excitement, love, passion, strong emotions and warmth.
Negative associations that can come along for the ride with the color red include anger, danger, fire, violence and warfare. Sometimes these “negative” associations are exactly what will sell your product!
Some designs use both the positive and negative connotations of red to support the product, like this movie poster that exudes confidence and passion and danger and violence.
Red’s known physical effects on the body include a rise in blood pressure and respiration rate, and enhanced metabolism. Common design uses for the color in the U.S. include bright red as an accent color, and darker red or maroon, in combination with black, or black and white for a more elegant, sophisticated look:
Or in combination with navy blue or gray and white to create a more traditional or professional tone.
Positive associations that typically come along with orange include affordability, beauty, earthiness, energy, enthusiasm, excitement, friendliness, health and vitality, humor, playfulness, seasonal changes and warmth.
Let’s break those down a bit as that’s a lot of associations!
Health and vitality:
Orange is an interesting color in the U.S. in that there aren’t many negative associations with it; maybe prison togs, but that’s about it, and that’s maybe not a strong enough association to affect your branding. A known physical effect that is associated with orange is appetite stimulation, so you’ll see a lot of orange in food and drink branding.
Orange also appears frequently on discount sites.
Positive associations commonly felt with yellow include attention-grabbing, cheerfulness, energizing, happiness, hope, playfulness and warmth.
Negative associations for yellow include anger, caution, cowardice, danger, deceit and frustration. Just like with red, sometimes these negative associations can be powerful marketing tools in their own right:
Yellow is known to brighten the mood in the short-term, so this physical effect should be on your mind as you plan to use it. Common design uses for soft yellows include branding for products and services involving children (like the birthing service from the introduction). Bright yellows are often used for foods or for “fun” or playful products.
Darker yellows and golds are typically used for an antique look and the feeling it provides of permanence or long-lasting appeal.
Green, blue, purple, and every variation in between them are the cool colors. They are generally perceived are more calming, professional, relaxed, and reserved than the warm colors.
Positive associations that are inherent to our perception of the color green are abundance, balance, calm, fertility, good luck, growth, harmony, health, money, nature, new beginnings, renewal and soothing.
Negative associations that come along with green include envy, greed, jealousy and lack of experience. Known physical effects attributable to green are lowered heart rate and blood pressure. Common design uses for green include suggestions of nature, stability, renewal, and wealth. Brighter greens are frequently used for energizing and vibrant design concepts:
Whereas more natural looking avocado and olive greens are often used to suggest the natural world.
Darker forest greens are best used to signal wealth and stability.
The positive associations typically associated with blue include calm, authority, masculinity, conservative in the broader sense (but in a narrower political sense can also mean liberal), peace, non-threatening, reliability, refreshing, serenity, responsibility, strength, stability, and tranquility.
Peace, and Tranquility:
Calm and Reliability:
Negative associations for blue include depression, distance, sadness, and to a much lesser extent, adult themes and vulgarity. Blue is known to calm and relax the body. Some common design uses include baby blues for children’s services and products and pastel blues for relaxing and calming effects.
Bright blues tend to be used to suggest an energizing, refreshing feel:
While teals and turquoises are used for creative, imaginative, or progressive ventures.
Finally, dark blues are frequently used for financial services, corporate designs, medical services and other places where strength, trust and reliability are important.
Positive associations we make with purple here in the U.S. include creativity, imagination, individuality, luxury, magic, military honor, mystery, romance, royalty, spirituality and wealth.
Imagination, Magic, Spirituality:
Like orange, its opposite color, we don’t have any real negative associations with purple (other than the obvious residual sadness we feel after the death of Prince, which is in line with the cultural associations with mourning that purple holds in India, Brazil and Thailand).
Common design uses for lavender or light purples are for beauty and pampering brands and services:
And sometimes passion and romance:
Dark purples are commonly used for wealth and luxury branding.
Neutral colors may seem less exciting, but they are central to branding because they are what you use to balance focus and accent colors to create the effects you’re looking for. Neutrals also have their own meanings, so it’s good to be aware of what they are.
Positive associations with white include brides, cleanliness, goodness, health, innocence, peace, purity, simplicity, virginity and youth.
Health and Purity:
Cleanliness and Purity:
Negative associations with white include blandness, cold, dullness, impersonality, sterility and lack of inspiration. Known physical effects of white are a cooling sensation. White is commonly used in design as a backdrop, typically for a high energy contrast:
Or to allow other colors or pure design elements to stand out:
White can also be used in large quantities of negative space to create minimalist designs or to communicate both winter and summer, oddly enough.
Positive associations and negative associations with black have a lot of overlap, but in general the positive tend to include elegance, fashion, formality, Halloween, magic, mystery, power, sexuality and wealth. Elegance:
More purely negative associations include bad luck, control, evil, death, mourning, intimidation and the occult. Black is sometimes linked to feelings of depression. It is commonly used in design to convey an elegant, mysterious, or edgy mood, or to suggest high quality.
Black and white together can be used to striking effect.
Positive associations with gray include formality, professionalism and sophistication. Negative associations are as you’d guess: moodiness, dullness and depression. Common design uses of gray are in corporate designs:
But gray can also be creative and fun in the right hands:
Brown and beige
Positive associations for the poor, under-appreciated and misunderstood color brown are comfort, dependability, down-to-earth sensibility, earthiness, family, handiness, masculinity, reliability, steadfastness and warmth.
Old-Fashioned Values and Earthiness:
Handiness and Masculinity:
Family and Warmth:
Negative associations are dullness, dirtiness and lack of freshness. Common design uses for browns are to suggest natural, earthy or organic qualities:
To suggest vintage appeal:
Or to connote a masculine, rugged set of qualities.
Wrap it up, we’ll take it
I hope this gives you a sense of how the psychology of color works, and the ways it intersects with marketing and advertising. Once you’ve got a grip on that, it’s easier to see how to use color precisely to further your own specific marketing and advertising goals. Using colors strategically to produce specific, desired branding effects is more than just choosing what looks good to you. After all, there are people walking around out there today who think olive green and fuschia are a match made in heaven—and for some businesses, maybe they are!