The Science of Color in Branding

Color Wheel for Brands

In our culture, color has meaning.

Over the years, Color theory (and color psychology) has had a huge influence on design. For branding, in particular, colors visually signal aspects of the brand. The main debate around the science of color revolves around whether our interpretation of color meanings is innate (from a biological impulse) or learned (from use in society). Choosing brand colors is a little bit science and a little bit art.

The Science of Color Psychology

At this time, the evidence seems to point to a mix of both innate and learned factors. For example, some scientific studies have shown human behavior can be influenced by the use of warm (reds) or cool (blues) tones. On the other side, there is a vast cultural history that has given meaning to colors. Regardless, every study and every anecdotal example has become part of the reinforcing loop of color associations.

According to a 1997 survey by Cooper Marketing Group, Oak Park, IL, power is represented by the color scarlet red for 25% of respondents, black for 17% and bright violet blue for 13%. More than 55% of those surveyed chose one of these three colors out of 100 colors. Fragility was most represented by pale pink (27%), white (9%), and pale lavender (9%).

Kathy Lamencusa, Emotional Reactions to Color

As branding has matured, these meanings have become even stronger. So, when studies like the well known Cooper Marketing Group show red, black and blue as powerful tones, those tones experienced widespread adoption throughout corporate America.

In fact, individual colors have been specifically studied for their impact on human attraction.

Several years ago, Andrew Elliot, a professor at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues began by asking heterosexual male undergraduates to spend five seconds looking at the photo of a young female stranger, and to rate her attractiveness on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all attractive) to 9 (extremely attractive). All of the undergrads saw the same woman wearing the same clothes—but the experimenters randomly changed the color of the thick border that framed the photo, alternating among white, red, blue, and green.
Psychologists know some things about color: Blue is the most popular color in the world, black is associated with elegance, wealthpower, and strength, green soothes and calms, and red is the color of love and romance.
But Elliot and his colleagues were trying to figure out whether color can actually change a person’s appeal. Across five experiments, the results were always the same. The male undergrads who rated the photo bordered in red, found the woman more attractive, were more interested in asking her on a date, and willing to spend more money during the date. The researchers were also careful to show that the effect was specifically tied to sexual interest. They showed, for example, that when heterosexual women rated the attractiveness of the same female stranger, they weren’t swayed by the border’s color. In addition, men didn’t believe the red-bordered woman was more likable, kind, or intelligent—only that she was more attractive and sexually appealing.  

Adam Alter, I See Red

You can see why certain studies have had influence over how people pick a tone for their brand.

Common Color Associations

At this time, in American culture, colors are tied to very specific meanings. These are generally accepted by designers and taken into consideration when developing a brand.

Red

Red alerts us to pay attention. It is sexy, provocative, dynamic, stimulating, and exciting.

Kathy Lamencusa, Emotional Reactions to Color

Red remains an eye-grabbing color. In the print promotion past, red was often added as a spot color (in black and white materials) to make something stand out in an advertisement. You’ll often see this as the core color for a long-established brand.

This color is often associated with:

  • Lust
  • Power
  • Excitement
  • Love
  • Anger

Example Brands

  • KFC
  • Coca Cola
  • Target
  • Netflix
  • Nestle

It’s typically seen as a color of attraction for several reasons. First, it’s been largely touted as a sexually appealing tone for women. Red lipstick and red dresses are lauded in women’s magazines as a way to catch a guy’s attention. Second, the idea of appetite being stimulated by red tones is generally accepted by the restaurant industry. While the color is used throughout many different types of brands, it’s very common for organizations that work with food.

Pink

Color historians, if there is such a thing, have pointed out that pink for girls became an accepted part of American culture in the 1930s and 1940s. 

How to Know If a Pink Logo Is Right For Your Brand


Pink is still strongly linked femininity, despite progressive parenting. A stroll past toy aisles shows how easy it is to spot the products marketed to young girls. Consequently, it’s often seen as a youthful color, especially in the brighter hues.

This color is often associated with:

  • Sophistication
  • Sincerity
  • Femininity

Example Brands

  • Barbie
  • Victoria’s Secret
  • Baskin Robbins
  • T Mobile

While there are outliers, like the Taco Bell logo, the color isn’t common for big brands that aren’t trying to appeal to women.

Orange

If we are to take the shades of orange, each one has a particular meaning. Peach color is excellent for communication, influences good manners and calms down. Golden orange represents vitality and self-control. Amber helps the confidence and self-esteem, but it can also give a degree of arrogance. Burnt orange is the color of aggression, pride, and tension. Dark orange the color of the advantage taker, making a selfish earn out of everything.

Dena Przybyla, Orange Color Psychology and Meaning

The color orange is most often seen as a safety signal. It stands out, much like red. You often spot it in utilitarian settings, like construction sites and brands associated with rugged activities.

The color is often associated with:

  • Boldness
  • Safety
  • Construction
  • Utility

Example Brands

  • Home Depot
  • Popeyes
  • FireFox
  • Nicolodeon

For logos, it’s not a popular corporate color. It’s a complementary shade so, it wasn’t used as much during the early days of printing. Now, softer shades of orange are starting to pop up in design — from peach to gold.

Yellow

Certain shades of yellow, to some personality types, are associated with uncertainty and restlessness. Yellow cautions us to be careful.

Kathy Lamencusa, Emotional Reactions to Color

Tones of yellow are usually used to signal positive feelings. It’s a difficult tone to use because it doesn’t pop against white. So, it has to be layered on a darker color to really have a visual impact. Few big brands use it as their core color.

This color is often associated with:

  • Competence
  • Happiness

Example Brands

  • McDonalds
  • Best Buy
  • Nikon
  • Livestrong

You don’t see it as a core color for most brands because it can be hard to integrate into a design. When used correctly, it feels fresh and signals positive feelings.

Brown

The color brown is quietly confident and stabilizing. If your brand personality has a strong sense of duty and responsibility or is practical and down-to-earth, and your target audience values stability, quality, and wholesomeness, brown could be an optimal color choice.

LogoMaker

An earth tone, brown connects the mind with the natural world. Often, you see it in brands that embrace the senses like food or handmade goods. Chocolate, leather and coffee beans all evoke the tactile force of brown.

This color is often associated with

  • Ruggedness
  • Chocolate or rich foods
  • Leather or handmade goods

Example Brands

  • UPS
  • M&Ms
  • Hershey’s
  • Cracker Barrel
  • Louis Vuitton

Less intense than a straight black, using brown adds nuance to a design. It does not signal luxury as strongly.

Green

Often associated with the environment, forest green has been used for designs related to causes supporting the earth and its ecosystem.

Canva

A life-affirming tone, green is a natural and sensuous color. Most people link it to friendliness, refreshment and healing. Dark green colors telegraph wealth, fame, and power.

This color is often associated with

  • Good Taste
  • Envy
  • Power
  • Wealth
  • Healing

Example Brands

  • Whole Foods
  • BP
  • Spotify
  • Starbucks

Whenever you see a brand using green, they usually picked the bright or dark end of the spectrum with intention.

Blue

If you review all 500 companies, as I did, you’ll find that Blue (37%) and Black (31%) dominate the core colors for logos.

Danielle Verderame

Light and bright blues are linked to drama and energy. Dark blues are coroporate and institutional. This color is extremely common in branding because it’s safe without being as harsh as black.

This color is often associated with:

  • Masculinity
  • Stability
  • High Quality
  • Corporate culture

Example Brands

  • General Electric
  • Geico
  • Dell
  • HP
  • Facebook

Most big brands use this color so, it does signal a lot of stability. Companies that use blue visually align themselves with the values of well-known organizations.

Purple

Purple is the hardest color for the eye to discriminate.

Color Matters

Although most young people see purple as a happy color, it’s traditionally associated with sophistication because of it’s rarity. It’s not easily found in nature and thus, was scarce in early design.

This color is often associated with

  • Authority
  • Sophisication
  • Power

Example Brands

  • Yahoo!
  • FedEx
  • Cadbury

Overall, it’s sensual and a little mysterious. You often see it in spiritual and majestic designs.

Black

While black is still associated with death and mourning, today, it is also associated with sophistication and strength.

Kathy Lamencusa, Emotional Reactions to Color


Strong, classic and elegant describe our feelings about black. When used correctly, it aligns a brand with strong, established organizations.

This color is often associated with:

  • Grief
  • Sophistication
  • Expensive
  • Fear

Example Brands

  • Nordstrom
  • Adidas
  • Apple

In general, the color black is a safe way to blend in. If you use it in a logo, you have the freedom to add other colors into your designs around the simple logo (like Apple during the 00s iPod campaigns.)

Color Theory in Branding

As more designers have used color theory to shape brand decisions, the meanings behind the colors have become reinforced. You can see this when you look at the logos for top brands and how they’re used throughout each industry.

If you found this article interesting, please keep in touch by following me on Facebook or Instagram.

Pin & Share

If you liked this…

15 Color Combinations Based on the Top Instagram Accounts

Whether you’re looking for a little inspiration or seeking a visual strategy for your tiles, this post can show you what colors dominate our Instagram feeds. Read More…

Additional Reading

Published by Danielle

I'm a writer and artist in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: