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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Design Strategy: How Customers Respond to Your Brand's Colors

Design Strategy: How Customers Respond to Your Brand's Colors
Credit: Tiplyashina Evgeniya/Shutterstock

You've got a great name, a top-notch product and a well-laid-out marketing plan. You may think your startup is ready to go, but before you present yourself to the world, there's one important element of your brand presence that you can't afford to overlook: your color scheme.

On the surface, color may seem like a minute detail that's discussed only in the logo- and website-design phase. But your brand's color palette is often the first thing consumers will notice about your brand, and it can heavily influence the impression they form of your company.

"The science behind color processing is extremely powerful because it affects people's emotions on a subconscious level," said Steve Baker, CEO of Brandfolder, a digital asset management company. "Studies show that humans may react specific ways to certain shades — a fact that marketers and designers should leverage. When used correctly, color can influence a consumer's perception of your brand, and can persuade someone to purchase your product."

Pamela Webber, CMO of 99designs, agreed, noting that customers' responses to colors are influenced by three major factors: aesthetics, learned associations and programmed associations.

Aesthetics: Some color combinations harmonize well, while others clash and turn the customer off, Webber said. On the other hand, consumers will tune out bland, too-similar color palettes.

Learned associations: Deeply ingrained cultural associations, such as brides wearing white as a symbol of purity or funeral-goers wearing black to embody a somber occasion, can also affect how a person perceives color.

Programmed associations: Researchers suspect that at least some color associations are the result of evolution, Webber said. For instance, few people choose brown as a favorite color, and that's because of the hue's association with rotting produce, while red is a universal sign of heightened, passionate emotions. [See Related Story: Designing a Logo That Brands Your Business]

So what kinds of connotations do your branded materials have? Webber shared the results of research by 99designs, which showed the following associations people make with certain colors:

  • Red – passion, vigor, speed, anger
  • Orange – invigoration, energy, fun, liveliness
  • Yellow – friendly, youthful, cheerful, happiness
  • Green – nature, refreshment, growth, balance
  • Blue – knowledge, tranquility, security, trust
  • Purple – royalty, wisdom, spirituality, authority
  • Pink– nurturing, warmth, friendliness, softness
  • Brown – seriousness, reliability, earthiness, toughness
  • White – purity, cleanliness, virtue, peace
  • Black – formality, luxury, secrecy, glamour
  • Gray – impartiality, compromise, maturity, composure

According to the company's analysis of more than 500 industry leaders' logos, blue (55 percent) appeared most frequently, followed by white (46 percent), black (42 percent) and red (34 percent). The specific combinations of colors, however, will largely depend on the industry and the message that businesses hope to convey — or avoid conveying.

"If you're a bank, you may favor blue and gray and brown — all of which reinforce trust, reliability and security — over red hues, which might signal volatility or danger," Webber said. "If you're a brand hoping to appeal to families and convey affordability, using black might communicate a luxury image that could be more detrimental than helpful to your branding. However, for an upscale fashion brand, black might be the perfect choice."

"On the flip side, yellow is a lot more playful, cheery and warm," Baker added. "Many family-friendly businesses, like McDonald's and Ikea, use yellow to portray that welcoming nature in their logos."

There are a lot of different reasons a brand might choose one color combination over another. Two brands explained why they chose their corporate colors:

Credit: Costa Vida Mexican Grill

"At Costa Vida, we employ a fairly limited palette in store and in our marketing materials," said Ashley Moody, director of marketing at Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill. "Our two strongest color characters are orange and a blue-green. Because 'costa vida' means 'coastal life,' we draw our inspiration from the colors of the sun and the sea. These colors are vibrant and positive, attributes we want to reflect throughout the brand. We also like the high visibility those colors provide for signage and promotional materials at the storefront. However, when it comes to presenting Costa Vida in food photography, we dial back the color by using natural surfaces like aged wood. In this instance, we want the color to come from food itself."

Credit: Retro Fitness

"For Retro Fitness, I selected red and yellow, which are energy colors," said Eric Casaburi, CEO and founder of Retro Fitness. "They're vibrant and they smack you in the face when you walk into one of our gyms. If you are having a gloomy day ... and you bang into these colors, they can change your mood and help you feel better to get a good workout in. Retro Fitness goes as far as to use scents now in addition to bright colors. It's important to understand how key the entire physical experience is, what you see with your eyes, feel with your hands and smell with your nose."

When designing your logo, your website or your marketing materials, you need to choose color combinations that work well with the message you want to convey. Richard Stevenson, head of marketing and communications and global PR at ePages, a cloud-based e-commerce software provider, recommended a sparing blend of two or three colors that support a "mood" conducive to your brand and products.

"Overall, the colors you use should be confident. However, they must [als] be 100 percent reflective of your genuine business character and mission," Stevenson told Business News Daily. "In general, we advise [ePages] merchants to use mood pictures of their products in order to place them in the right context and emotion. The products must always be the focus, so settings should be well-lit, in grays or light colors to give products prominence. Of course, a customer must be able to recognize right away what your store is selling, and only if this is unimpeded, may color then be added into images to steer a wider emotional response."

Stevenson also noted that the background color of your branded materials can be just as important as the logo or product itself. Bright white may seem like an easy choice, but it's not always the best option; off-whites or light greys are more comfortable to view, he said. However, for brightly colored or exciting products, darker backdrop options such as black, pink or green will elevate the products onto a stage.

While our sources agreed that there are no colors that are "off-limits" for branded materials, there are definitely better choices for certain industries and types of businesses.

"A color that might be exactly the wrong choice for a software company might be exactly the right choice for a boutique that makes handmade soap," said James Rabdau, a partner with The Summit Group branding and communications company. "Also, adding too many colors can make the message too busy or unappealing."

"If you're looking to calm people down, and you throw bright colors everywhere, that's not going to be a good idea," Casaburi added. "Same goes for the food business — you're going to want to use colors that will increase the appetite, rather than suppress it. Overall, you want to select the right colors and shapes that make sense for your business."

You'll also want to consider what your competitors are doing. Rather than choosing the same exact hues as other companies in your industry, you might want to stand out by choosing a more original color scheme that still achieves your desired psychological positioning.

"For example, if your industry is saturated with yellow logos, but you're hoping to convey a friendly, approachable image, you might consider pink or orange instead," Webber said.

Ultimately, Baker said, the best thing you can do for your business's color scheme is to do your research up front, and consult with an expert or professional design firm before you make any big decisions.

"Color is a powerful force," Baker said. "Use it to your advantage."

Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.