Chase. Citibank. Barclay’s. Bank of America. All banks. All use blue for one of their dominant branding colors. Even other financial institutions like Prudential and Merrill Lynch use blue. Obviously it’s more than a coincidence that these money-related companies all chose blue for their brand identity. So what do they all know that you don’t?
The short answers is they know how to combine color theory with business. When building a brand—just like when building a house or furniture—you need to understand how to use all the tools at your disposal, and that’s just what we’re going to discuss today.
In this article, we’ll run through everything you need to know about branding colors. We’ll touch on concepts from artistic disciplines—like color theory and art history—and merge them with the best practices for branding, marketing and what a company needs to survive in today’s business landscape. But first things first, you need to understand just why branding colors matter so much.
Why branding colors matter
What do you think of when you hear the word “love?” Whether positive or negative, it mostly likely conjures a stronger emotional response than when you hear a phrase like “bike rack.”
Emotions are powerful and (whether we like it or not) drive our decision making. As a brand, you want to cultivate a strong emotional connection with your customers. The problem is you can’t tell your company’s entire life story in a logo or storefront—but branding colors provide a shortcut straight to your clientele’s hearts.
One of the most famous color theorists, Faber Birren, wrote extensively on the link between colors and our emotional state, particularly in his book Color Psychology and Color Theory. Just like the words “love” and “bike rack” elicit different emotions, colors like red and blue both create different human responses as well. Even more interesting, the same colors tend to provoke similar responses in different people; in other words, yellow evokes similar feelings in people from Montana to Timbuktu. This extends even to shades of individual colors, so deep dark blue and light sky blue will also have different effects.
Color theory goes a lot deeper than “pink is a pretty color.” Psychologists link it to the very evolution of humans; connections with certain colors developed after years of associating them with particular objects. A blood red, for example, puts people on alert for danger nearby; the browns of dirt and rotten food tend to be unappetizing.
This isn’t always accurate—after all, farmers (and chocolate lovers) might love the color brown, and let’s not forget humans evolved to see the color blue only in recent millennia—but when considering millions of years of biological conditioning, it’s easy to see how affiliations to colors goes beyond mere preference… something humanity has known for quite some time now.
And let’s not forget the cultural associations. A clear example is the way Americans associate green with money, because the currency we use everyday is green. People from other countries wouldn’t necessarily understand the phrase “spending greens”; a company “going green,” however, would resonate with almost everyone.
Even the most cold-hearted business-person can’t ignore the science between the psychological effects of branding colors. With mountains of evidence, it’s not a question of do brand colors work?, but how do I make brand colors work for me?
Application of branding colors
According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, how consumers feel about a brand has more pull than what they think about a brand. Pair that with the fact that we know certain colors evoke certain emotions and voila: your brand colors have the ability to impact your sales or performance even more than the products you offer.
Moreover, repetition of the same color can strengthen brand awareness. When was the last time you saw a Coke can that wasn’t red or a Twitter bird that wasn’t sky blue? (Certainly the marketing world learned its lesson from Heinz’s tragic foray into purple ketchup.) Given enough exposure, colors become part of a brand, so you want to encourage this association by using your brand colors consistently.
Just for the sake of organization, here are the most common areas you’ll be using your branding colors:
- in-store design
- staff uniforms
By using the same colors in all your business ventures, you strengthen your brand’s association with those colors, and by extension strengthen brand awareness as a whole.
What this all amounts to, at least for branding, is that you must choose your branding colors carefully as they’ll have a direct influence on your brand identity. Pink may be your personal favorite color, but it might be the worst for your business goals. But before you even get into which colors you want to represent you, first you must decide your ideal brand personality.
How to determine your brand identity
Red has done wonders for Target, who want their brand personality to be energetic, youthful and loud. But red wouldn’t work for a company like Casper mattresses, who cultivate a brand personality that’s calm and relaxed, denoting a good night’s sleep.
Choosing your branding colors is easy if you know what you’re trying to communicate. One of the earliest steps in building a brand is determining your brand personality. Essentially, you want to think of your company like a person: who are they? What’s important to them?
Once you established what your brand personality goals are, how do you determine which colors will work best? It starts with first learning the emotional associations of each colors.
What do different branding colors mean?
We’ve spoken enough about the abstracts for brandings colors—let’s dive into the hard facts of color meanings (or at least some guidelines). Here’s a summary of brand color meanings and the effect that different branding colors can have on people:
- Red — Red stands for passion, excitement and anger. It can signify importance and command attention.
- Orange — Orange stands for playfulness, vitality and friendliness. It is invigorating and evokes energy.
- Yellow — Yellow evokes happiness, youth and optimism, but can also seem attention-grabbing or affordable.
- Green — Green evokes stability, prosperity, growth and a connection to nature.
- Light Blue — A light shade of blue exudes tranquility, trust, openness. It can also signify innocence.
- Dark Blue — Dark blue stands for professionalism, security and formality. It is mature and trustworthy.
- Purple — Purple can signify royalty, creativity and luxury.
- Pink — Pink stands for femininity, youth and innocence. It ranges from modern to luxurious.
- Brown — Brown creates a rugged, earthy, old-fashioned look or mood.
- White — White evokes cleanliness, virtue, health or simplicity. It can range from affordable to high-end.
- Gray — Gray stands for neutrality. It can look subdued, classic, serious, mysterious or mature.
- Black — Black evokes a powerful, sophisticated, edgy, luxurious and modern feeling.
Keep in mind that the effect of your branding colors depends on the style and design they are used in, as well as the color combinations you choose. This is an abridged version, our connection to color goes lot deeper than this—for example, too much yellow can actually cause anxiety. If you want to learn more about these intricacies, read our full guide on how color impacts emotions and behaviors.
If you’re going for a single-color brand, the hard part is already over. But for most of you, you’ll want a more involved color scheme with a variety of colors. As if choosing one color wasn’t hard enough, now you have to choose multiple colors and make sure they combine in the way you want.
Formula for building a brand color scheme
Obviously, there’s no one right way to pick your branding color scheme. When dealing with abstracts like brand identity, it’s difficult and unwise to ascribe hard and fast rules. That said, the process can be daunting and confusing, so a little guidance is helpful. Here, we’re going to explain our process for building a color scheme that you can use more as a framework, and less as step-by-step instructions.
1. Plan on choosing 3 colors
Your base, accent and a neutral. Brand color schemes can have between 1-4 colors depending on the type (see below), but even monochrome schemes will require some variation in hues for different purposes.
2. Choose your base
Of all your brand’s personality traits, which one is most important? Your base color should reflect not only your brand personality’s most dominant trait, but also appeal to the target audience you’re trying to reach. You’ll choose the remaining colors based on how well they match with this one.
3. Choose your accent
Your accent will be the color you use the most after your base color. This is a bit trickier than choosing your base color because their are more restrictions: aside from matching a brand personality trait, your accent color must also pair visually with your base color, not to mention appease your audience.
4. Choosing your neutral
Your neutral color will most likely be a background color, something chosen to avoid attention. Typically these are different hues of gray, but beige, whites and off-whites work, too. Black is also an option, but be careful; it tends to dominate any color scheme it’s a part of.
Throughout the process of choosing your branding colors, you have to keep in mind the end goal: what kind of color scheme are you using? Typically, brands use one of these common brand color schemes:
- Monochromatic — When you have one personality trait that you want to focus in on, a monochrome scheme will emphasis the meaning of that one brand color. While great for minimalist brands, the challenge here is differentiating the hues enough that your sight doesn’t become visually stunted.
- Analogous — Colors next to each other on the color wheel have harmonious relations, since adjacent colors usually have similar emotional connotations. Analogous schemes are safe bets, but as such not the best for standing out or drawing attention.
- Complementary — Color complements — or opposites — are colors directly across from one another on the color wheels. Because they’re opposites, they bring out the best in each other when paired; you see complementary colors a lot in sports teams. Complementary colors are great for dynamic, stimulating visuals, but be careful of copycatting another brand since they’re so popular.
- Triadic — A stable branding color scheme, triadic colors draw in equal parts for three different sections of the color wheel. Triadic schemes are stable like analogous themes, but offer a more stimulating variety like complementary schemes. The hardest part is getting the three colors to coincide with the traits of your brand identity.
How your branding colors combine will come up again and again in many different aspects of your business. Your brand color scheme determines the look of your website, logo, store design, advertisements, etc., and even trickles down into minor appearances like your social media account. So choose them all carefully.
Know when to color outside the lines
Like we said above, there are no concrete rules for choosing your branding colors. Treat this article more as a rough guideline—an educational resource to help you make informed decisions. But above all, don’t neglect your gut instincts. The main consideration of colors is their emotional connection, so don’t neglect your own feelings when deciding your brand colors.