Coca-Cola, Cadburys, Apple, McDonald’s and Barclays: These are just a handful of the brands whose colour palettes form part of our perception of them.
Cadburys felt so strongly about the rich shade of purple in their logo that they secured a UK patent for the colour in 2012 – it’s Pantone 2865c. These brands haven’t chosen colours – they’re carefully researched and tested to ensure they resonate with their customer base, using processes underpinned by colour theory.
Consumers make a large number of decisions based on feelings rather than thoughts. If a product evokes a positive feeling, we’re far more likely to pluck it from the shelves and pop it in our basket. The entire life story of your brand can’t be summed up in a logo or colour scheme, but we need it to be just enough to make that vital connection with a potential customer.
What is colour theory?
Colour theory is the collection of rules and guidelines designers use to communicate with users through appealing colour schemes. You might remember using the colour wheel at school – the most rudimentary guide to colours and the basis of colour theory.
Colour theory goes much further back than branding and advertising. Anthropologists cite colour theory as part of our evolution, with specific colours associated with what keeps us safe and well. For example, blue would be associated with clear skies and safe water, whereas brown reminded our ancestors of faeces and rotting foods. Remnants of this thought process remain today.
This is also coupled with cultural colour associations, which vary depending on where you’re from. In Western countries, red is associated with love and passion, but in East Asian cultures, it symbolises luck and fortune. Equipped with the knowledge of local markets, you can start exploring how colour can work with your brand.
Once you’ve chosen your branding colours, they should be applied across your assets, including:
- Website and emails
- Social media
- Staff uniforms
Repetition of a brand colour cements it in your brand’s identity – you know that a can of Coca-Cola will always be red and that the sign at Sainsbury’s will always be orange! Given enough exposure, colours become part of a brand, so you want to encourage this association by using your brand colours consistently.
Before you choose your branding colours, you’ll need a solid idea of your brand identity. It helps to think of your brand as a person – what’s their personality like? What do they believe in? What do they value? This helps to slowly build up a picture of your brand that we can apply colour theory.
What do branding colours mean?
We can’t guarantee how every colour will affect every person, but there are some fairly well-substantiated guidelines as to how people interpret colour. Here are some solid guidelines of brand colour meanings and the effect that different branding colours can have on people:
- Red is thrilling, passionate and sometimes angry. Red is an important colour and demands attention.
- Orange is playful and lively, as well as invigorating and full of energy.
- Yellow suggests youth, joy and optimism. It has a strong Spring vibe but can also signal affordability – like the reduced price labels at the supermarket.
- Green has strong connections to nature and the environment. It is also strongly linked to wealth, prosperity and growth.
- Light blue is like a clear sky. We associate it with calm and tranquillity, along with innocence and trust.
- Dark blue is mature and responsible. We trust this colour and admire its professionalism and maturity.
- Purple has been the colour of royalty for centuries, and we associate it with wealth and luxury.
- Pink is associated with femininity and innocence. Depending on the shade, it can range from modern to classic.
- Brown is earthy and natural. We associate it with a bygone era.
- Gray is neutral. It’s had a fashionable resurgence lately, particularly in interiors, but it remains subtle, classic and mature.
- White is clean and simple. It can range from budget to high end and implies virtue, although it can also be clinical.
- Black has authority and gravitas. It’s powerful and luxurious and can also be sophisticated and edgy.
This is just a rough guide to colour theory, but if you were hoping to use your favourite shade of baby pink to launch a high-end financial product, it does suggest that there might be some better options out there. But you could make it work, depending on the style, design and colour combinations you opt for.
If you’re aiming for a single colour for your brand design, you should have some solid ideas now. But many brands will have a colour scheme rather than a single hue. How you do this is up to you – or your design team – but here are some pointers.
Choose your hero colour.
There’ll likely be one colour that stands out in your plan. This is the colour that most succinctly encompasses your brand values. This is our hero, and we’ll choose complementary colours around this one.
Choose an accent colour.
This will be your second in command and appear alongside the hero in your branding. This is trickier than choosing your base colour because there are a few more considerations: aside from matching a brand personality trait, your accent colour must also pair visually with your base colour and resonate with your audience.
Choose a neutral colour.
Your neutral colour will hang out in the background, providing a canvas for your other colours. Greys, whites and beiges are often popular choices. This colour is just as important as the others, as its repetition helps to establish the branding colour scheme and maintain consistency.
Using the colour wheel.
It’s time to dust off that primary school art class favourite to uncover why some colours work better together than others. Typically brands will use one of the following colour schemes:
A monochromatic scheme focuses on multiple shades of the same colour. It can hammer home a particular brand colour, but the hues mustn’t be so similar that they wash into each other.
Analogous colour schemes are formed by colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel. Neighbouring colours tend to work together harmoniously but lack attention-grabbing impact.
Complementary colours appear opposite each other on the colour wheel. They’re opposites and provide impact and contrast when paired together – you’ll often see them together on sporting uniforms. They’re dynamic and striking, but make sure they’re not already associated with another brand!
You may not have known what they were called, but triadic colour schemes are popular for brands. They are comprised of colours taken from the colour wheel in a triangular formation and are stable like analogous themes but offer a more stimulating variety like complementary schemes. The hardest part is getting the three colours to coincide with the traits of your brand identity.
But… rules are meant to be broken.
Colour theory provides a guideline but is not a rigid solution. Many of the world’s most successful brands got where they are by ignoring the status quo, so don’t be afraid to march to the beat of your drum.