The Psychology of Color: Trademark Colors & Brand Recognition
Pink. Pink is associated with femininity, as well as love, nurturing, and caring. A lighter pink is sweet and often marketed towards young girls, such as Barbie and Hello Kitty. Paradoxically, brighter pink also holds sex appeal: Victoria’s Secret uses a lot of pink in its branding and it even has a line of products aimed at young women called PINK. Many charities related to breast cancer, such as Susan G. Komen, color themselves pink. Pink also has its drawbacks, as the color can be viewed as weak and is more likely to turn off male consumers.
Red. Red is the color of power and passion. It conveys confidence, excitement, energy, and courage. It is used by powerful brands like The Virgin Group and Coca-Cola. Not so long ago, French shoemaker Christian Louboutin SA won the right to trademark the brand’s distinctive red soles after suing Yves Saint Laurent. Red is an intense color and can be a little off-putting to some or in the wrong context. Be sure you want to be so bold before choosing red.
Orange. Orange is powerful. Companies that use orange are often seen as playful and social. This may be why the kids’ TV network Nickelodeon is a bright orange splat. Home Depot’s orange logo makes it seem like a more friendly place to purchase home improvement supplies, which may come in hand for frustrated or inexperienced do-it-yourselfers. Orange should be chosen carefully, as brands that don’t quite read their audience right may come off as frivolous or trivial.
Yellow. Brands that use yellow tend to project a a personality of happiness, optimism and friendliness. Yellow is highly visible, making it difficult to overlook. It can even stimulate hunger. The unmistakeable yellow “M” of McDonald’s proclaims, literally without saying a word, that familiar food is nearby. IKEA also uses yellow to tell consumers that shopping at IKEA is a fun experience. However, the wrong hues of yellow – too brown, too bright – can cause consumers to look away from a brand.
Green. Green is symbolic of growth, freshness and life. While green is associated with the color of money and envy, its has grown in popularity as a color that signifies concern for Earth and the environment. The green mermaid on a Starbucks cup helps to identify the coffee company as one that is Earth-friendly without overtly proclaiming its push for sustainability and fair trade. Subway offers food that is full of fresh vegetables, which is alluded to in its crisp, green logo.
Blue. When it comes to brands, blue is typically representative of logic, trust, integrity, and communication. Think of the reliable IBM or HP and the awesome communication power of Facebook and Twitter. Blue is also calming and peaceful for people to look at, which is great for companies like Blue Bunny or Labatt Blue. However, the use of the wrong hue of blue can give a brand an aura of being ice cold or unapproachable.
Violet. Since ancient times, purple and violet have been associated with royalty, luxury and decadence. Depending on the tone, it can also elicit feelings of whimsey and creativity. Rich Cadbury’s chocolate is wrapped in purple. A bottle of Crown Royal whiskey comes in both a purple box and a purple drawstring bag. Because of its association with royalty, though, some people may look past this color to one that is less connected to wealth.
Black. Black is a color, like violet, which is seen as luxurious. Black, when used correctly, can communicate sophistication, wealth, glamour, even exclusivity. Black is a color to be taken quite seriously. Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent are brands that look good in black. Black is a very heavy color, though. When choosing it for your brand, be sure that the heaviness doesn’t weigh it down. Black also makes a great accent color for branding choices.
Brown. Sure, when you see brown, you may think chocolate and sweetness, like Hershey’s, but it can also mean warmth, safety, reliability, and dependability. Brown is a great choice for UPS, as its customers want to feel confident knowing their mail and packages are being delivered on time. An original Hershey’s chocolate bar comes in the easily identifiable brown packaging that looks similar to the sweet chocolate inside. Brown can be a little dull or off-putting by itself, so its best when it is accompanied by accent colors.
White. White implies simplicity, cleanliness and purity. The human eye is attracted to its brilliance, so it immediately catches your attention in a logo or signage. White is often used with infant and health-related products, but one of the more famous white logos is the big, white Apple on laptops and other products. Background colors are a consideration for white, as it can disappear on a white surface. White can be a difficult color to use for branding, as it may need other colors to help it stand out.
Grey. Somewhere between black and white, grey is neutral and works well with most other colors. Grey is often viewed as wise, sophisticated, corporate or neutral. Great examples for grey logos include Wikipedia, Turner Broadcasting, and luxury brand Swarovski, maker of lead crystal glass. Because grey is so neutral, it can get washed out if it isn’t on a background that helps it to pop. Grey is a great accent color that can make other colors, like red and blue, appear richer and deeper.
Colors. We see them in everything every day, yet we don’t often think about what those colors make us think or feel. Brands, on the other hands, are aware and thinking about this all the time. They work every day towards shaping you perceptions about colors by expressing the qualities of their brands. Have you been paying attention?
Are you a graphic designer that helps brands with branding and logos? What wisdom could you add for how colors are perceived and how it can impact a brand?
As you may be able to tell, brands and color are, well, inseparable. Color combinations of brands can offer instant recognition, especially if the graphic designs are done well. In fact, according to a University of Loyola, Maryland study, color increases brand recognition by up to 80 percent.
Could you have identified some of the brands above, with just the color palettes they use? How about the three below? Don’t scroll down too far or you’ll see the answers. Hint: All three appear on the infographic above.
You likely recognized the color combinations, even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on what products or services they represent. That is because our brains are programmed to respond to color, well-beyond branding. Primitive humans used to spend much of their time looking for food. They would try to remember the colors and shapes of foods that were good or bad, so they could eat good foods and avoid poisonous foods. We’ve been continuing the concept of using colors as mental signals ever since. Even beyond food!
For example, when we drive, stoplights that are green tell us we can continue forward. Stoplights and stop signs are red, and they tell us to halt our vehicles. Yellow signs and lights tell us that we should be vigilant or cautious.
When we see the colors and the logos below, though, we think coffee, deliveries and computers. Even though there’s nothing obvious about the colors or graphic designs to indicate those are the products these brands sell. It is for this reason that many of the most recognizable brands worldwide use color as a key factor in their instant identification.
Color is the visual component people remember the most about a brand, followed by logos or symbols, then numbers, then words. Words just aren’t as memorable as the bright red bullseye or the giant blue F. A green, yellow, brown or blue bullseye wouldn’t look the same to you – or anyone else for that matter.
If you really want a color to be attributed to your brand, choose wisely. As the rainbow of brands above shows, different colors can evoke different ideas of what the brand stands for. For example, blue is associated with a lot of technology related products. The color blue invokes a feeling of trust and communication; these companies that use this color want you to be able to depend on them.
Trademarking colors doesn’t quite work the same way as a copyright for a logo design or company name. What is protected is the use of the color in a market sector. For example, when you see the big brown truck, you know it is UPS and not one of its competitors. No other company in the delivery service can use that color as the primary hue for its brand. But a very similar brown color is used for the packaging of original flavor M&Ms. That’s okay, because the industries are so different, there is no way M&Ms could be mistaken for UPS or vice-versa.
Color trademarks apply to unique situations because it’s not possible to permit every business to “own” a color. If there weren’t such restrictions, because of the limited nature of colors, soon none would be left to trademark.
Another restriction is that it can’t be a “functional color” for its topic. For example, John Deere does not own the color often referred to as “John Deere Green.” Because green is the color of grass and the crops that its products are used to cut and harvest, the company can’t lay such a claim to that hue. That’s why other farm equipment companies can paint their products green, and some of them do.
On the other hand, that easily recognized color of green on your Starbucks cup can be registered as a trademark for the coffee maker because green isn’t generally associated with coffee the same way green is associated with crops. In this case, green is a “secondary” color.
Act fast, too. Some companies have failed to protect their colors, even when they’re widely recognized. Pepto-Bismol failed to copyright its own version of pink and Good Humor was unable to trademark the color white for its trucks and uniforms.
What lessons have you learned about colors and branding? What logo and branding color combinations appeal to you the most?
Sara Duane-Gladden is a lover of words and imagery. She is a writer and photographer based just outside of Minneapolis, with a BA in English from the University of Minnesota.