✍️ This piece was originally published as part of my new Substack newsletter, the Marketing Mind Meld. Subscribe there for weekly marketing reads!
Next time you take a roadtrip, here’s a fun game.
Take a minute to look at all the food fast restaurants you see along the highway. Think about patterns you see amongst the restaurants.
You might notice something subtle, something you would miss if you didn’t look close enough.
Fast-food restaurant logos are largely the same color.
Think about it — almost all use some combination of red, yellow, and white to illustrate their brand identity.
Is it a coincidence? A secret pact of some sort written between the fast food overlords?
Research shows the opposite: warm colors give us a very unique perception of a brand, a perception we’ve built over years of color associations.
It also goes far beyond fast food restaurants — luxury brands, banks, and more use similar science to influence your brand perception.
What do these all have in common? It all starts with understanding the psychology of color persuasion.
Why is Color Psychology Important?
Colors are a large part of our life — bright colors begin to stimulate our minds as babies and color patterns begin to assist with our cognitive development as early as eight months, shaping familiarity with the world around us.
As we grow up, we eventually begin to recognize cues from color. Red means danger. Green means go. A blue-colored tap means cold water.
Over time, color becomes a determinant of human behavior. This is why color is particularly interesting to companies and brands.
If a simple color association can make you stop a vehicle or accelerate a vehicle — could simple color associations make you want to buy their products?
We are visual learners after all. A study from the Institute for Color Research finds that 62% of a subconscious judgment we make on a product within 90 seconds is from color alone.
So is there a simple explanation for this? An easy to use framework?
Finding it was a bit tough. The top-ranked article on color psychology was curated like an encyclopedia — hundreds of buzzwords, competing studies, and a mishmash of images with no clear idea on where to start.
Imagine starting a company from scratch and seeing an image like this:
What the hell? Did all these companies have the same exact goals when using these colors? How do you compare an IMDB to a Mcdonalds? A Gulf Gas Station to Fanta?
The turning point came when I found a study by the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (JAMS) that did extensive research on how color impacts consumer perceptions.
The researchers had two key findings around a framework known as color theory:
- Brand perception is heavily correlated with a color’s associative meaning
- A single color can have multiple meanings depending on how it’s displayed
The evidence changed the way I think about color in marketing and engaging.
Let’s dive deeper into color theory.
How Does Color Theory Work?
At a high-level, color theory in marketing relies on three big concepts:
- Association: What is the association we have with a color?
- Perception: How does color association impact our perception of a brand?
- Experience: How does our subsequent brand experience impact our associations?
As complex as the human brain is, this is a generally straightforward cycle.
Association influences brand perception. It makes us engage with the brand. The experience then adds more perspective. Imagine a loop like this:
Let’s look a little closer at each aspect.
Remember how we talked about recognizing cues from color?
Color cues form under a larger umbrella of memory called associative learning, when two unrelated elements become connected in our brains.
Our brains contain many units of information in small regions called nodes. This is where we understand emotions, sensory experiences, and meaning: We know that x makes us happy, therefore we do x more. They’re connected.
Simple example: Imagine you go to Nike and you find an over-priced shoe or a rude salesperson. You’ll immediately start to have negative associations with the brand. Eventually, you get Nike shoes as a gift and your health increases from more running — now your association shifts.
Over time, you’re constantly adjusting these nodes as new information comes in, as associations strengthen and weaken. Imagine millions of connections like this happening every minute.
Now imagine the same with color.
Your brain contains a node for each color. Each time you have an experience with that color, you modify that node.
Blue might connect to happiness if you grew up near and love the ocean. But if you suddenly break up with a girl who has blue eyes while she’s wearing a jean jacket — well, you’re no longer going to have a full appreciation for the color blue.
Color associations form the first part of color theory: Most colors trigger a relevant association for us when we see them.
This seems obvious enough — when we watch a movie like Inside Out, we don’t question why joy is yellow or sadness is blue.
But this isn’t enough to explain why brands choose colors. You’ll often see marketers drop stuff like the image we saw above:
- Blue is dependable
- Red is bold
- Yellow is optimistic
Don’t get me wrong — those associations technically aren’t wrong.
But they ignore the nuance of color association — we assign hundreds of meanings to the color red. How do brands navigate a world where colors have multiple meanings?
For that, we have to get into the next part of the cycle: dimensions of brand perception.
Hundreds of factors impact brand perception — logo, leadership, price, and more.
In the context of color theory, researchers point to a paper by social psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaeker in 1997 (Five Dimensions of Brand Personality) as a formative primer on brand perception.
Aaeker argued that brands had personalities, much like humans do.
We regularly assign brands human characteristics. We think of Stoli as “cool”, Chanel as “sophisticated”, and Harley as “rugged”. Why didn’t a Big Five or Myers Briggs exist for brands?
The framework she proposed split brand personality into five primary dimensions, with complementary characteristics:
Simple enough. The researchers decided to look at Aeker’s brand dimension scale and run a number of mini experiments to see if there was any evidence that it applied to colors.
The evidence they found was astounding.
For the eleven basic colors (black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, gray, brown, orange, purple) — there was a correlation between every single color and a brand personality dimension as a primary attribute.
The more they reverse engineered logos we know and love today, the more they confirmed their hypotheses.
The researchers decided to do another quick test — they gave a set of test subjects, college students, the following two options for a nameless condom brand:
They gave group 1 the prompt: “You are really interested in finding a brand that is considered durable, strong, and well built.”
They gave group 2 the prompt: “You are really interested in finding a brand that is classy, attractive, and refined.”
The results were overwhelming — a significant amount of people in Group 1 chose the maroon package design and a significant amount of people in Group 2 chose the Purple package design.
The packages had the same exact copy.
Something as simple as color was enough to change perception.
This got me thinking a lot about brands I use every day.
I’m a big Apple fan and also recently got an Oura Ring, a higher-end sleep tracking device company with a black logo. It makes sense that both of these would index on sophistication.
It also made me think of Lyft and Uber, the ride-sharing services, and how both of those are portrayed. We think of Lyft (pink) as the more funky, hip socially-oriented brand with Uber(black) as the more serious, sophisticated one. Even the service Uber Black gives off that exact air of luxury the color claims. Same service, different touch.
Even looking at yesterday’s groceries was revealing — Whole Foods always evokes the idea that it’s natural and more earthy, simply through the green in its logo. If Whole Foods were a person, I would definitely imagine them to be kind of a hippie.
Despite the consistent patterns, it also made me think of products I’ve bought in the past where there was no clear relationship between the color and the purchase — when does this go away?
Remember our earlier chart?
With the cycle on association, brand perception, and experience?
There is where “experience” comes in — the minute you engage with a brand, your association is no longer based simply on color. You’re rewiring those nodes.
Apple is a great example of this that comes to mind — in the 1970’s, they were famous for their rainbow logo created by Rob Janoff. It gave off the air of youth, hip rebellion. They didn’t want to be Windows or Dell. Getting a Mac was fresh and cool.
Over time, they evolved. They no longer have the medley of color options they used for the Macintosh. The Macbook Air only comes in gold, silver and space gray. The logo is black. It was a signal that Apple was going into a new phase: sleek and sophisticated minimalism. (My dream interview that will never happen for the Mind Meld is Steve Jobs, RIP…)
But, at this point we don’t care much that Apple went from monochrome to gray. We regularly buy Apple products without a second thought. My friend even pays money to automatically get upgraded by Apple every year.
The color is secondary to the brand’s loyalism — and the summary here is clear: Color may get people to buy. Experience will get people to stay.
Reading about color theory gave me a lot of thoughts as both a marketer and a consumer. It went from simple things (i.e. why certain colored CTAs are helpful) all the way to the more puzzling questions I have around my own spending habits. (I spent almost three minutes in the Walgreens aisle analyzing all the different colors of sleep medicine, trying to rattle off color theory to an uninterested associate. Sorry Walter!)
Even if you’re writing a newsletter or providing a service, something as simple as putting your name in a different color could yield wonders for brand perception. There’s definitely a lot of this I wish I could’ve learned prior to writing the Mind Meld. Would choosing a different color than blue made me more young and hip? Who knows.
But it’s also one smaller piece of the puzzle that is branding — if a brand is an identity, color is simply just one aspect of it. It just happens to be an aspect all of us who rely on our visual instincts can empathize with.
That’s the beauty of this research. Regardless of whether you agree with the nuances of color theory — one thing is for sure:
You will never look at brand colors the same way again.
I’m currently a growth marketer at Livongo based out of the Bay Area and enjoy sharing insights around growth, careers, and personal anecdotes. I also like meaningless controversies (check out ranking of the best fast food fries) and spending my days finding the best Super burrito in San Francisco. All opinions are my own. Get in touch here or via @kushaanshah on Twitter!