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Colour in marketing

Why read this? : We look at where colour fits into different parts of the marketing mix. Learn how to use colour terms and theories to improve the impact of your marketing. Plus, we show how the psychological associations of colour influence the way customers perceive your brand. Read this for ideas on how to add more colour to your marketing.

Colour in marketing

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Identify where good colour knowledge can improve the marketing mix.
  2. How to use basic terms and theories of colour.
  3. Learn how colour psychological associations can improve your marketing activities.

We start to learn about colours at an early age. They’re an important part of our everyday lives. We know to stop at red lights, and go at green ones, for example.

Colours also have an emotional impact on us. Yellow makes us feel happier. Blue calms us down.

How people recognise and interpret colour has implications for marketing.

The colours you use in your brand identity and communications say something about your brand to customers. Choose colours well, and it can add to your competitive advantage. Choose badly, and your marketing will be distinctly off-colour. 

This guide explores how and where to use colour in marketing. We cover basic elements of colours marketers should know. How colours are “made” and identified, for example. How to combine colours well, and exploit the associations colours have.

Read this to make your marketing more colourful. 

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about colour in marketing?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-brains colour in marketing quiz and see how much you know about colour in marketing already.

Colour in marketing - recognition

To show how much colour in marketing matters, we’ll do a quick test. Look at these 3 colour combinations. If you’re Australian, chances are you’ll know where they’re from without us having to give you a clue. 

They should have triggered associations in your head, because they’re colours you’ve seen a lot. That repeated use of colour means you instantly know what they represent, even without any other signals. 

The first is obviously the Australian national colours of green and gold. (they’re the colours of the Golden Wattle, the national flower, in case you didn’t know that). 

The next is the Red and White colours of Qantas, Australia’s national airline. 

Australian brands colour test - three examples of Australian brands that can be identified by their choice of colour in marketing

And last, is Australia’s biggest supermarket chain, Woolworths with its dark and light greens.

Here’s the power of colour in marketing though. Because most people “get” those associations, just from the colours alone. They don’t need the brand name, the logo, the brand typography or any text to get who it’s from.

Brands who use colour well in their marketing make it easier for customers to recognise them. They make it easier to be remembered by their brand being associated with specific colours.

Colour in marketing - differentiation

Colour in marketing also helps you stand out against competitors. It helps you differentiate. (see our competitive strategy article for more on why  differentiation matters). 

That’s especially important in categories where customers find it hard to tell different offers apart. Good use of colour in your brand identity helps customers tell you apart. 

Take these example colours from 3 of the big Australian banks. Most banking offers feel very similar to customers. They can’t tell banks apart on their savings rates or account service levels.

But the way banks use colours in their brand identity makes is easier for customers to differentiate them.

Australian banks colour differentiation

If you’ve ever wandered down any Australian main street, you’ll recognise the black and gold of Commbank, the dark and light blue of ANZ Bank and the Black and Red of NAB. Again, all just based on their colour palette.

No logos. No text. Just colours.

Use colour in marketing to build your brand identity

So, colour helps you build your brand identity in marketing. 

Your brand colours are a tangible asset in your brand identity. They’re part of the design “rules” for how you represent your brand visually.

You apply them consistently across all your marketing activities. That’s how you create those mental associations like the examples we showed earlier.

There’s many parts of parts of the customer journey where colour plays a role.

In your advertising and social media. On your website. On your packaging. Even the CRM emails you send out while use your brand colours. 

Brand identity asset classification examples

Every time you repeat the use of colour in your marketing, you strengthen the mental association the customer has between that colour and your brand.

You brand colour palette helps customers recognise who you are, and distinguish you from your competitors.

So, clearly with all this, it’s important to know how best to use colour in your marketing.

How to use colour in marketing

You may have to talk colour with graphic designers, packaging developers, agency creative teams and printers for example. Learning basic colour theory and concepts helps make those conversations go more smoothly. This learning helps you :-

  • identify colours.
  • make sure colours go well together. 
  • maximise the impact of colour associations. 

Start with the colour wheel

Estimates put the number of colours in existence at over 18 decillion.

That’s 18, followed by thirty-three zeros.

But it’s estimated most people can “only” distinguish between around 10 million of these. That’s still a lot of colours though.

So rather than start from the total number of colours and work down, it’s usually easier to start the other way. 

Colours always start with the 3 primary colours. There’s then a further 2 “levels” of colour where you combine these primary colours to give you the 12 overall colour in the colour wheel. 

Colour wheel with primary, secondary and tertiary (hue) colours

Primary colours

The Primary colours are Red, Yellow and Blue. They’re primary because they can’t be made up of any other colour. All other colours are “made” from combining these 3 colours.

Secondary colours

Secondary colours made from direct and equal combinations of the primary colours. For example, Orange is equal parts Red and Yellow. Violet equal parts Blue and Red. And Green equal parts Blue and Yellow. 

Tertiary colours

And finally tertiary colours are when you ‘fill in the gaps’ between primary colours and secondary colours. This gives you 6 more colours to complete the “colour wheel” of 12 colours. 

Great. Although you’re probably now thinking, what about black and white? Where do they fit?

Well, interestingly black and white also come from how you miss together the 3 primary colours. But, it depends whether those colours are being made by light (such as on a screen), or by being printed (with pigments or inks). 

White light is made up of Red, Green and Blue. (confusingly, not Red, Yellow and Blue, but don’t worry too much about that). Combine Red, Green and Blue at their maximum levels and your get “white” light. Remove colours and your get different colour variations. Remove all of Red, Green and Blue and you’re left with “black”.

Printed colours work the other way. If you have all Red, Green and Blue, that makes “black”. As you remove colours, that gets you closer to “white”. 

No need to get distracted by this. If you want to read more about it though, check out this colour matters article. 

Hues, tints, shades and tones

Where black and white does become more important though, is that for all the colours on the colour wheel, they do not include any black or white in them. They are called “Hues”. So, in the world of colour “Hues” are colours which do not include any white, black or grey to change their appearance.

But, when you add white (called a tint), black (called a shade) or grey (called a tone) to these hue colours, they change. And you vastly extend the range of possible combinations of colours. It is when you add these tints, shades and tones into the multiple possible colour combinations between primary, secondary and tertiary colours, that you jump from the 12 main hues to the 10 million colours you can recognise. And the 18 decillion colours that are in existence.

Identify colours with colour systems

With all those different combination of colours to choose from, you need some way to identify specific colours. That helps you use them in a consistent way. Unfortunately, there’s no single colour system which covers every situation in which you need to use colour in marketing. 

In fact, there’s 5 different colour systems to choose from :-

RGB

Stands for Red, Green, Blue, and identifies colours by how much of each of these base colours they contain. It’s mainly used to identify colours which appear on TV and computer screens as it’s a light-based system.  

Colour systems examples of red in RGB, Hex, HSB, CMYK and Pantone

Hex

Hex is similar to RGB in that it’s applied to colours used on screens. But it simplifies the “name” of each colour into a 6 digit code. It’s often used for colours in website designs. 

HSB

Stands for Hue, Saturation, Brightness. It’s also used for colours appearing on screen. But it includes the colour properties as well as the colour mixes themselves. It’s mainly used by graphic designers to get more accurate about colours. 

CMYK

Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Blac(k). It identifies colours by how much of each of these base colours they contain. It’s pigment-based. It’s mainly used for physical items you print on. Paper, posters, T-shirts and so on.

Pantone

Has similar uses to CMYK in that it’s mainly used for print based items. It’s less widely used than CMYK, but is very common in packaging development, as it’s often used to get an exact match on colours. 

Colour systems and colour matching

RGB and Hex are the most common colour systems you’ll use as most design work happens on computers. HSB is mainly used by graphic designers for fine-tuning on-screen colours, and marketers rarely have to sue it. The colours will have different names in each system, but as they’re all light based, it’s usually easy to match colours from different systems with each other. 

It gets trickier when you try to match colours on CMYK and Pantone which aren’t light-based though. You usually need to visually check a screen colour (usually in RGB) to its printed CMYK or Pantone equivalent. You need to do this to make sure your brand colours match on both you on-screen and printed items. 

The most common area where this matching takes place is with your packaging. It’s designed on a screen (in RGB). But you usually have to go to the printers to colour match it with a CMYK, or more often a Pantone colour swatch. 

Colour variation example

So, check this example.

We’ve taken the same colour RED reference from the example above. See how the RGB, Hex and HSB numbers are identical to the example above. (R255, G0, B0 and #ff0000, H0, S100, B100).

But you’ll see the CYMK numbers doesn’t match. The M and Y numbers have changed from 84-94 to 95-91.

Even though according to the RGB, Hex and HSB colour systems, it’s the exact same colour. 

This is the Pantone system of colour matching comes in. It uses swatches to help physically match printed colours to their desired colour. 

Colour identification systems - shows how definition of RED changes in HSB and CMYK with different software

It’s rare you have to use pantones, unless you’re a designer or work in printing. But marketers need to know it exists, because they may be asked to check it for colour matching.

You can input colours from other colour systems into the Pantone website to find the closest Pantone reference. You can see it recommended Pantone 2347C for our pure red RGB reference. 

Colour warmth combinations

Now we know how colours are made and identified, the next lesson to learn about colour in marketing is how to combine them with each other.

Clearly, some colour combinations work well, while others just clash. 

A good start point to understand what works is to look at the “temperature” of the colour. These can be :- 

  • warm – red, yellow, orange. 
  • cold – green, blue, purple.
  • neutral – black, white, grey. 

Colours with the same temperature tend to go better together than mixing colours from different temperatures.

Colour Wheel - Warm cold neutral combinations

So, in this example, red and orange is a natural pairing. Blue and green is a natural pairings. They don’t jar visually. There ‘safe’ pairings which work in situations where you want colours to work together. 

Of course, there are some situations where you want colour combinations to jar visually. Mixing warm and cold colours for example. These can be good for grabbing someone’s attention. For making  something look unexpected or different. You need to use your judgement about the purpose of the colour “clash” in these situations.

Adding neutral colours can often soften colour clashes. These pair naturally well with the more vibrant hue colours.

Your colour mix choice depends on how ‘safe’ you want to play it. Safe combinations don’t doesn’t distract from other parts of the design. Clashing colours stand out. 

Also be aware that warmer colours stand out more than cold colours. They ‘come forward’ in terms of how people see them. Colder colours are softer and ‘sit back’. When you mix warm and cold colours, the warm colours will dominate.

Colour matching combinations

Temperature’s not the only way to look at colour combinations. There’s also combinations which are :- 

  • analogous.
  • complementary.
  • split complementary.
  • triad.
  • monochromatic.

Analogous

Analogous is when you mix colours which sit closely together on the colour wheel. It has a calming but less dramatic effect. In our example here, Orange and Yellow Orange are a natural analogous colour match.

Complementary

Complementary, on the other hand, combines colours which sit on opposite sides of the colour wheel. Opposite colours can also “go well” together because of they create contrast. It’s a more dramatic option. 

In this example, see how Red-Orange and Blue-Green are opposites. But together, they create an interesting contrast with each other on the black background.

Split complementary

Split complementary picks a single dominant colour, then 2 secondary colours which sit near its complementary colour on the wheel.

These can be a divisive combination of colours. You need to balance the dominant colour with the secondary colours. That usually means using the dominant colour disproportionately to the other 2. 

In this example, we’ve played around with Yellow, Green and Red Violet as split complementary colours. You can decide for yourself how well these options work. 

Triad

Triad matching is similar to split complementary. But it pushes the divisions between the 3 colours harder, so they’re evenly split across the colour wheel. 

For example, Red, Yellow and Blue are a commonly used triad. As primary colours, they’re often associated with designs aimed at appealing to children children. They’re the first colours children learn and so, are the easiest to recognise. 

But alternate triads also work well. They can create a different and dramatic effect.

In this example, Yellow-Orange, Red-Violet and Blue-Green create a very striking combination.

Colour combinations - Triad and Monochromatic

Monochromatic

Finally, there’s monochromatic matching. You start with one hue. Then add a variety of whites, blacks and greys to it. 

This is usually done using the HSB colour system where you use saturation and brightness to adjust the tints, shades and tones. The Hue stays the same, but you get a similar ‘safe’ combination of colours as you do with analogous matching. 

In this example, all 4 colours start with the same Hue (H2). But you can see how that changes as you adjust saturation and brightness on the subsequent colours.

Applying colour in marketing

Designers who help you with your brand identity, packaging and advertising will know these colour terms and systems inside out. You don’t need the same level of expertise, but you need to be able to understand how colours are made, identified and used. 

After all, you have to evaluate the designs they show you. Understand what impact colours have on your customers. Which colours are going to feel “right” for your brand. Being able to talk the language of colour helps you have those conversations and make better marketing decisions about colour. 

Colour psychology and marketing

The final area where colour is used a lot in marketing is around the psychological associations it has. 

As we said earlier, we start learning about colour at an early age. Colours make strong connections in our brains. They’re processed by the thalamus which handles sensory inputs, and closely linked to memories and emotions. 

Marketers can use this understanding of the meaning of colours, to help customers feel something different about their brands. 

For example, warmer colours bring more energy and externally driven associations. Brands who want customers to feel those things can use colours like :- 

Colour psychology - an applied use of colour in marketing
  • Red – linked to strength, power and anger and demands attention.
  • Orange – less confronting and linked to enthusiasm and excitement.
  • Yellow is associated with energy, freshness and youthfulness. 

Cooler colours are usually lower energy. They have more internally driven associations, and can bring a sense of balance and harmony. For example :-

  • Green – linked to nature and freshness. It’s often used to signify purity or cleanness.
  • Blue – links to trust, calm and serenity. It’s often used where brands was to project authority such as in banking (LINK) and medical products.

There’s been a lot written about colour psychology. We’ve covered it in another article, and the Wikipedia page on it is full of more insights.

You should explore these colour associations and use them in your marketing. In your brand identity for example. In your advertising and on your packaging. Your brand colour palette says a lot about you.

Using colour psychology

Let’s look at a few product / category examples and see what colours have the strongest associations. 

Say, you make cereal bars. The ingredients are organic and fresh. Your brand identity dials up your environmental credentials. The benefit in your positioning link is that everything’s very natural. What colour is coming to mind? For us, it’s green. Fresh. Environment. Natural. Those all scream green. 

But instead, what if it’s a different category? Financial services, say? Your aim here is to build trust. Show your expertise. Help customers feel their money will be well under control. For us, this is saying blue. Trust. Expertise. Control. That’s blue. 

The challenge obviously comes when someone has got to that natural colour association before you. They’re not a secret. And if you copy someone else’s colours, you won’t stand out. So, that’s when your designer can help. They can help you find a colour close enough to still show you’re part of the category. But different enough to make you stand out. Remember what we said right at the start. The key role of colour in marketing is to help customers recognise your brand, and differentiate you from competitors.

Conclusion - colour in marketing

Colour in marketing is a surprisingly broad topic. It impacts your brand identity, and how you do your brand activation.

We’ve covered the basics you need to know here. But there are many useful colour related sites and tools online to explore the topic further.

Coolors for example has a great colour palette generator. We used it to develop the colour palette you see all through this site.

The Adobe Colour site is also very useful. You can look at analogous, complementary, and triad combinations for any Hex colour you put in.

It’s unlikely you’ll use this colour knowledge every day in your business unless you work in graphic design or printing.

But the colour of your packaging, website, and advertising is working for you everyday in what it’s telling customers about your brand. So when you do need to make colour choices, make sure you know the basics of using colour in marketing.

Three-Brains and Graphic Design

We coach and consult business on how to best meet their graphic design needs. We can help you find a graphic designer, manage it in-house or help you build your own graphic design skills. Our goal is to help you develop the skills which will make your creative visual work have a bigger impact.

Contact us to find out how we can support your graphic design needs to grow your business via our coaching and consulting services.

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