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Colour in design and what it means for marketing

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

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Why read this? : We explore what the role of colour in design means for marketing. Learn how colour choices influence the brand choice funnel, and your brand identity and values. Read this to learn how to improve your marketing’s impact using colour in design.

It’s cold and dark as we write this. So we thought a splash of colour would lighten the mood. We’ve covered specific uses of colour in marketing before. For example, using colour psychology and choosing a colour palette when creating a new brand. 

But this week, we go broader, exploring how designers think about colour. We look at marketing activities where colour plays a key role. But let’s start with why colour matters so much in design work.

Why colour in design matters

Along with typography and composition, colour is used in design because colours help show meaning. The average person can distinguish between 10 million different colours, and we associate specific colours with specific meanings. 

It’s these distinguishing and associating meanings which designers tap into when they use colour in design. Good colour use grabs people’s attention, makes designs more engaging, and influences behaviours. 

Attention, engagement and influence. Sound familiar, right? Because these are often marketing objectives. A well-chosen colour in design helps improve your marketing. 

Colour associations act as shortcuts for our brains. We don’t have to re-assess colours every time we see them if they deliver a consistent meaning.

For example, think about traffic lights.

We don’t pause every time we get to a traffic light and wonder what each colour means.

We already know. Our brains have learned to associate meanings with each colour.

Red stop. Amber warning. Green go. 

Even more interesting is those same colour associations work in different contexts.

You see them in business reports and performance dashboards. You see them in health apps and nutrition panels on food packaging. 

Rather than having to explain the meaning in words, the colour associations explain for you. 

Traffic lights with sign stating Australia's most remote traffic lights outside the Daly Waters pub in the Northern Territory

This is why colour in design matters so much, and why marketers should learn about it.  Colours make communicating meaning easier, faster and more memorable. Your marketing has to have meaning to work. Colours help you deliver that meaning.

Colours help identify categories

For example, colour is often used as a shortcut to identify categories, particularly on packaging and in-store signage. 

Go to the fruit and veg section of the supermarket. Lots of greens, reds and yellows, right? But the milk aisle is all white, with some green and blue labels. 

These colour associations help customers orient themselves quickly so they can navigate to the right aisle. It’s an easy and convenient shortcut for customers to find what they need. 

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

When launching a new product into a category with strong colour associations, you should factor those into your packaging design. You have to make it easy for customers to know which category your new (and to them unfamiliar) product is part of.

Here’s the challenge though. Because if every product in the category uses the same colour palette, how are customers meant to differentiate between them?

Take bottled water, for example. 

The product packaging between different brands all looks very similar. You can see it in this screengrab from Coles online. Similar bottle shapes. Colour-wise, there are clear blue bottles and simple blue and / or red labels. The colour only changes for flavoured products (e.g. the lemon-infused water).

In fact, the only one which stands out is Voss.

It has an unusual bottle shape. And it chooses to use a neutral colour palette, rejecting the use of the standard bottled water category colour cues of blue and red.

It stands out because it’s different. And stand-out is something you want when it comes to colour in design. Choosing a colour that’s different from what’s around you is part of building a strong brand.

Screengrab of Coles online bottled water page showing 12 different bottled waters to choose from

Brands need to be different to stand out

Picking a different or unusual colour helps your brand stand out more.

This stand-out comes from a psychological bias called the Von Restorff effect. It’s based on evidence we notice things that are different, more than those that are the same. (See our review of The Choice Factory for more on this).

In the sequence A,B,3,D,E you notice the number 3 first, right? Why? Because it’s different. 

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different

If we see similarly packaged objects (like those bottled waters), we notice the most different one first. Combine category identifiers and the Von Restorff effect, and it’s clear marketers must think carefully about how to use colour in the design of their marketing. 

You want to be similar enough to the category colour that customers know you belong to the category. But you have to be different enough to stand out from competitors and be noticed. 

A good place for marketers to start is learning the basic language of using colours in design.

The language of using colours in design

Remember those 10 million colours we mentioned? How are you going to describe them? You might say something’s blue. But is it navy blue, sky blue or denim blue?

Thankfully, the design world has created a set of terms and systems to make sure colours are described and reproduced consistently.

For example, designers will talk about :-

  • Hues – the generic name of colours e.g. red, yellow, blue.
  • Tones – the amount of light (tint) and dark (shade) that sits within colours.
  • Saturation – the intensity or chrome of the colour, which can be full or low and relates to the amount of grey used in the colour. 

Hues are the starting point in colour design. Adjusting tone and saturation (among other factors) changes the hue to give you millions of colour variations. These are then labelled based on the most relevant colour identification system.

Colour systems

There are 5 main colour identification systems

Which one you use depends on whether the colours appear on a screen, or are printed on physical items.

Colours on screen

For colours on a screen, the choice is between the RGB system and the Hex system. These work by combining different light colour sources to make a single new colour. The main difference is how they label the colours.

Colour identification systems - RGB, Hex, HSB and CMYK that you need to know to use colour in marketing

The RGB system gives a value from 0 to 255 to the Red, Green and Blue colour mix for each colour. How these 3 colours combine based on these values “makes” a new colour. The RGB label is listed as a value for each of the R-Red, G-Green and B-Blue values.

So, the primary colour red would be all red, and no green or blue. (It would be labelled R255, G0, B0). But add green and blue to that colour (say R255, G125, B125) and the colour changes from red to a strong pink. Combining all the RGB colours in full “creates” the colour white. (R255, G255, B255). RGB labelling makes it easy to understand the colour mix of a specific colour. But the label description can be quite long. 

The Hex system on the other hand labels each colour with a 6-character code. (So for example, #A321621 is the Hex reference for the Ruby Red colour used on this site). Hex labelling is most often used in website design, as it describes the colour with a minimum amount of information.

Printed colours

For printed colours, the colour identification system has to work differently. There’s no light source with print. The colour is based on combining ink colours. 

The most common is the CMYK system, which gives a score of 0 to 100 for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. This works the opposite way to on-screen colours as adding colours together moves them towards black rather than white. The colours are subtractive. Full CMYK (C100, M100, Y100, K100) is completely black. 

There are 2 further colour system options. HSB – Hue, Saturation, Brightness – and Pantone colours – which are mostly used with certain types of print specialisms such as packaging development

Designers should know each of these colour systems, and use the most relevant one based on the context. Marketers don’t need to know the full details of each system. But they should know which system they need to make sure colours in design are used consistently. 

Work with multiple colours in combination

Designers use colour to improve legibility, contrast and harmony in designs.

These factors become even more important when working with ranges of colours. How you combine colours from across the colour wheel makes a big difference to a design’s impact. Colours must “go” well together.

Done well, colour combinations make designs clear and feel more balanced. Done badly, the effect can be jarring and off-putting. 

As per our colour in marketing guide, there are different ways to combine colours :-

  • Analogous – colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel.
  • Complementary / Split Complementary – colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.
  • Triads – Colours that split in three equal directions across the colour wheel.
  • Monochromatic – One signature hue, but with progressive changes in Saturation and Brightness.

The colour combinations you use influence how colour in your design works. You can use different colours to do different jobs and convey different meanings. (For example, see our choosing a colour palette article).

You might use strong warm colours to grab attention, for example. And complementary cooler colours when you want to be more conversational and soothing in your design. 

Using colour in design for marketing

When discussing colour in design for marketing, start with the business and marketing objectives. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve helps you make better colour choices.

Marketing objectives often relate to key stages in the brand choice funnel. As per our marketing planning guide, the funnel identifies different stages of the customer’s buying process. 

There are different marketing and design challenges at each stage. The role and choice of colour in your designs will differ depending on the stage. 

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

Use colour in design for awareness

For example, when you have an awareness challenge, you can use colour as a way to stand out and be more distinctive(Remember the Von Restorff effect we mentioned earlier).

In the book of the same name, marketing influencer Seth Godin calls this the “Purple Cow” approach.

He uses the example of Milka, the Swiss chocolate company. In the book, he describes how they used an unusual colour (purple) on something directly related to their product (a cow) to help them stand out. Obviously, cows aren’t normally purple. So, you as a potential customer tend to notice a purple cow because it’s different. It stands out. 

It’s a simple thing, but it’s remarkable enough to stand out. See a Purple Cow, and you think of Milka chocolate. You use unusual or provocative colours in your designs if the marketing challenge is to drive brand awareness.

Use colour in design for consideration and trial

Beyond pure awareness, colour also plays a role in consideration and trial. But it’s a more subtle role. It often works in conjunction with other decision factors.

You need market research to understand how much influence it has.

For some categories, colour plays a direct role in the purchase decision  – cars, fashion and home decorations, for example. You have to understand what impact colours have on buying decisions for these types of products. 

In other categories, colour plays a more subtle role. 

For example, colour can be used to set a mood and temperature for the design. Certain colours have strong associations with certain moods and temperatures.

Warm colours (red, yellow, orange) are associated with energy. If you want to evoke feelings of fun (e.g. children’s toys), excitement (e.g. Mexican restaurants) or passion (e.g. romantic getaways), warm colours in your designs help reinforce energetic moods and temperatures.

On the other hand, cool colours (blue, green) are associated with calming and measured feelings. If you want to evoke feelings of trust (e.g. banking), expertise (e.g. medicines) or relaxation (e.g. natural beauty products) then these cooler colours reinforce those types of perception.

Use colour in design to reinforce brand identity and values

So, you can use colours to reinforce desired messages and positions at different stages of the brand choice funnel. But you can also use them to help identify your brand and reinforce its values. 

To do this, you need to create a colour palette that’s appropriate for your desired brand identity. Then use it repeatedly across all your brand activation. The more repetition, the stronger the connection customers will make between those colours and your brand.

These brand colours become a tangible brand asset within your brand identity. They should be consistent with and reinforce your essence, values and brand personality.

For example, brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola are very energetic and extroverted. They encourage sociability and warmth. 

Warm colours like red and yellow sit better with those attributes. Look at the colours those brands choose. They’re all from the warm end of the spectrum. 

They use those colours consistently. Even if you just saw the colours and nothing else, you’d still recognise the brand. 

That’s why the yellow and red McDonald’s arches catch your eye as you’re driving along. It’s why you notice the red Coke sign when you’re thirsty. 

Side of an old apartment building with a classic Coca Cola advert on it

But compare that energy with brands who choose colours from the cooler end of the spectrum. These brands typically have more low-key and calm identities. They’re more introverted.

This suits more professional-oriented brands like LinkedIn, for example. Or brands which encourage quiet relaxation like Starbucks.

Cooler colours like blue and green reinforce perceptions of calmness, professionalism and relaxation. Those are the colour psychology associations people have with those colours.

The words "Welcome to Linked In" embossed on an office glass window

Apply colour consistently through your brand activation

Once you’ve chosen your brand colour palette, you should use it consistently. From your logo to every piece of brand activation, make sure agencies and suppliers (e.g. packaging printers) use it consistently too. (See our logo evaluation article for examples of brands that do this well). 

It’s usually easier to stay consistent with colours used on screens. Colours generally look the same on screen. Printing colours is much harder. Depending on the materials, colours can look slightly different. This affects marketing areas like packaging and sales promotion materials such as in-store displays and brochures. 

Your designer should have a good relationship with your printer. Consistent colour printing on materials requires a high level of skill. Skilful printers help you maintain colour consistency across different types of printed materials.

Good colour consistency helps customers more easily recognise your brand, and remember it. Both of those clearly help improve the design impact of your marketing activities.

Conclusion - Colour in design

Colour plays an important role in our lives. It creates meaning. Those meanings help us create mental shortcuts to make our lives easier. 

You can use these colour meanings to boost the impact of your designs and marketing.

Choosing the right colour in design grabs attention. The right colour choice can drive engagement and influence buying decisions. These choices help you deliver your marketing objectives.

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

Make colour choices at different stages of the brand choice funnel. Colour helps reinforce your brand identity and brand values.

Use colour to help your brand stand out and be remembered. Use it to help organise information and key messages you want to land with customers.

In fact, when you use it well, you’ll make competitors green with envy. And you increase the chances of your finances moving out of the red and into the black. You definitely won’t end up feeling blue. 

Check out our colour in marketing guide for more on this. Or drop us a line, if we can help add some colour to your marketing and designs. 

Photo credits

Kid squeezing paint tube : Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

Supermarket : Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Flowers : Photo by Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Linked In : Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

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