Colour in design and what it means for marketing

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

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Snapshot : Designers know the importance of colour in design, but it’s often overlooked or undervalued by marketers. This article covers the basics of how designers think and talk about colour and then applies those to specific jobs to be done in marketing. Learn how to use colour at different stages of the brand choice funnel and what it can do to strengthen your brand identity. 

It’s pretty cold and and dark in Sydney right now. So as a bit of a positivity boost, we’re going to bring a bit of colour to our post this week. 

It’s not the first time we’ve covered the topic of colour. In previous articles, we’ve covered specific topics like colour psychology and choosing a colour palette when creating a new brand. 

This week, we take a broader look at colour. We review the basic terms used to describe colour and look at key marketing activities where a knowledge of how to use colour can boost your performance.

Let’s start with a look at why colour is such a core component of design work, and why it matters so much.

Why colour in design matters

Along with typography and composition, colour is used in design because colours are a way of easily showing meaning. 

The average person can also distinguish between 10 million different colours, and we’ve learned to associate meanings with specific colours. 

It’s this ability to associate meanings with colours and distinguish between them which designers use to increase the impact of designs. Good use of colour grabs people’s attention, makes designs more engaging, and can influence behaviours. 

Attention, engagement and influencing customers are often objectives marketing people want to achieve. Understanding how to use colour in design can help deliver those objectives. 

The reason our brains make these colour associations is that they act as short-cuts and signals for us. 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 each time we get to a traffic light and wonder what each colour means.

We already know, because our brains have been trained to associate meanings with each colour.

Red stop. Amber warning. Green go. 

What’s interesting is that those same colour associations work in different contexts.

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

Rather than have to explain the meaning in words, the colour associations do that explanation 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 the communication of meaning easier, faster and more memorable. These are outcomes you want from design work in marketing. 

Colours can help identify categories …

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

Go to the fruit and veg section of the supermarket and you expect to see a lot of greens, reds and yellows. Go down the milk aisle and it’s all white with mostly 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 short-cut for customers to find what they need. 

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

If you’re launching a new product into a category that has strong colour associations, you need to factor those association into your packaging design to make it easier for customers to know which category your new (and to them unfamiliar) product belongs.

But, 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, as we can see in this example from Coles online. Similar bottle shapes. And colour-wise, clear blue bottles and simple blue and / or red labels across the board. It’s only if the product is flavoured (e.g. the lemon infused water) that the colour changes.

In fact, the one which stands out the most here 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 gets you noticed. 

… but 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 that we notice things that are different, more than those that are the same. (Read more about this bias in our review of the book Choice Factory).

If we write 1,2,3,4,E,6,7, you notice the letter 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 a bunch of similarly packaged objects (like all those bottled waters), we’ll notice the one that’s most different first. 

Bring category identifiers and the Von Restorff effect together and you can see why it’s important marketers and designers talk about how to use colour in the design of marketing materials. 

You want to be similar enough to category colour norms that customers recognise you belong to the category. But you need to be different enough from your competitors that you stand out and get noticed. 

To maximise the value of this conversation, it helps if marketers understand some of the basic terms that are used when working with 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 somethings 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, three regularly used terms you’ll find used for colour in design are hues, tones and saturation

  • 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 start point in colour design, and adjusting tone and saturation (among other factors) adjusts the base hue to give you millions of variation in colour. These variations are then labelled based on which colour identification system is appropriate for the design context.

Colour identification systems

There are five main colour identification systems. (see our guide to colour in marketing for detailed descriptions). Which one you choose usually depends on whether the colours appear on a screen or are being printed on materials. 

Colours on screen

For colours that appear on a screen, the two choices are the RGB system and the Hex system. These work by combining different light colour sources together to make a single new colour.

The main difference is how the colours are labelled. 

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

The RGB system allots a value from 0 to 255 to the Red, Green and Blue colour mix for each colour. How these 3 colours combined 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 for example. 

So, the primary colour red would be all red, and no green or blue. (It would be labelled R255, G0, B0). Mixing the RGB colours gives you different colour mixes. Mixing all the RGB colours together in full “creates” the colour white. (R255, G255, B255)

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 we use on this site).

RGB labelling makes it easier to understand the colour mix of a specific colour, but is a more complex labelling system.

Hex labelling is most often used in website design, since it’s a highly efficient way to describe a colour using the minimum amount of information. 

Printed colours

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

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

There’s also two more options including HSB – Hue Saturation Brightness – and Pantone colours – mostly used with certain types of print specialisms such as packaging development

Designers should know each of these colour systems and recommend the most appropriate one for the design based on the context.

Marketers don’t need to know the full details of each system, but they should be aware that there are different systems and that choosing the right system is important to make sure colours in design are delivered in a consistent way. 

Work with multiple colours in combination

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

These factors become even more important when you work with ranges of colours. How colours combine together can make a big difference to the impact of a design. Colours need to “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 guide to colour in marketing, you have many options when it comes to combining 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

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

These factors become even more important when you work with ranges of colours. How colours combine together can make a big difference to the impact of a design. Colours need to “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 guide to colour in marketing, you have many options when it comes to combining colours :-

Using colour in design for marketing

When discussing colour in design for marketing, it’s important to start with the business and marketing objectives. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve helps guide you towards the best colour choices.

In marketing, the objectives often refer 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’s 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. Cows are clearly not normally purple. So, you as a potential customer tend to notice a purple cow because it’s different from all the other cows. 

It’s a simple thing, but it’s remarkable enough to stand out. See a Purple Cow, and you think of Milka chocolate. You can 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 can also play a role in driving consideration and trial, but it’s more subtle in the impact it has. It’s rarely the only driver of decisions at these stages, but often works in conjunction with other factors.

You need market research to understand how much of an influence it has with customers. 

For some categories, colour plays a direct role in the purchase decision  – cars, fashion and home decorations for example. In the designs you show customers, colours will play a high profile role, and it’s important to understand the desirability of different colour options in your designs.

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) carry strong associations 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), warms colour in your designs help reinforce energetic moods and temperatures. 

On the other hand, cool colours (blue, green) evoke more 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 calmer perceptions.

Use colour in design to reinforce brand identity and values

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

To do this, you need to create a colour palette that’s appropriate for your desired brand identity and 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.

So for example, some brands like MacDonalds and Coca-Cola are very energetic and extrovert. 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, so that even if you just saw the colours, you’d still easily recognise the brand. 

That’s why the Yellow and Red MacDonald’s arches catch your eye as you’re driving along, and why the Red coke sign catches your eye 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 identities that are much more low-key, calm and more introverted.

This suites brands that are professional oriented like LinkedIn for example, or brands that encourage quieter relaxation like Starbucks.

Cooler colours like blue and green help reinforce perceptions of calmness, professionalism and relaxation, because that’s the colour psychology associated with those colours.

Apply colour consistently through your brand activation

Once you’ve defined your brand colour palette, it’s important you use it consistently and make sure agencies and suppliers (e.g. packaging printers) apply them consistently too. 

It’s usually easier to maintain consistent of colour when it’s used on screens. Once it’s coded into the system, it doesn’t change on the screen. 

It’s harder to be consistent when it comes to printed materials. Depending on which materials you print on, colours can look slightly different. This has an impact on key marketing materials like packaging and sales promotion materials like Point of Sale displays and brochures. 

You, or 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 are clearly good things to improve the design impact of your marketing activities.

Conclusion - Colour in design

Colour plays an important role in our lives. It creates meaning and those meanings help us create mental short-cuts to make our lives easier. 

Smart marketers and designers can use these meanings to add colour to their designs and marketing activities.

Choosing the right colour in design can grab attention, drive engagement and influence customers to be more likely to choose your brand. These are important marketing objectives that good colour in design choices support. 

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

You can apply colour choices at different stages of the brand choice funnel and to 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 increases 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 guide to colour in marketing for more detail on this topic, or contact us if you’d like to better understand anything we’ve covered in this article.

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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