The psychology of color as it relates to persuasion is one of the most interesting — and most controversial — aspects of marketing.
At Help Scout we believe the problem has always been depth of analysis. Color theory is a topic of complexity and nuance, but splashy infographics rarely go beyond See ‘n Say levels of coverage.
Green Lantern can’t turn lemons into lemonade and I’m left equally unequipped to make smart decisions about the spectrum which shades our world. But why is such a potentially colorful conversation so unwaveringly shallow?
Misconceptions around the psychology of color
As research shows, it’s likely because personal preference, experiences, upbringing, cultural differences, and context muddy the effect individual colors have on us. So the idea that colors such as yellow or purple are able to evoke some sort of hyper-specific emotion is about as accurate as your standard palm reading.
But there’s still plenty to learn and consider if we humbly accept that concrete answers aren’t a guarantee. The key is to look for practical ways to make decisions about color.
The importance of colors in branding
First let’s address branding, which is one of the more important issues relating to color perception and the area where many articles on this subject run into problems.
As mentioned, there have been myriad attempts to classify consumer behavior in response to different individual colors:
But the truth is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings. There are, however, broader messaging patterns to be found in color perceptions.
In a study titled “Impact of color on marketing,” researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product. Regarding the role that color plays in branding, results from another studyshow that the relationship between brands and color hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used for the particular brand (does the color “fit” what is being sold?).
A study titled “Exciting red and competent blue” also confirms that purchasing intent is greatly affected by colors due to their effect on how a brand is perceived; colors influence how customers view the “personality” of the brand in question. Who, for example, would want to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle if they didn’t get the feeling that Harleys were rugged and cool?
Additional studies have revealed our brains prefer immediately recognizable brands, which makes color an important element when creating a brand identity. One journal article even suggests it’s important for new brands to pick colors that ensure differentiation from entrenched competitors — personally, I think we’re getting into minutiae without additional context, such as how and why you’re positioning against a direct competitor, and how you’re using color to achieve that goal.
When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself. If Harley owners buy the product in order to feel rugged, colors that work best will play to that emotion.
Psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker has conducted studies on this very topic, and her paper titled “Dimensions of Brand Personality” points out five core dimensions that play a role in a brand’s personality.
Brands can sometimes cross between two traits, but they are mostly dominated by one. While certain colors do broadly align with specific traits (e.g., brown with ruggedness, purple with sophistication, and red with excitement), nearly every academic study on colors and branding will tell you that it’s far more important for colors to support the personality you want to portray instead of trying to align with stereotypical color associations.
Consider the inaccuracy of making broad statements such as “green means calm.” The context is absent: sometimes green is used to brand environmental issues, like Seventh Generation, but other times it’s meant to brand financial spaces, such as Mint.
And while brown may be useful for a rugged appeal — see how it’s used by Saddleback Leather — when positioned in another context, brown can be used to create a warm, inviting feeling (Thanksgiving) or to stir your appetite (every chocolate commercial you’ve ever seen). Yet other studies suggest humans disfavor the color brown in general.
Bottom line: There are no clear-cut guidelines for choosing your brand’s colors. “It depends” is a frustrating answer, but it’s the truth. However, the context you’re working within is an essential consideration. It’s the feeling, mood, and image that your brand or product creates that matters.
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Color trends for men and women
One of the more interesting examinations of this topic is Joe Hallock’s work on “Colour Assignment.” Hallock’s data showcases some clear preferences in certain colors across gender (most of his respondents were from Western societies). The most notable points in his images are the supremacy of blue across both genders and the disparity between groups on purple.
It’s important to note that one’s environment—and especially cultural perception—plays a strong role in dictating color appropriateness for gender, which in turn can influence individual choices. Consider, for instance, this coverage by Smithsonian magazine, detailing how blue and pink became associated with boys and girls respectively, and how it used to be the reverse.