Colour in marketing

Colour plays a key role in many parts of the marketing mix, but it’s often overlooked. In this guide, we outline the key areas of marketing where you can use colour to your advantage. We guide you through the basic terminology and theory that sits behind the use of colour. And to finish, we show how to use the psychological associations of colour to take your approach to colour in marketing to another level. 

Colour in marketing

How this guide raises your game.

  1. Find out which areas of the marketing mix you can improve with better knowledge of colour.
  2. Learn the basic terminology of colour so that you can talk about it with confidence.
  3. Find out how colour has psychological associations that you can use to make your marketing stronger.

As children, we start to learn about colour from the age of about 18 months old. It is such an intrinsic part of day to day life that most people don’t even give it a second thought.

If we say “banana”, you automatically think “yellow”, right?

If we say “stop, at a traffic light”, you automatically think “red”. “Go, at a traffic light” is green. And so on, and so on. 

Colour definitions and colour recognitions tap into deep neural networks in the brain. People use these colour connections to navigate their way through life more easily.

And because colour is so hard-wired into people’s brains, you can use that knowledge to your advantage in your marketing activity.

You can build competitive advantage when you understand how to work with colour. Good use of colour increases the stand-out of your brand. Good use of colour makes brands more memorable and more likely to be chosen.

Young child squeezing a blue paint tube to show colour is learned early and why it matters for colour in marketing

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

Before we go through where colour in marketing plays a role, let’s do a quick test. Colour rarely stands on its own in design. But good choice of colour, used repeatedly builds up associations in people’s brains between colours and brands or organisations. 

So, in this example, we’ve picked three colour combinations that should be instantly recognisable to Australians. Look at these three examples, A, B and C. What comes to mind just by looking at the colours?

It’s likely that you either recognise them right away or you don’t. 

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

And that’s part of the appeal of colour when it comes to colour in marketing. Because the brain processes colour quickly. The visual cues that colours provide spark immediate connections for consumers.

Colour test – recognition answers

So, in this example, you should have spotted the official Australian national colours of Green and Gold in example A. These colours come from the Golden Wattle, the national flower of Australia, by the way. 

B is a little harder. Because the White colour is a pure white and not that distinctive. But when sat next to the distinctive red colour, we hope you picked up the theme of Australian brands. Because example B is in fact the colours of Qantas, the Australian national airline. 

And then to round off the Aussie theme, we have in example C, Australia’s largest supermarket chain Woolworths. They use a combination of dark and light Greens in their logo.

As an aside, this green colour ties in with their positioning of being the “Fresh Food people”. Green is commonly associated with nature and freshness. It’s a good example of how psychology can apply to colours in marketing. We’ll come on to that later in the guide. 

So here’s the first learning about colour in marketing. If you can build a connection between your brand and certain colours, you make it easier for consumers to identify and remember your brand. It helps to drive brand recognition. 

Colour in marketing – differentiation

The use of colour in marketing becomes even more important when you put it in the context of competition.

As we cover in our guides to segmentation, targeting and positioning and brand identity, it’s important to have a point of difference. You need to stand out from your competitors.

The most successful brands use colour to help consumers distinguish and differentiate them from consumers.

Australian banks colour differentiation

So, in this example, we’ve taken the colours of the 3 biggest banks in Australia.

Now, banking is quite an interesting industry from a marketing point of view. Because most consumer’s don’t associate the word “interesting” with “banking”.

In fact, for most people, banking is a very functional and transactional process. They use their bank accounts to manage their household finances, savings and investments. 

Colour test – differentiation answers

And if you look at the services that most banks provide, they are mostly the same. There’s only minor differences between rates, service charges and service levels. So, it’s a big challenge for the banks to make their offer look and feel different to consumers. 

Now, it’s unlikely consumers pick their bank solely on the colour. But, it will have a subtle influence if consumers think all banks basically offer the same service. It helps consumers at least distinguish between different providers. 

And in this example, the top 3 banks use colours to differentiate their identity from their competitors. You should have recognised A as the colours of Comm Bank, B as ANZ and C as NAB. And that’s even though both Comm Bank and NAB use a solid black in their colour. But, the complementary colour they use – Yellow for Comm Bank and Red for NAB – is enough to distinguish between the two.  

Where to use colour in marketing

The choice of colour has a huge role to play in the impact of marketing and e-Commerce activity. And none more so than when you create your brand identity.

The choice of colours for your brand is a tangible asset. And that choice should become part of the “rules” of how your brand looks from a design point of view. 

The reason that you could identity those brands just from the colours, was because these brands chose those colours as “rules” to apply in their brand activity. 

So, they use them repeatedly and consistently to reinforce the link between the colour and the brand. 

Brand identity asset classification examples

And that’s really the key learning in terms of where to use colour in marketing. Once you work out the right colours for your brand, you then need to be consistent and repetitive in how and where you use them. 

Colour touchpoints

Think about all the different touchpoint that your consumer can have with your brand. These will be in your marketing plan, brand activation and customer experience work.

At each of those touchpoints, when you repeat the use of colour, you build a stronger connection in the consumer’s head between that colour and your brand. And that colour then becomes a mental short-cut to your brand. 

So, for example, when you use consistent and distinctive colours in your packaging development, you increase the chances of your products standing out on the shelf against competitors. 

When you use consistent and distinctive colours in your advertising, you increase the chances that consumers will recognise and remember the advert as coming from your brand. 

And when you use consistent and distinctive colours in your social media, on your website and in your e-Commerce activation, you increase the chances of engagement and conversion.

In fact, good use of colour in website design is an important part to make your website more usable. There’s more detail on this topic to be found on the usability.gov website. 

You can also read more of thoughts on why your choice of colour matters in this separate article

How to use colour in marketing

So, now that we’re clear on the role of colour in marketing, let’s move on to how to use it in marketing. 

There are some basic terms and concepts to learn to help you talk with more confidence about colour. Especially, with those who work with colour on a regular basis. So graphic designers. packaging developers, advertising creatives and printers for example.

These terms and concepts will help you to identify colours, to distinguish between different types of colours and be clearer on which colours “go together” and which don’t.

The colour wheel – Colour definitions

The number of colours in existence is estimated at over 18 decillion, which is 18 followed by thirty-three zeros.

But it’s estimated that most humans “only” see around 10 million of these as different colours. That’s still an incredibly large number to get your head around.

And in actual fact, there’s an easier place to start with colour. Because for each of those 10 million or 18 decillion colours, they are all derivations of 12 main colours. These colours make up what is known as the colour wheel. 

And even those 12 main colours all start from 3 basic colours. 

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

Primary colours

So, the first group of colours are Red, Yellow and Blue. These are called the Primary Colours. This name comes from the fact that they cannot be made from any other colour.

If Red did not exist for example, there’s no other combination of colours you could use to “make” red. These three colours form the basis of all other colours. 

Secondary colours

Secondary colours are then where you make direct and equal combinations of the primary colours. So Orange is created when you combine Red and Yellow. Violet when you combine Blue and Red. And Green when you combine Blue and Yellow. 

Tertiary colours

And finally tertiary colours are the combinations you get when you ‘fill in the gaps’ between primary colours and secondary colours. This gives you an additional 6 colours to essentially make up your “colour wheel” of 12 colours. 

Great, although you are probably now thinking, wait a minute. What about black and white? Where do they fit in to the colour wheel?

Well, that’s a little complicated. Because sometimes black and white are colours. And sometimes, they are not. 

These colours are in fact formed when other colours are combined. Or when all colours are omitted.

But confusingly, it depends how and where these colours are combined to whether black and white can actually be classed as colours at all.

If colour is made as a combination of light, as you would see on a computer screen, then white is a colour. As when you combine all the colours in light together, it is white. And black is not a colour (since it is the absence of light that makes “black”). 

However, if colours are made up of pigments, let’s say in print or on a painting, then it is the other way around. “Black” can be made when you combine other colours together. But you cannot “make” white from other colour pigments. So, black is a colour and white isn’t.

Don’t get too distracted by this. If you want to read more about the different perspectives on this, check out the great colour matters website. 

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. 

Identity colours with colour systems

So, now you understand that colours are created when you mix combinations of primary, secondary and tertiary colours with tints, shades and tones.

Now, comes the challenge of how to identify and label different colours. Because no-one will ever remember the names of 10 million different colours. That means you need a system to help you consistently identify different colours. 

And while it would be great if there were one single system to define colour, there are actually five different systems. RGB, Hex, HSB, CMYK and Pantone. 

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

Which system you use depends on where and how you will use the colour.

Most software systems that you might use to identify and build colours will come with RGB, Hex, HSB and CMYK options built in. And as long as you know where to use these, it’s usually relatively easy to switch between them.

Pantones tend to be used in more specialised areas, particularly packaging. So it’s unlikely you’ll need them on a day to day basis.

Let’s have a quick look at each system.

RGB

RGB stands for Red-Green-Blue. You see it most often with the identification of colours on a screen. So anything with computers, TVs or electronics for example.

By allocating a number between 0 and 255 for each of these three colours, you create a “code” for that number. So, in this example the Primary colour Red, has a value of Red 255, Green 0 and Blue 0. That is, it has the maximum amount of Red and the minimum amount of any other colour. Which if you remember the definition of primary colours should make sense. This would normally be shortened to R255, G0, B0. 

You might wonder why it’s not RYB as in Red-Yellow-Blue to match the primary colours?

That’s because this colour scheme is based on the colour properties of light. That’s how screens and devices ‘create’ colour. And in the way that light makes up colour, it uses Red, Green and Blue to make colour. Even though you actually make “green” from the primary colours of yellow and blue. 

Don’t worry, if that’s confusing, we think it’s confusing too. You just need to be aware that when it comes to colour in marketing, you’ll definitely use the RGB system more than you will refer to “primary colours”. So if you only want to remember one of those, use that one. 

Hex

Hex is an offshoot of the RGB system. You usually find it when you work with websites and website design. It creates a six-character short code for the RGB definition. This is dropped into HTML code to identify colours.

Its use is not limited to websites though. Often RGB and Hex codes sit together and are interchangeable. As you can see in the example above which uses the colour model from Keynote. 

We also used the Hex codes to identify the colours in our Australian and banking brand examples at the start of the guide. 

Because Hex is one value, rather than three values, it can often be quicker to use when you use multiple colour codes.

So, you only have to copy and paste one value rather than three for example. That’s why you’ll see our default colour reference tends to be Hex as it’s the easiest to use.

HSB

Another alternative to the RGB systems is the HSB system. This stands for Hue, Saturation and Brightness. It’s used in similar places to the RGB system. It is primarily about light-based colour, so it is used in computers, TVs and electronics. As we covered above, the Hue is the primary, secondary or tertiary colour that has no white, black or grey. 

Saturation and Brightness let you play around with the black, white and grey elements of the colour more easily than the RGB model does. They work on a scale of 0 to 100, where in simple terms, 0 saturation, 100 brightness creates “white” and 100 saturation, 0 brightness creates “black”. But when you combine the saturation and brightness at different values between 0 and 100, this creates different variations of white (tint), black (shade) and grey (tone) on the hue.

It was originally designed as a way to make the way we work with colours more ‘human-centric’ compared to how the RGB system works. 

But, it’s much less widely used that the RGB systems. It tends to crop up in more specialised design areas. It’s quite common in photography editing for example.  Tints, shades and tones can make a difference to the effect and impact of an image, and HSB is an easier way to change these.  

CMYK

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and BlacK (CMYK). It is the most common colour system when the colour identification is needed for a physical, tangible item and not on a screen. So, in contrast with RGB, Hex or HSB, it’s not based on the colour properties of light. 

It is most commonly used in printed items and anything that has to be painted. From a colour in marketing point of view, the most common places where you would need the CMYK reference would be when you develop packaging. And in some forms of traditional media like outdoor billboards and magazine advertising.

It’s a different system because when you print on to a physical item rather than define a colour on a screen, the physical item properties can impact on the colour. 

The importance of colour matching

In general, the RGB and Hex systems are the most commonly used systems as most work takes places on computers. These serve many purposes to ensure your brand colours are used consistently. 

In most situations, HSB and CMYK will be very close to their RGB and Hex equivalents and this will be fine.

But there are a few times when you should take extra care when you switch between colour systems. Sometimes, the colours in HSB and CMYK will NOT be an exact match for their RGB / Hex equivalents. Remember RGB colours are generated by light and CMYK by pigments. This means RGB colours are generally brighter and more vivid than their CMYK equivalents

So you need to make sure to compensate for this when you switch between systems.

The most common area where it becomes an issue is in packaging development. 

When you design packaging, you normally do it with computer software. So the colours as seen on screen will be in RGB format.

But, when you print the packaging, the colours need to be in CMYK format. Often there will be slight differences between the two. Usually, the printer will print examples of the colours on material so that it can be colour matched or proofed against the original intended design colours.

Colour variation example

So, check this example. We’ve taken the same colour RED reference we used in the example above. See how the RGB and Hex numbers are identical to the example above. (R255, G0, B0 and #ff0000).

But you’ll see the HSB number and more importantly, the CYMK numbers DON’T match. The M and Y numbers have changed from 84-94 to 95-91.

Even though according to the RGB and Hex system, it is the exact same colour. 

It’s in cases like this that the last and final colour system is used. 

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

This is the Pantone system of colour matching. It uses swatches or books to help physically match colours in the print or packaging world.

For most marketers, it’s usually enough to be aware that this system exists. And that they may sometimes need to refer to it for colour matching.

You can input colours from other systems like RGB, Hex and CMYK into the Pantone website to find the closest Pantone reference. You can see Pantone have recommended Pantone 2347C for our pure red RGB reference. 

Colour warmth combinations

So, now that we know how to create and categorise colours, the next stage of learning about colour in marketing is to look at how colours combine with each other.

Why is it that some combinations of colours seem to work well together? And others just seem to clash.

To understand how colours can combine, a good start is to group colours based on their ‘temperature”.

Colours can be warm, cold or neutral

Warm colours

These are red, yellow and orange

Cold colours

These are green, blue and purple.

Neutral colours

These are black, white and grey

As a general rule of thumb, colours that share the same temperature sit more naturally together than colours from a different temperature.

Colour Wheel - Warm cold neutral combinations

So, in the example above, red and orange or blue and green are natural pairings that won’t jar visually. These are relatively ‘safe’ pairings that will work in most situations where you want colours to work well together. 

However, sometimes you will want to choose colours that DO jar visually. You might want to do this to capture attention or to disrupt a perception. In these types of cases, it’s a judgement call on how much of a clash you need to do this job.

When you only use hue colours as we have in the example above, the clashes generally aren’t too harsh. The Red-Blue Violet and Green-Yellow Orange don’t feel as natural to combine as the previous examples. But, they don’t clash badly either. 

You can also add neutral colours in to the mix to soften the clash between colours. These naturally pair well with the more vibrant hue colours.

It really boils down to whether you want the colour to be ‘safe’ so it doesn’t distract from some other part of the design. Or whether you want the colour to stand out for effect. 

The warmer colours tend to stand out more, they ‘come forward’ in terms of how people see them.

Colder colours tend to be softer and ‘sit back’. So, if and when you do combine warm and cold colours, warm colours will tend to dominate. So you have to try and judge the balance between each. 

Colour matching combinations

There are another couple of ways you can also look at colour combinations and pairing.

These are analogous, complementary, split complementary, triad and monochromatic colour matching.

Each has its own pros and cons.

Where you use them very much comes down to the desired impact you wish to have.

Let’s have a look at each of them.

Analogous matching

When you mix colours that sit closely together on the colour wheel, this is called ‘analogous’ colour matching. This combination of colours has a calming but less dramatic effect. So, in our example here, Orange and Yellow Orange are a natural analogous colour match.

Complementary matching

But, if you pick a combination of colours that sit on opposite sides of the colour wheel, this is called ‘complementary’ colour matching. These opposite colours also tend to “go well” together. These would be examples of obvious warm – cold colour combinations that could work. This complementary colour combination creates great dramatic contrast.

In this example, see how the Red Orange and Blue Green colours work well together to create contrast against the black background. 

Split complementary matching

‘Split complementary’ colour matching is another variation.

Here, you pick one dominant colour. Then from its complementary colour, you choose two nearby colours rather than the direct opposite hue.

These can be divisive combinations of colour combinations. So the balance between the dominant colour and its two subordinate colours is vital. Where you have all three colours with equal weighting, it can be quite distracting. 

In this example, you can see Yellow, Green and Red Violet as split complementary colours.

Triad matching

And in our final use of colour matching from the colour wheel, you can use triad matching. This is similar to split complementary matching. But here, you push the divisions between the three colours even harder so that they are evenly split across the colour wheel. 

So, the three primary colours, Red, Yellow and Blue are often used as a triad. As you’ll see in the first example here. You’ll see this in a lot of designs aimed at children. Because these are the first colours children learn and so, are the easiest to recognise. 

But alternate triads can also work to create a different impact. In this example, Yellow Orange, Red Violet and Blue Green create a very vibrant combination of colours. 

Colour combinations - Triad and Monochromatic

Monochromatic

The final colour matching option is monochromatic. You choose only one primary colour. But you use it with a variety of whites, blacks and greys. 

While you can create it from a colour wheel on whatever software you use, it’s easier to demonstrate if you choose the first colour from a hue – so, Red as we have done here. And then use the HSB system to adjust the saturation and brightness. 

This adjusts the levels of white, black and grey so you end up with a colour set that is closest to the analogous system of matching.

In this case, the Hue is the same on all 4 examples. But we took the Saturation down to 75% on each of the three accompanying colours and gradually reduced the brightness to 75%, 50% and 25%.

Colour systems and colour in marketing

Unless you design your own brand identity, packaging and advertising, you don’t need to be an expert in these systems to make full use of them.

But when you have to evaluate designs of these brand activation from your designer or agency, knowing what these colour systems are, and what works and what doesn’t will help you make better decisions about colour in marketing. 

But now, that we have covered some of the technical elements of colour in marketing, so that you can feel confident to talk about colour, where real competitive advantage can lie is when you understand how the use of colour can also have a psychological impact on people. 

 

Colour psychology for marketing

As we already stated, you start learning about colour at an early age.

And colours make strong connections in your brain. They make psychological short cuts to help you navigate through life. 

And it’s these psychological short-cuts, where colours can evoke certain emotions and feelings that can help make your use of colour in marketing more impactful. 

Warmer colours bring more energy and externally driven associations.

Colour psychology - an applied use of colour in marketing

Red is associated with strength, power and anger and demands attention. Orange is less confronting and leans more into enthusiasm and excitement. Yellow carries associations of energy and freshness and youthfulness. This is why you find a lot of yellow and orange in products that are intended for children.

Of the cooler colours, Green has obvious associations with nature and freshness. Creatives often use green to signify purity or cleanness. Blue colour associations include trust, calm and serenity. That’s why you find many brands who want to build trust like banks and pharmaceutical companies use the colour blue.

To find out more about this topic, we recommend this article which gives a helpful summary of colour associations.

What this means for you, is to use these associations to your advantage when you create your brand identity. Which of these types of associations makes sense for what your brand is trying to stand for, for example.  

Colour psychology examples

So for example, let’s say you make cereal bars.

The ingredients are organic and fresh, your brand identity plays on your environmental credentials and your positioning is that everything is very natural.

You’d clearly look to play on the colour associations with “green” in that case. 

But let’s say instead, you are a new financial services business. You want to build trust and show that as a business you are in control of the services you offer.

This type of identity and positioning lean themselves towards the blue side of the colour wheel. 

Of course, these associations are well known among designers and those who work in brand identity. So you may well already find a colour has been “taken” by a competitor who got there first.

And while you don’t want to ‘copy’ a colour, you can still pick colours from similar parts of the wheel as your headline colour. But then, use complementary or split complementary combinations of colours to create a unique colour identify for your brand. 

Final thoughts on colour in marketing

Once you start to unpick the topic, colour in marketing is a broad topic. It has implications for your brand identity and many parts of your communications and digital marketing mix.

There are many really useful colour related sites and tools online if you want to explore the topic further. 

We would recommend checking out Coolors which has a great colour palette generator. You can read our article here about when we started work on the three-brains colours in our brand identity and how we used this tool.

We also recommend the Adobe Colour site. Here you can input a Hex Code colour and look at analogous, complementary, and triad combinations for that colour.

You will see that there are many more combinations than the basic hue based options we covered in this guide.

It’s unlikely that you will need to use this knowledge about colour every day in your business unless you work in graphic design, printing or some other visual based industry.

Colour paintbrush rollers showing green, red, orange and blue

But colour itself DOES have an impact every day on your packaging, your website, your advertising and so on. So it is an area where you should make sure you have good enough knowledge to apply to these key areas.

When you know how colour influences consumers, you can use it as a competitive advantage to raise your marketing game.

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