Why do so many brands use the same colours?
In the 1999 film The Matrix, the main character Neo
is forced to choose between two pills: a red pill or a blue pill. In the (real) real world, the choice of colour in an organisation’s brand can shape its future.
By Tom Fallows of technical marketing agency Stone Junction
Taking the blue pill safely returned Neo to the comfort of the world he knew, while the red pill woke him up from the simulation, he lived in to face danger and adventure in the dystopian real world.
Colour theory represents a fascinating intersection of psychology, culture, and business strategy. In technical marketing, colour plays a vital role in shaping how companies are perceived and how their
messages are received. Strategic use of colours can convey complex messages, evoke emotions and influence consumer decisions.
Brands choose colours to evoke specific feelings, or brand associations, in the minds of their audience. Feelings that are associated at a very deep cultural level, with those colours. They then stick, with a radical zeal, to the colours they have selected, only rarely stepping out of the comfort zone of the brand book.
Colours can elicit certain emotions in our minds and link to thoughts and feelings.
Some of these associations go way back into our shared history. For example, thousands of years ago, the ancient Phoenicians discovered that you could brew purple dye from sea-snails — who hasn’t tried that? Due to its scarcity and cost, Tyrian purple then became synonymous with royalty and power.
Then purple was accidentally brought to the masses in the 1850s by William Henry Perkin, a young chemist trying to make malaria medicine, causing a new wave of fashionistas, including Queen Victoria herself, to wear clothes dyed with Perkin’s purple. Today, some brands, like Cadbury’s and the Premier League, still use purple to represent tradition and quality.
Red, the colour of fire and blood, is worn in mourning in South Africa, but it’s considered lucky in China and used at weddings in India. It’s an emotionally charged colour, and these ancient associations might be why you see it less in technical marketing.
However, red also denotes power in the West, and is often found in the palette of ‘original and best’ brands, such as ABB, the world's largest engineering company and Shell, the world's largest chemical company. You can see similar use in Tesla, Cannon, Oracle, Exxon, Mitsubishi, Xerox and GSK brands.
It’s no coincidence that many companies that want to appear reliable, productive and clean choose blue. The colour of the sea and sky, blue is known for its calming and soothing effects on the human psyche. It can evoke feelings of trust, stability, and security.
For STEM businesses, blue might suggest a rational and logical approach to problem-solving. Where accuracy and precision are the name of the game, it can help instil confidence in clients or customers. Think of IBM, the Royal Bank of Scotland or the NHS – they all proudly wear blue in their branding.
When we do design workshops with clients, we find it useful to imagine the brand as a person, complete with a personality. This then forms the foundation on which we build brand identity and make choices on colour. It allows us to analyse the colours from different angles and create persuasive links to the organisation’s brand values.
Neo’s choice between his red and blue pill is, of course, inspired by the decision presented to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She was offered the chance to wake up by taking the blue pill and stay in Wonderland using the red pill.
It’s been argued that the blue pill represents Victorian sobriety and the red one the emerging laudanum fuelled counterculture. Essentially, for Neo, the blue pill was a lie, while for Alice it represented the undeniable truth.
This illustrates that the interpretation of colour varies greatly between people and cultures, just like Neo and Alice’s pill choices. However, it could be argued that the adventures Carroll wrote for Alice are actually about the nonsense of binary, or even definitive choice. That all along he was arguing that it’s the shade that matters, not the colour.
The same argument can be made in branding. Colours have brand associations but mean different things in different parts of the world. Furthermore, even our emotions have different meanings in different places; contrast the value Russia’s Vladimir Putin derives from his aggressive and macho branding with the effect the same leadership behaviour would elicit in the Arabic world, where a leader is expected to take the front seat – not the higher position.
This is where branding and design skill comes to the fore. It’s not as simple as just choosing a colour associated with a particular characteristic. You must first establish the characteristics that your organisation truly embodies and then represent these through a series of design choices, including colour, as well as shape, font, medium and more.
If you want help understanding why these seemingly binary decisions are far from being that simple, or just want help with updating your branding or assessing whether it truly represents your organisation, drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 (0) 1785 225416.