CEO, Vicky Bullen and Planning Partner, Natalie Candy from London Branding agency Coley Porter Bell reveal how colour has an impact on our subconscious decisions.

Colour symbolism has been well documented and you will be aware of such notions as red indicating danger and purple suggesting regality. Cultural differences in colour are well established, with red signalling celebration in China whereas in South Africa it is associated with mourning. And then there’s the issue of context. Let’s take red again, which can symbolise two opposing emotions, namely love and danger, depending on the situation in which it is used.

However, symbolism is just one aspect of colour.This article aims to explore the way colour is used in categories, and how it can be used most effectively to appeal to the subconscious, because it clearly is affecting us.Take these facts for starters: people make a subconscious judgement about an environment, product or person within ninety seconds of their initial interaction, and 62–90% of that assessment is based on colour alone (US Institute for Color Research). Colour can account for up to 85% of the reason why people buy one product over another and can increase brand recognition by 80%.

Over time, in various product and service categories, colour codes have emerged, and not by accident. For example, in bathroom cleaning, blue and white communicate asense of cleanliness, freshness and efficacywhile red evokes urgency/power and demands attention (it is often used to highlight the brand name). Blue is also strongly associated with trust, thereforemaking us feel confident that the productswill work.

In sensitive skincare, green rules.The colour is inherently linked to nature, telling us that these are natural, simple products thatwill have a positive benefit for our skin health.

In fast food, red and yellow dominate. Many sources suggest red triggers our appetite more than any other colour and, along with yellow, it will tantalise taste buds plus evoke speed or a sense of urgency.This is perfect for brands that want to encourage fast eating and a quick turnaround. Research has also shown that people eat more in a room with warm colour surroundings as opposed to cold colours such as blue, black or purple.

For apps, blue is undeniably the lead colour,being non-threatening but confident.It’s not only the favourite colour for both genders according to research, but also the world’s favourite colour. Blue is said to evoke trust and, being the colour of the sky and the sea, could even subconsciously be telling us about what these brands bring us (exploration, freedom, new perspectives, etc.).

THE CHALLENGE FOR BRANDS

The key benefits each category istrying to convey are helped by their choice of colour and it’s therefore no coincidence that different brands within the same categories have ended up with the same colours.These codes are all very well, but they present a challenge to brands.

While colour is one of the quickest ways to tell people what category a product belongs to, by following the codes a brand risks getting lost in a sea of sameness. With consumers making decisions with their subconscious, visual brain, your brand is literally blending in with the competition in their minds.Yes, you may be the one with the ‘blue label’, but at a shelf full of blue labels you become instantly interchangeable and by choosing a competitor, the consumer is unlikely to feel that they’re missing out. After all,‘if they all look the same, surely they perform the same’.

By challenging the codes, a brand could fail to communicate a product’s functionalityand/or effectiveness; just how efficacious is acleaning brand that isn’t predominantly blue and white? This isn’t to say brands can’t go against the grain. Here are a few examples of those that have successfully broken the category codes.

McDonald’s, from red and yellow to dark green. Driven by the cultural shift in food and health and wanting to up its credentials in quality, tasty food, with an emphasis on origin, dark green was a tactical move for McDonald’s to strengthen its food story (while still retaining the iconic yellow arches and the full colour logo for comms and signage).

Apple, from black to white. As the brand made simplicity its focus, the brand colours transitioned from black and colour to white and ‘moon grey’ (as it was sold to SteveJobs).Thus, it single-handedly redefined premium colour codes by forever associating white with clarity and purity in the mind of the consumer.

Müller, from blue blocking, to blue branding.When Müller came to Coley Porter Bell, it had been using blue to create a very strong brand signpost, but shelf blocking had been at the expense of pleasure, appetite appeal and navigation through the range. Using our Visual PlanningTM process, wedefined individual propositions which led to a strategic use of blue across the range,rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Forexample, the Corner range uses full strength whereas the Light range uses a lighter, softer, sun-dappled version.This, along with the restof the redesign, clarified the different productpropositions for the consumer, and thus Müller returned to the number one position in the category.

However, it can go wrong.When over one billion bottles in Africa changed labels from a red Coca-Cola logo to a white one, it made consumers think it was a different product, with inherent associations of diet or lack of taste. This in turn led to a drop in sales. While traditional comms failed to solve the problem, our colleagues at Ogilvy Change were approached and devised a behavioural solution to the psychological barriers.This entailed priming customers with red lights at the fridge and a social norms message, effectively adding the taste back in.

With so much at stake, as we’ve seen in the cases above, there is a clear challenge for brands to use colour in a way that speaks to the consumer’s subconscious to communicate the right information about the product or service, while remaining distinctive as a brand. Brands can win the colour challenge by understanding the following four important learnings:

1. HOW WE LEARN TO DECODE MEANING – Our System 1 brain learns by association; the more two things are associated with one another, the stronger their pathway to our memory becomes. Let’s go back to red as an example; the colour is associated with danger (in the form of signs and signals) in many parts of our lives from a very young age, therefore the association becomes entrenched in our minds. By understanding how our minds work, brands can create associations over time to strengthen the memory pathways.

2. THE ROLE OF COLOUR IN CULTURE – Inspiration for colour should be taken from various sources rather than sticking to traditional codes. For example, diet doesn’t have to mean using a white and blue palette. Consider what diet means for your brand. Is it about lightness, simplicity, and clarity? The colours associated with these themes can inspire a new palette which is distinct from the category codes but still plays to people’s subconscious in communicating aspecific benefit or style of product.

In addition, be aware that culture (and trends) are forever evolving and therefore so do the colours associated with it. Brands need to understand these shifts and what they mean for colours in order to communicate the right information in the most relevant way to consumers. For example, health has evolved from ‘negative’ (less of the bad stuff) to ‘positive’ (more of the good stuff and how it makes you feel) and one outcome of this is a transition in the health  palette, from white, blue and green, to vibrant, flavourful brights.

3. WHAT THE BRAND WANTS TO STAND FOR – The brand means more than the category it belongs to.A brand strategy and colour (plus design) should be intertwined to tell a story – for example, a light- hearted, optimistic brand would lead to a very different colour palette from one which is practical and about control. Our Visual PlanningTM process addresses the role of colour in strategy by combining visuals (colour), practical understanding of neuroscience, intuitive and projective techniques (the dominant language of System 1 thinking) to develop strategy that bakes in crucial System 1 cues from the start.This in turn creates brands that engage with the powerful and intuitive – but often hard to get at – System 1 brain which guides and shapes our decision-making.

4. COLOUR IN CONTEXT – Interestingly, it’s not just colour that can communicate colour.The brain has the capability to attribute colours to letters and numbers, known as synaesthesia (cross-sensory associations), when letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured.This is similar to how we associate shapes to sounds – for example, the famous bouba/kiki study by Wolfgang Köhler in 1929 which found that 95% of people assigned the word kiki to a spiky shape and bouba to a soft shape, based on the sounds feeling reminiscent of the shape.

As we understand more about the way the brain reads visuals, we need to ensure that the elements of the packaging work in harmony to create the strongest multisensory connections (to in turn create greater connection, loyalty and memory with consumers). For example, a product that promises to deliver mental relaxation, but uses the wrong shade of blue, a ‘spikey’-sounding name, or a ‘red’ number will lack the maximum impact that could be achieved. Or in other words, it fails to make the maximum sensory connections to a consumer’s brain, making it less appealing and memorable.

This article was originally posted on ADMAP magazine