Your Non-Scientific Guide to Colour Semiotics
Colours: They surround us, they attract us, and sometimes they even repel us. But colours - or more accurately, the meanings of colours - play a crucial role in how we interact with the world.
When it comes to branding, those interactions are amplified as the colour palette and its subsequent subconscious meanings can completely dictate how we perceive a brand.
And that’s exactly where colour semiotics can either help, or hinder, your brand’s efforts to engage your consumers. Depending on which colour you use can depend on what messaging you deliver, which emotions you’re evoking in your audience, and what their overall perception of your brand image is.
What are colour semiotics?
We promised non-scientific, but bear with us for a moment. In the 1860s an American philosopher named Charles Peirce introduced semiotics. What semiotics really stood for was the philosophical study of signs.
Charles Pierce believed that in semiotics, human thought was the action of signs and that everything in existence communicates and sends a message. Other people then receive those messages, or signs, and create meaning from them.
Put simply, what that means when it comes to colours is that the semiotics of colour is all about the meanings that we draw from the signs that colours let off.
Break point: Colours tie into brand identity which ties into brand personality. If you’re not sure you’ve got one of those yet, read this. Quickly.
In branding and marketing that means that anything from brand identity, product, packaging and retailing is all capable of communicating a set of signs which have underlying meanings which can then influence purchasing decisions.
In 1992 for instance, Bellizzi and Hitel even noted that perceived “warm” colours such as yellow can actually entice customers to enter stores, whilst red could influence buying decisions borne from excitement because of the perceived “danger” factor.
So, to summarise: Your consumers will receive signs depending on what your colour choices are telling them, and that matters depending on your brand and business objectives. For example if you’re a pharmaceutical company trying to instill trust, you may want to avoid flash pinks because pink can be perceived as playful and therefore immature.
Why context matters for colours
When using the semiotics of colour there are three contextual variables which brands need to keep in mind.
This is because, just like anything, colours and their interpretations are bespoke. A good example is favourite colours. Your favourite colour may vary from your best friend’s favourite colour for a whole host of reasons, including emotions it evokes inside you, or just because you resonate to blue more than red.
These variations in interpretations are exactly the same when it comes to taking colour on a global or international scale. Different cultures for example read different signs from different colours. It’s why a brand may see a rise in sales of a product in one colour in one country, but lack of in another - and it’s also a reason why it’s a great idea to offer products in different colours in the first place.
The three contextual variables to keep in mind when deciding on colours are:
Different cultures bestow different meanings onto different colours. A great example is China, where red is associated with luck (think about the Chinese New Year celebrations, all marketing materials are adorned in red) but in North America, red is associated with anger, and in Europe, red symbolises passion or sensuality.
On the other hand, in Western culture blue is often used by corporations because of its association with trust and calmness, whilst in East Asia blue is usually avoided because it is perceived as a colour of evil.
If your brand will be parading on the international stage it’s best to take cultural colour considerations into account, especially if you’re looking to enter and dominate global markets. The signs and interpretations made by one country may not be made by another which could lead to reduced chances of success.
Colours have always provoked emotions, and it’s why such importance is placed on them in branding. When emotions are in play so is colour psychology, semantics and physics which overall leads to an alteration of the physiological state.
That alteration can be great in a physical environment such as a gym, where bright bold colours such as red (empowerment), green (health), and yellow (vitality) are used, but the alteration could work against you if the emotions invoked are not what your brand is aiming for.
For example whilst yellow alone can be associated with creativity and warmth, tempting those consumers into your store as mentioned earlier, when it’s placed against black it issues a warning. Think about any hazard sign you've ever seen, or even harmful insects like wasps. The wrong mix of colour and that physiological alteration could deter customers and detrimentally impact the brand.
Yes, colours even influence how we perceive the social-economic status of those around us. Purple is a great example as it’s often seen as the colour of royalty and regality thanks to its expensive origins in Ancient Rome.
Gold is another such example, often seen as superior and wealthier when compared to the likes of silver and bronze.
These socio-economical interpretations can have a major impact when it comes to your audience and their own socio economic statuses. If your brand image suggests that it’s for those of all walks of life and economies, but your colour palette is a mix of regal purple and rich gold, you’ll be sending conflicting messages which may lead to the branding failing to connect with its target audience.
All of these considerations should fit into your brand strategy. Find out where and how here.
What are some colour meanings in marketing?
The colours you use and their meanings matter in your marketing and branding. Here’s a quick rundown of the main colours and their meanings to help you choose.
Red is an attention grabber and therefore its associations are feelings of action, danger, energy, excitement, passion and even sensuality.
Many brands will opt to use red for call to action buttons as they invoke that actionable response. It’s also why red is used commonly across fast food outlets - think of KFC, McDonalds and even Dominos. Because of red’s association with energy and excitement, it’s thought it can stimulate appetite.
Orange is another attention attracting colour, but it’s not as commanding as red which is why its associations instead tend to be feelings of adventure, confidence, creativity, enthusiasm and success.
In branding orange is also used as a call to action type colour, but it’s also used to represent creativity, seen in photography company Shutterfly, and also success - seen in Amazon’s arrow which points from A to Z and suggests a consumer is destined to find what they’re looking for in Amazon’s warehouse.
Yellow is the happiest colour of all, according to its associations! Yellow represents happiness, optimism, positivity and warmth.
Yellow is a colour to also be aware of for its cultural representations. In Africa, yellow works similarly to the associations of gold and suggests wealth and success, but in France yellow symbolises cowardice and weakness whilst in Germany, they turn yellow with envy instead of green.
If you’re going international with yellow, make sure that your brand narrative can complete your visual identity to support it.
Green has long standing associations with the environment, spring, the military, nature, health, luck and even jealousy.
In Ireland green is the colour of luck, but in Indonesia the colour green is banned altogether because of its close associations with death.
Getting green right might feel a bit like striking the right balance, but Spotify and Starbucks are two notable examples who got it right. Green doesn’t have to drive consumers away provided that your brand narrative can support your visual identity components. For example Starbucks (ironically) utilises the health and freshness aspect, whilst Spotify tends to use its green and black colour scheme to keep its branding as diverse as its music library. After all, depending on the music you listen to you could end up relating to any one of the above associations!
Blue is a long trusted colour of corporations because it invokes feelings of calmness, harmony, peace, trust and stability. Whilst blue can be viewed negatively, as long as the tone of the colouring is right brands can prevent associations with feeling blue from occurring.
Microsoft Word for example gradiented their blue colour to produce a branded product that utilises those feelings of trustworthiness and stability for the millions of consumers who need to use the item every day to work. Likewise big conglomerates such as Dell, IBM and American Express channel blue to reassure consumers that they can trust their products and services, and that they’ll bring them peace of mind.
Colour semiotics matter when it comes to consumer psychology, and they make a big difference on whether or not the brand will both resonate with consumers and correctly communicate its brand identity and values.
If you need a hand choosing your colour scheme, why not drop us a line? We can help you to reimagine your visual identity, and work to redefine a better, more cohesive brand narrative.