Color Psychology in Marketing: How Colors Impact Buying Decisions (What the Data Says)

What colors are you using in your branding and marketing messages? Because whether you realize it or not, color psychology in marketing is subconsciously influencing the buying decisions of people visiting your website.

Color psychology is a fascinating area of study and there’s a ton of research about how colors influence marketing and branding. Different colors affect our moods and emotions in different ways, and also play a significant role when it comes to forming an opinion on a brand or product.

According to one study by researcher Satyendra Singh about the impact of color psychology in marketing [1]:

“People make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products. About 62‐90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone. So, prudent use of colors can contribute not only to differentiating products from competitors, but also to influencing moods and feelings — positively or negatively — and therefore, to attitude towards certain products.”

That’s just one study I looked at into color psychology in marketing — I dug up another 20 to find out more about how colors affect purchases and what you can do to improve your conversions.

Ready to find out what the experts say about color psychology in marketing? Let’s take a look at the research.

The psychology of color

First, let’s explore the science and theory behind the psychology of color so you have a foundation for understanding how it applies to marketing.

Why do we prefer certain colors?

Everyone has a favorite color, but by far the most popular is the color blue, regardless of gender or age, according to Microsoft Principal Design Manager Joe Hallock’s research [2].

As Hallock explains:

“Although some studies have suggested that blue can represent feelings that are sad or not happy, people tend to like the hue of blue (and like colors) because they have a calming and relaxing effect.”

But why do most people prefer blue over other colors? There are three broad theories in color psychology in marketing:

  1. Biology
  2. Gender
  3. Ecological Valence Theory

1. Biology

Some studies suggest a biological and evolutionary basis for why humans have evolved certain color preferences, which go back to early human history.

According to one study, What we know about consumers’ color choices [3]:

“Researchers have suggested that color associations may have been formulated early in human history when man associated dark blue with night, and therefore, passivity and bright yellow with sunlight and arousal. To this day, cool colors, such as blue and green, are considered calming and warm colors, such as red and orange, are considered arousing.”

Further to this, the “hunter-gather” theory suggests we can look to our early ancestors for clues as to why men prefer blue and women prefer pink. The theory goes that since women were tasked with gathering food, the female brain developed to hone in on ripe, yellow fruit or edible leaves amongst green foliage [4].

In other words, women developed a preference for reddish-pink colors because these colors are associated with survival.

2. Gender

According to gender schema theory, parents and society, in general, impart gender stereotypes on children from the day they are born.

As researchers Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache explain in Pretty in pink: The early development of gender‐stereotyped colour preferences [5]:

“Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colors based on familiarity.”

Further, they suggest another possibility is that:

…once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colors that are commonly associated with that gender.”

 

LoBue and DeLoache tested their theories on 192 children aged 7 months to 5 years. The result? Infants had no color preferences, favoring neither pink or blue.

However, around 2-3 years of age when children begin to understand and talk about gender, girls were more likely to favor pink and boys were more likely to dislike pink — suggesting children seek out colors associated with their gender as they get older.

Color psychology in marketing – baby wearing pink nappy.

3. Ecological Valence Theory

Ecological valence theory provides a more nuanced take on why individuals have certain colors preferences. Researchers Stephen E. Palmer and Karen B. Schloss propose in their study, An ecological valence theory of human color preference that “color preferences arise from people’s average affective responses to color-associated objects” [6].

In other words:

“The more enjoyment and positive affect an individual receives from experiences with objects of a given color, the more the person will tend to like that color.”

For example, people tend to like colors strongly associated with objects they like (e.g. blues with clear skies and clean water) and dislike colors strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g. browns with feces and rotten food).

Why do colors have different meanings?

According to color psychology in marketing, meanings are often attached to specific colors. For example:

  • Blue is trust
  • Orange is a sale item
  • Green is environmentally friendly

These are commonly associated meanings that are generally accepted in Western culture. But in order parts of the world and for different people even in the same country, a color might mean one thing to one person and have a completely different meaning to someone else.

There are three general factors that influence how meanings are attached to color psychology in marketing:

  1. Culture
  2. Experience
  3. Context

1. Culture

 

Numerous studies [7][8] have attempted to classify the way different cultures respond to certain colors. It’s generally accepted that the culture you grow up in plays a role in how you interpret the meaning of a color.

For instance, a US-based brand might choose white to show their all-natural washing detergent is safe and pure. Purex, for example, uses a white bottle and a predominantly blue label, in an effort to inspire trust.

However, in China, white is an unlucky color [9]. In fact, many Chinese people wear white to funerals.

Color psychology in marketing – Purex packaging.
 

Here are some other examples of cross-cultural color meanings:

  • In Western countries, yellow generally represents warmth and cheer, but in France it represents jealousy and betrayal.
  • In most Western countries, green represents money and new life, but in some South American cultures it can represent death.
  • In many countries, purple represents royalty and wealth, but in Italy purple is an unlucky color that represents death.
  • In most Western countries, pink is considered a feminine color closely associated with love, while in Korea, it often symbolizes trust.

When choosing colors for your marketing campaigns, especially when targeting new audiences in other countries, it’s critical to consider the connotations a color might have [10].

2. Experience

Similar to Ecological Valence Theory, people have different experiences with colors depending on the type of work they do and their interests, which in turn can influence the meaning they attached to a particular color. For example:

  • Blue: Surfers who spend a lot of time in the ocean might associate blue with feeling calm or exhilarated.
  • Red: Surgeons who spend time in operating theaters might see the color red and associate it with blood and feeling alive. Whereas a farmer with an orchard might associate red with apples.
  • Green: People who like to hike might associate green with the outdoors and feelings of health and well-being.

As Satyendra Singh explains in her study, Impact of color on marketing [11]:

“Because color experiences vary from individual to individual, it is not possible to know how another person experiences colors. One person’s experience of a share of red can be perceived differently from another person.”

So when planning your website’s color palette or planning your next marketing campaigns, consider color psychology in marketing. Think about your target demographic, what they like and dislike, jobs and hobbies, and what associations they might have with your chosen colors.

3. Context

According to color-in-context theory, colors don’t have universal meaning. Instead, they have different meanings in different contexts [12].

For instance, in the context of transportation, yellow might make you slow down. Yellow lights, yellow school buses, yellow yield signs, yellow caution tape — they all convey this “meaning.”

But in another context, yellow might provoke confidence and positivity. The key here is context.

A lot of research has focused on the color red and the different meanings it can have in different contexts, including:

  • Color and Psychological Functioning: The Effect of Red on Performance Attainment [13] – This study explores the impact of the color red on people completing tasks, such as tests.
  • The Effect of Red Color on Perceived Self‐Attractiveness [14] – This study looks at research into how red impacts how people view their own attractiveness.
  • The Color Red Supports Avoidance Reactions to Unhealthy Food [15] – Can the color red deter people from eating unhealthy food? This study explores that question.

How color psychology impacts marketing

Now that you’ve got a solid foundation in color psychology, let’s look at how it is used in marketing.

 

A popular example of color psychology in marketing is Coca-Cola. After all, the company has stuck with variations of red, white, and black logos for the past 130 years.

Here is Coca-Cola’s most recent branding, which the company has used since 2016.

Coca-Cola's branding.

Coca-Cola’s use of simple brand colors is actually quite clever. In Western countries like the United States, red evokes feelings of comfort, love, and warmth. Coca-Cola often evokes nostalgia in its marketing, for example, with the continued usage of the 1930s Santa Claus in holiday marketing.

Further research shows why color theory matters and how color psychology plays a pivotal roles in marketing. According to research conducted by the secretariat of the Seoul International Color Expo [16]:

  • 92.6% of respondents said they put more importance on visual factors when purchasing products.
  • Only 5.6% said that the physical feel via the sense of touch was most important. Hearing and smell each drew 0.9 percent.
  • When asked to approximate the importance of color when buying products, 84.7% believed color accounted for more than half among the various factors important for choosing products.

The importance of color psychology in branding and brand recognition

Humans are hard-wired to prefer immediately recognizable brands. In fact, research using MRI has found strong brands elicit strong activity in our brains [17], which makes color a critical element when creating a brand personality or identity.

According to another study performed by the University of Loyola, Maryland, color increases brand recognition by up to 80%. Researcher Diane E. Moir surmises that [18]:

“As a result, some product manufacturers have turned to color psychologists and brand experts to discover innovative and interesting ways of using color to distinguish their products from the products of others, and have sought protection of their names as well as their color identity through trademark registration.”

Color psychology in marketing is a critical factor in the visual look of product packaging, logos, website design, and companies use color in a variety of ways, through their brand identity, digital and content marketing, packaging, social media, and even landing pages and advertising.

Here are a few ways brands use color in marketing:

1. Highlight the culture or image of a brand, product, or service

People understand and trust non-verbal information much faster than verbal cues. Using the right color means you can communicate abstract concepts like trust, excitement, or clarity faster than actually stating it.

 

Apple, for example, focuses its branding on simplicity, lifestyle, and individuality. This is represented through the simplicity of the company’s logo and the generous use of white in its designs, which represent (at least in Western countries) peace, purity, and cleanliness.

Apple's white color palette.

2. Differentiation from competitors

When deciding on a color, analyze your key competitors and other products that may sit next to your product in search results.

However, keep in mind that some research suggests it’s important for new brands to pick colors that ensure differentiation from entrenched competitors (e.g. if the competition all uses green, you’ll stand out with yellow) [19].

3. Create visibility for different products

If you have a product that is significantly different from your other offerings, choosing a different color can separate different product lines.

Lay’s, for example, uses the classic yellow for its original chips and a variety of other colors to differentiate flavors.

The Chile Limon chip packet, for example, is a deep red that represents the spice. The barbecue chips are mostly black, which remind customers of black grill lines. Consumers intuitively understand aspects of each flavor based solely on the color of the bag.

Color psychology in marketing – Lay's chip packet colors.

Some companies have gone as far as trademarking colors that are specifically associated with their product. For instance, Tiffany’s has trademarked its robin’s egg blue and ‘Coke red’ is protected from other soft drink companies.

Color combinations to use, conversions & testing

There are no clear-cut guidelines for choosing colors when it comes to color psychology in marketing. The colors you use will depend entirely on the factors we’ve explored above — the audience you want to appeal to (i.e. male versus female, their likes and dislikes) and the meaning you want to convey (taking into account your audience’s culture, experience, and the context of your message).

Fortunately, in the digital world, you don’t have to leave anything to chance. A/B testing different color combinations can help you determine which colors appeal to your audience and convert.

A popular example of how a simple color change can impact conversions is Hubspot’s research into call-to-action buttons. The marketing company tested two versions of a landing page with green and red buttons.

Color psychology in marketing – Testing call-to-action buttons.

The version with the red button outperformed the page with green button by 21%. No other content on the page was changed, only the color of the button.

It’s worth pointing out that the page with the green button is mostly green, and the green button is a complementary color, whereas the red button contrasts with the page’s green branding.

Why does this matter? Because people remember things that stand out. This psychological principle is known as the Isolation Effect [20]. Basically, when multiple similar objects are grouped together, the one that sticks out like a sore thumb (i.e. the one that is different in color) is most likely to be remembered.

So the next time you’re designing a landing page for a marketing campaign, don’t forget the Isolation Effect and color psychology in marketing. Choosing a contrasting color for your CTAs could help boost your conversion rate.

Look to your audience to find your colors

Finding the perfect color scheme for your marketing involves more than just choosing your favorite colors. It’s important to look past your own personal preferences and consider your target audience — their gender, culture, and experience, and what meaning they may subconsciously attach to your marketing messages.

That’s why it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of color psychology in marketing so if your marketing isn’t striking the right chord with your audience, you can quickly identify whether color might be a factor.

Lastly, when it comes to choosing colors for your marketing strategy, always test and learn from your results! A/B testing can help determine the best colors for your marketing, and positively impact your revenue.

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Layout, presentation and editing by Karol K.

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