optimising online revenue

What color is your advertising?

September 2009


How color theory can help you monetize your marketing



color theory onlineIf you're planning a marketing or advertising campaign, color is sure to play a key role in the success of your venture. After all, it's pretty much the first thing your consumers will notice*, making color your best - and sometimes only - chance to get a message across.

Use of color in most design for marketing and advertising is dictated by certain obvious requirements; the need to reflect a specific brand, as well as the attempt to communicate a certain mood dictated by the product itself. Company branding is pretty straightforward - specific colors dictated by logos and other devices will need to be incorporated into at least part of your design. The choice of color scheme for conveying the 'personality' of a product is often a lot harder to come up with, however.

Sometimes the decision is partly intuitive - most people understand even at a very basic level that bright, saturated colors will convey a different kind of mood to neutral grays or browns. Experienced designers, of course, go further still, selecting and implementing colors on the basis of their effectiveness in the overall design. Here, the guidelines of traditional color theory will often come into play as a kind of balancing act to ensure that all parts work together well and that the right kind of colors are used.


But what if some colors are actually more right than others?

We're about to embark on an exploration of color related not just to its use in layout, but rather, the psychological and physical impact it's likely to have on a viewer.

A big, and sometimes controversial undertaking, and we'll first need to get a couple of things straight. While people often talk about a psychology of color, in reality, most psychologists would find fault with the accuracy of this term. This is because the significance given to various colors isn't universal and unchanging - in many ways it's quite the opposite: various cultures quite often associate the same color with very different emotions and ideas.*

Yet colors and their underlying fabric of sociological and historical connotation certainly do produce specific reactions in particular contexts - emotions, associations and even physical effects that can help advertisers in their quest for ever more accurate targeting.

And if this all sounds a bit hokey, at the very least, the idea that color can actively influence consumers shouldn't be disregarded entirely. So let's take a look at what colors seem to be telling us.




color theory: redRed, the most vibrant and powerful of colors, seems like a good place to start. Particularly since studies have shown that it's the first color babies recognize, and one that continues to appeal to most people throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. At a purely symbolic level, it's the color of fire and blood, an association that's common to all cultures and therefore extremely powerful. Less specifically, it's a color that seems to be associated with energy, war, danger and power, not to mention passion, desire, and love.

So what does that mean for marketing?

To start with, some of these associations are so deeply ingrained that it wouldn't be wise to use a color other than red to represent certain states. Try depicting extreme emotions such as violence or passion with shades of blue and you're going to run into problems.

What's more, it has been shown that in its brighter variations (tomato, pillar-box), red actually provokes a physical response by raising respiration rate and blood pressure.

For this reason, its use in 'sexy' advertising scenarios or as an erotically charged statement (on lips or fingernails) should quite literally set hearts beating faster - and unusually, it's regarded as equally arousing by men and women.
Whether the physiological 'red effect' occurs simply as a result of its associations; or because the color itself somehow provokes such a response; or, if, indeed, this effect relies on a combination of the two isn't something that necessarily matters here. What is important is that red, like virtually every other color, exerts a measurable influence on the consumer.


More about the 'red effect'

Quite apart from any physical reactions it might provoke, red's association with force, and therefore power, is an extremely dominant one. Consider all the small details in our everyday lives that support this notion: red icons on switches to indicate their 'on' state, the plastic coating on 'live' wires, the tiny red glow that tells us an electrical appliance is working.

All of which makes red an ideal color to suggest fast-moving action or extreme force - examples of products that might fall into this category include computer games, action-adventure books or movies.

This deep-rooted association with power, coupled with the fact that it actually raises metabolic speed, also makes red a good candidate for any product that seeks to impart the idea of improvement, rapidity or physical change. Just a few of many possible examples include anything related to sport or speed (think of those red sports cars), energy drinks, self-help guides, or batteries. Even 'fast-acting' or 'powerful' over-the-counter drugs can support their status with at least a dash of red.

Perhaps as a result of all that heavy breathing, red also increases appetite, making it an excellent choice for advertising food (it's popularly claimed that Chinese restaurants often use red color schemes for this reason, but there's little truth in this - red simply happens to be a very popular and 'lucky' color in Chinese culture).

However, if enticing diners to eat heartily is something you're aiming to do, an all-red environment is a good way to get stomachs rumbling.




color theory and affiliate marketingAlthough it derives from red, pink has little of its big brother's forceful qualities. In fact, although it's usually perceived as a warm and fairly upbeat color, it is, of course, popularly associated with femininity and even passivity. A cliche, perhaps, but its vigor-reducing reputation has again been shown to have some basis in fact.

Famously, a shade of bubble-gum pink used in certain cells in a men's prison was unexpectedly found to placate aggressive inmates. Research corroborated the fact that pink did indeed have significant calming qualities - although subsequent study revealed that after a certain time these effects were dramatically reversed as prisoners became more agitated and aggressive than before. (Surprised? You try living in a bubble gum pink environment).

Nevertheless, the fact that pink does induce at least a temporary sensation of calm makes it a powerful factor in the color-coordinated approach to advertising.

Its peaceful, relaxing qualities and general evocation of comfort and softness have long made it a favorite for items such as toilet paper, cotton wool and 'gentle on the skin' toiletries, especially baby lotions.

This association could possibly be explored further as a background or accent color for items where comfort is key, such as bedding, sofas or carpets. Apply with caution, however - the strong association with femininity means that anything 'too' pink is likely to be snubbed by men.


There's one other area in which pink has an interesting effect, however - and one that's far less likely to alienate males. It's well known that a high concentration of color in foodstuffs will lead consumers to believe they're tastier, or even identify a flavor that isn't actually present.* And pink coloring is a particularly effective way of suggesting sweetness.

This may relate to the fact that it's often used as a coloring in candies, but whatever the case, the association is powerful enough to substantially increase a food's perceived sugariness or even depth of flavor. Pink sprinkles or toppings will add oomph to vanilla ice cream, and pink marshmallows are often assumed to be sweeter than white ones (they aren't).

Although in these health-conscious times sweet, sugary foods have lost much of their popularity, the marketing of certain products is still likely to benefit from a little pink-appeal: feel-good desserts, ice creams, shakes and certainly artificial sweeteners. It's also a color that could be used to make sugar-free, healthier foods seem more enticing to kids - as long as Mom and Dad are able to see through the ruse themselves.




colour theory and design: greenOccurring naturally as a sign of plant growth and renewal, green is one of those colors that's universally seen as positive, fresh and fertile. It's also a color that, once again, produces noticeable physical effects. it's the easiest color for the eye to assimilate and therefore one of the most relaxing; it induces feelings of calm and restfulness, and can even improve vision. In short, it's a very positive color indeed.

This emphasis on nature, freshness and renewal means that it's commonly used to emphasize the cleansing, 'regenerative' aspect of household items such as bleaches, detergents, air fresheners. But if you notice a certain irony in this, well-spotted, because green, of course, has steadily evolved into the symbol of all that's ecologically aware. Which isn't a label that applies to most cleaning products.

The widespread acceptance of 'green' in its current sense is actually a fairly recent phenomenon*, but with increasing focus on ecological issues it's extremely powerful and will only gain in strength. So much so, in fact, that real care needs to be taken now that use of green doesn't suggest a product is all-natural, organic or additive-free if it isn't. Congruity in advertising - or the notion that what's implied about a product should be supported by its reality - is one of the most vital aspects of marketing. Get this wrong, and there's no consumer forgiveness.

Yet despite green requiring caution in advertising, its current associations have equally led to opportunities for more refined targeting. Wholesome, healthy food items are likely to be quickly identified as such through predominant use of green, and the same can be said for products or services associated with any type of healing, spirituality, or personal growth: yoga, slimming programs, alternative medicines.


Different greens, different meanings

Green is a symbolically complex color, and particular shades transmit subtly different messages. Darker greens - the classic color of bank-notes and bills - have long held an association with finance. The added implication of growth and fertility therefore makes green a good choice for promotion of many financial products, particularly saving schemes, pensions and insurance plans.

Lime greens, which emerged as popular trend color in the '90s, denote an especially vibrant freshness due to their close relationship to effervescent yellows. As such, they make excellent keynote colors for fresh, healthy, energy-inducing products such as juices, tonics, vitamin supplements and energy drinks.

Finally, a further modern-day association with green stems from its use in traffic systems to signify 'go'. This link with movement, forward motion and vehicles make it a potentially good choice for anything related to transport: carriers, train networks, buses. And for online advertising, try using green for buttons or links you'd particularly like clicked - you're practically inviting a user to go ahead and do so.*




Color theory and web design: blueBlue is by far the world's most popular color. And as one that, like green, occurs in nature - the hue of skies, water and sea - it's not surprising that it's so well loved. With such universal associations and widespread appeal, blue is an important asset to any color theorist.

Unlike very warm colors, which provoke impulsive, passionate responses, blue is a cerebral color that's commonly associated with clear thinking and intellect. For good reason, too, as its use in offices and workplaces has been shown to dramatically increase productivity and a sense of well-being. Perhaps more surprisingly, other studies indicate that blue can even improve physical prowess - weight-lifters typically perform better in blue surroundings. However, this is probably a secondary effect of its ability to sharpen concentration.

This association with clear thought and precision make blue a good choice for anything involving a high degree of complex manufacture, such as computing products, electronic goods or hi-tech appliances in general. Darker blues emphasize this association even further, and their widespread appeal among men provide a perfect keynote for high-end, precision-made items with a masculine focus - expensive cars, bespoke tailoring, luxury grooming products.

Given such a setting, it's no real surprise either that blue emerges as a clear favorite in the corporate world. Its implication of steadiness and reason continue to make it an effective choice for much company branding, although its white collar associations can also suggest stuffiness and conservatism.

In its lighter, brighter shades, blue loses much of its cool aloofness and takes on happier, sparkling and spontaneous overtones. The pure and natural aspect of such blues convey a sense of cleanliness and freshness and are often used for cleaning products, detergents, deodorants and toothpastes.

Bright blue is also an obvious choice for the typical vacation. Evocative of cloudless skies and inviting pools or seas, it also gives a tantalizing taste of tranquility and relaxation by slowing down the metabolism and producing feelings of calm and well-being. A powerful message indeed, and one that makes blue an equally effective choice for health spas, beauty clinics and any other service where deep relaxation or therapy is a key selling point.

In fact, blue is such a flexible and well-liked color that it's almost impossible to mis-use - with one major exception.


Foods, particularly meats, dairy products and staples such as pasta or rice, really don't benefit from any kind of association with blue. To start with, that drop in metabolism will certainly reduce the appetite; but this doesn't explain the fact that a blue/food combo can even induce feelings of nausea. (Try it. Add a little coloring to pasta, white sauce, or even better, light-fleshed meat such as pork or chicken. See how far you get before pushing your plate to one side).

It's been suggested that we instinctively associate the color with something that's rotten and unsafe to eat, but whatever the case, it's not a great choice for marketing a ready-meal. And if you find yourself running low at your next dinner party, bring out the blue plates. There won't be many requests for second helpings.


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