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Why colour is important in branding

Colour is crucial to every brand, regardless of the size of the associated company. It can help build consumer familiarity and trust for a business, but can just as easily turn prospective customers away if not used correctly.

“Colour is vitally important, because it gives your company something different to hang on to,” says Damian Pincus, CEO of advertising agency The Works.

“It gives the brand some emotion. Depending on what colour you choose, or what you want to say about your brand, that colour can really depict it and make you stand out from everybody else.”

If the strategic choice of a colour is so crucial to whether or not consumers are effectively engaged by a brand, how should businesses go about choosing the right colour for their business?

“Really it’s about the brand language,” says The Works’ Pincus. “What are you trying to say about your business? Are you trying to come across as being professional and corporate? Are you trying to come across as being young, youthful and vibrant? It depends on what you want to say to people or your target audience about your brand.”

David Ansett, founder and creative director of marketing company Truly Deeply, outlines a three-step methodology that his company uses when advising businesses on how to choose colour in branding.

“The first one is what are the cultural cues of colour. Brand identity works around linking cultural cues to visual language,” he explains. “For instance, red has a history where it’s placed with white for being meaning the red cross, hospital, health. Otherwise it’s seen as having cultural meanings around heat or danger. It’s important that small businesses understand the cultural meanings that are related to different colours.”

The second step encourages business owners to investigate trends that might relate to their brand, as well as the colours associated with those trends, what they might mean.

“The third one is differentiation,” says Ansett. “When we talk about brands positioning themselves visually, it’s not only through meaning but also relative to the competition, so you need to be aware of what colours are owned in the market by your competitors, and make sure you choose the colour that’s different.”

Ansett claims that mistakes are commonly made in each of these three areas. “We see people choosing a colour because they like it or because a brand that they admire uses it. It may well have the wrong cultural cues, without them realising what they’re doing,” he continues. “Small businesses often come to us with a desire to use a colour that one of the market leaders is using. It’s so difficult for small brands to position themselves differently to market leaders, that colour is something we say they should definitely use as a differentiator.

Dario Paolini, director of advertising and design at Grand Brands, warns against relying entirely on established methods for choosing brand colours.

“There’s the traditional colour theory that focuses on the meaning and the emotional response for different colours, which is fine to a certain extent,” he says, but use of the traditional colour theory presents the risk of not differentiating your brand enough from that of marketplace competitors.

“So you’ll find that there are a lot of businesses out there who look the same and use the same colours because of that general school of thought that different colours mean different things,” continues Paolini. “As we’re moving ahead with online businesses, it’s becoming more about differentiation than traditional colour theory. The biggest factor is to use something that’s consistent and original.”

This choice is simpler for some companies than others. Advertising firm Hulsbosch is currently rebranding a Virgin umbrella company, and has done major work for Woolworths and Qantas.

“With Qantas it was really quite clear,” explains creative director Hans Hulsbosch. “The red tail really depicts the land, the colour of Australia. These things help to define how they want to portray themselves to their audience.”

Alternatively, a product-based business could allow the colour of their offering to influence the direction of their brand.

“Take Nudie Juices,” says The Works’s Pincus. “They allow the colour of their product to come through. I think with Nudie it’s quite specific and different because they position themselves as sort of an organic, like a natural based product, therefore seeing the colour of the product is really important.”

This kind of simplicity isn’t an option for all small businesses, many of whom may be restricted by colours commonly associated with their industries. Brands like Twitter, Facebook and Skype all use a very similar blue, to communicate trust and security, yet it’s a mistake for businesses in a specific niche to rely solely on established colour schemes to differentiate themselves.

“You’ve got to think about typography and art direction,” advises Pincus. “The thing that sets those three brands apart is that they’ve used typography to bring that colour to life. I think the use of art direction and typography are critical to making you distinctly different if competitor’s brands have got similar colours.”

It’s also vital for colours to align with a brand’s intended market.

“I think the biggest mistake is to choose something that doesn’t align with the target audience,” says Grand Brands’ Paolini. “For example, choosing primary colours that you would normally associate with children’s products to design a retirement village logo.”

Paolini also makes the point that certain colours may have drastically different cultural connotations depending on the country they’re displayed in.

“It’s important to understand the cultural context of the brand and ensure colour choice is made with respect to that,” he says. “For example, there is one brand I have read about where the client, a financial company in Malaysia, wanted a certain shade of red to be used as their main colour. The brand was to also be used in Japan. However, in Japan, red is traditionally used in relation to death, so a different colour choice was needed.”

The use of colour online adds complexities to the choice when creating a brand.

“Online is much more difficult to get right,” says Pincus. “If a consumer walks into a Woolworths, and they see all the products lined up, that’s where the actual colour and branding you use is so important, because you need to make sure you stand out from your competitors.”

This experience isn’t replicated in the same way online, as people view pages individually. The choice of colour is further complicated when you take into consideration that a website needs to work both in isolation and as part of the bigger picture for the company.

“[A brand] needs to link in any medium, and it needs to link with the customer consistently in any media, whether it’s newspapers, or online, or TV, or billboards,” agrees Hulsbosch. “That’s the power of a good brand, when you can actually connect with customers at all these touchpoints with the one single idea. We are so bombarded with images every day anyway, that it becomes even more important to be consistent. You need to make sure that the one colour should be able to cut across all those mediums.”

It’s also crucial when matching a brand’s colour and typography to make sure that the final combination isn’t already registered as a trademark.

“We go on basically who’s there first,” explains Nada Maltaric, associate solicitor at Wrays Intellectual Property. Typically, rights to a particular brand combination are granted to whoever used them extensively first.

“The biggest problem for brand owners is making sure that they don’t use something substantially identical, or deceptively similar to someone else’s brand,” explains Maltaric. “I get a lot of queries from clients who really like an idea, and have spent money getting business cards and stationery done, only for me to do a trademark search, and to discover that their brand combination is owned by someone.”

Before investing too much in a particular brand combination, it’s wise to use resources like IP Australia, ATMOSS and Google to check for any potential infringements.

Is your website communicating your brand effectively enough? Find out how to improve it with a free website analysis from Netregistry, valued at $75.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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