Colours and their effect on us

When we look at a website, we think we are being persuaded to spend our money because of the product or service being offered. However, there are other factors involved in getting us to part with our money. There are some unconscious influences on the way the user is guided around the website, such as the choice of the layout of the pages, the use of particular fonts and, the subject of today’s article; the use of colour.

The choice of colours used in any form of branding has been studied and analysed by marketing and advertising specialists over the years. The chart above has been created to illustrate the emotion and perception of specific colours. It is interesting to study the colours used by some of the household names and decide if the category they fall into is accurate or not.

 These colours and their associated emotions are a relevant factor in the design of a company’s branding and consequently, their website. The colours in this chart have been loosely sorted into seven categories:

  1. Optimism
  2. Friendly
  3. Excitement
  4. Creative
  5. Trust
  6. Peaceful
  7. Balance

As an example of the colour emotion used in branding, financial institutions often use the colour blue, which brings them under the category of “Trust”. In this chart, American Express and JP Morgan make use of this, but others that spring to mind are Barclays Bank, Nationwide Building Society and PayPal. The use of this colour emotion is to subconsciously influence the customer that this particular institution is a safe place to keep your money and they are trustworthy in their dealings with their customers. (Don’t mention 2008!)

In contrast to that, we have the bright yellow category of optimism and clarity, as used by brands such as McDonalds, Subway, IKEA. The colour suggests a much happier and carefree ambiance, although trying to assemble one of those flat packs from IKEA certainly kills off any happy feelings and enthusiasm! 

Once a colour has been chosen for the branding of a company or organisation, it is used constantly and consistently in all promotional projects and in any instance where the company’s identity is used. The aim of this being that the colour is subconsciously linked with the logo and therefore, the company itself whenever it is seen.

Just for fun, and to see if these branding colours do work, see how many of the following brands you can correctly associate with its branding colour:

  • Coca Cola?
  • Cadburys?
  • McDonalds?
  • Holland and Barrett?

As these colours are established in our minds as those associated with these brands, we can see how they fit into the colour chart:

  • Coca Cola                   Red  – Excitement, Youthful, Bold
  • Cadburys                    Purple – Creative, Imaginative, Wise
  • McDonalds                 Yellow – Optimism, Clarity, Warmth
  • Holland & Barrett      Green – Peaceful, Growth, Health

But how would they look with their colours swapped?

How odd do these familiar logos look when they use each other’s branding colours?  Even though we are able to recognise them from their logos, we are still so unfamiliar when the colour is not what we are expecting to see.  If we were only to catch a glimpse of one of these, perhaps from a train or car window without time to see the logo, I wonder if we would really recognise them then.

Using two examples from our list of companies that are famous for their use of a particular colour, we can see how the importance of the colour with which they are associated has become in today’s media-conscious world. In these modern times, when the time available to people is becoming more scarce, it is important to grab people’s attention instantly to influence them to do something/buy something and this area of marketing is part of that aim.


Cadbury’s recently lost a legal case to trademark the purple colour used in all their branding and packaging. This was fiercely opposed by Nestlé who said that to trademark a colour was too broad and had no distinctive character. The fact that a company was willing to go to so much trouble to secure a colour trademark, illustrates the lengths that business will go to in order to establish their own branding niche but also, in this case, the lengths competitors will go to in order to prevent them doing this!

Despite the ruling by the court, I would conclude that, whenever we see chocolate in a purple wrapper, there is no court order that can stop us associating it with Cadbury, so, in effect, the colour branding, if not the trademarking, has been totally successful.

Coca Cola

When you think of Coca Cola, the first colour that comes to mind is red. Why does a company like this use a colour such as red?

Many people think it is linked to an early advertisement that pictured Father Christmas holding a bottle of Coca Cola. However, the reason is rather more practical than promotional. As Coke was initially created as a medicinal product and was stored in barrels in American drug stores, they were painted red to distinguish them from those containing alcohol, thus preventing them from being subject to duty charges when Tax and Customs officials came calling.  To read more about this click here This Is the Real Reason the Coca-Cola Logo Is Red

However, since those days, the colour red has become more associated with passion, intensity and, most importantly, impulse buying. This is in line with the colour chart above, where red is Excitement, Youthful, Bold – all qualities you would associate with Coca Cola today.

Colour Schemes

Once a colour has been selected for branding, the work begins on how to make the best use of it. This is particularly important in web design as a website created using exclusively one colour, would be rather uninteresting and very difficult to read!

The image above is a colour wheel that is familiar to many who may have used it for interior design.

Having defined the colour/emotion required for branding, it is then used to create a palette of colours. A combination of colours can be created using the wheel using different methods:

  1. Adjacent Colours on the wheel provide an analogous combination of colours.
  2. Complementary Colours combine colours on the opposing side of the wheel.
  3. Split Complementary Colours selects two colours from the opposing side of the wheel.

The colours selected in any of the above methods, can then be used with the original branding colour predominant and the others as highlights for buttons, links, text etc. This method of colour choice ensures that there is a pleasing aesthetic to the look of the website. (For more info on colour choices click here Learn the basics of color theory to know what looks good.)

 Next time you visiting a website, test the theory of the Colour Emotion chart above and see if it is true for that company or organisation! It is also worth noting what colour scheme the website employs; does it use contrasting or complementary colours and do you think it is effective, aesthetically and practically?