11 brand colours and their meanings

Recently, Cadbury lost the fight to fully trademark their distinctive purple colour (although it is uniquely theirs for chocolate). Why do they care so much about their purple and does it have a meaning beyond its specific association with Cadbury?

Colours are powerful weapons in any branding toolkit and rich with meanings. As a starting point, here is a quick tour of the eleven most frequently used colour names.

White is often a sign of purity, cleanness and coolness. It is a basic colour, bringing out everything else. For service brands, white is used everywhere the customer expects cleanliness (kitchens, surgeries, etc). The Innocent brand of fruit smoothies, use the purity of white to great effect.

Black has become a regular symbol of top of the range, quality and sobriety, and can be used to create a very specific and exclusive environment. There is a reason that the ‘little black number’ is the iconic statement of Coco Chanel and the colour of Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.

Red has the hue with the strongest stimulation, giving it the power to excite with increased pulse and heart rate and raised blood pressure. Women in red are rated more sexy than when wearing any other colour, while men in red are rated as more powerful, and it’s not just a coincidence that drivers of red cars are more likely to be involved in car accidents. Red can stimulate appetite, making it popular among food, drink and restaurant brands such as Coca-Cola, Heinz and KFC.

Yellow is a comforting colour, which also means tangy, creamy or delicious in foods and drinks. It is very popular in food and drink outlets, although often paired with another colour (e.g., McDonalds). Yellow is also used by brands like Scholl (foot powder) for its connotations of warmth and comfort.

Green symbolizes ideas of refreshment and nature and is connected to ideas of healthiness. However, green is a delicate colour and can have strong negative connotations, as it is also the colour of decay and putrefaction. Although BP has tried to hijack green to symbolize their environmental credentials, they haven’t always lived up to these ideals. Holiday Inn and Starbucks make good use of green.

Blue is associated with the sea and sky and calmness, and often suggests trust and serenity. Some shades (e.g., ice blue) reflect purity and coolness and are ideal for products like bottled water and toothpast (Oral-B). Brands like Walls use dark blue to signify quality, while brands like Bombay Sapphire have used the colour to forge a distinctive brand identity as well as to reflect their unique blend of ingredients.

Orange is a friendlier colour than red (which has a dangerous side), and is stimulating enough to get attention from kids and teens (e.g., Fanta, Nickelodeon). Brands like Amazon and Orange Mobile use these associations to signify the vitality and fun of their brand.

Brown is wholesome and down to earth, often associated with nature materials like wood. Coffee brands like Costa Coffee leverage these meanings, along with the obvious link to coffee itself, to signal their homely ambience.

Purple is associated with royalty in the West and has associations with quality and luxury. These associations are the reasons for its use by Cadbury and by Whiskas, in a lighter shade, for the food of the Empress or Emperor of the house.

Pink is a sweet and appealing colour, perfect for sugar confectionery. It is also associated with sexiness and femininity in many cultures, which is why it is the perfect colour for Breast Awareness campaign’s iconic ribbon logo.

Finally, grey is associated with business suits as well as age, although sometimes considered a gloomy and unattractive colour (considered ‘cheap’ in many Asian countries). Grey is often associated with and used by technology companies (e.g., Apple, Honda) and can signal the wisdom of experience.

The writer is Neil Gains, founder of TapestryWorks and author of  Brand esSense:Using Sense, Symbol and Story to Design Brand Identity