Hue won’t believe how brands use colours to fox your brain
From Facebook to McDonald’s, companies know exactly how shades subtly manipulate our behaviour
Facebook’s decision to dump the colour blue and embrace a more neutral white tone on its website after 15 years reflects the technology giant’s deep-seated wish to move on from a series of scandals, psychology experts have claimed.
Karen Haller, author of The Little Book of Colour, says brands use shades to create an “emotional pull” for customers. “Colour is the very first thing that we emotionally connect to,” she says. “They will pull you in emotionally and back it with a brand message.”
For Facebook, the switch is understandable and part of a broader effort to erase negative connotations associated with the brand following a difficult period. White, in this case, signifies a clean slate.
But the change has cast a fresh spotlight on the way big brands frequently use different shades to influence customers and convey subtle messages.
“Blue is the richest colour for me – I can see all of blue,” Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has red-green colour blindness, once told the New Yorker magazine.
But he is not the only technology executive to feel the same way. Other Silicon Valley companies including Twitter and LinkedIn have adopted a similar choice of palette– not least because people are more inclined to stop and browse and to make more purchases in blue environments, researchers claim.
Blue is best
Some might scoff at such talk but it’s undeniable that even outside the technology world it is the most popular brand colour choice for most of the so-called Fortune 500 companies, followed by red.
Haller, a consultant who specialises in the psychology of colour, claims that blue is the “colour of the mind” and of “communication”. She adds: “A dark blue is mental stimulation, whereas a lighter blue is more about blue-sky thinking and is mentally soothing.”
It is the favourite colour for brands in the finance, health, technology and insurance industries because it is linked to qualities including competence, intelligence and trust, according to Canva, a graphic design company. Do we really trust brands more if they are blue? Ford thinks so, as do Visa, HP and IBM, whose empires are all underpinned by a blue logo. The calming effect of the colour is well known in interior decoration, reminiscent of the sea and clear skies. It also holds people’s attention – and dark blues and turquoises have been found to be shades that create a relaxed atmosphere.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that people also perform better in creative tasks when under blue lighting.
There is evidence that suggests it could be the favourite universal colour of people of all ages in Western countries, says Alice Skelton, psychology research fellow at the University of Sussex.
Red and yellow tells us it’s OK for kids
When children are very young, bold primary colours capture their attention a lot more, Skelton explains. That’s why family-friendly brands like Burger King, KFC and Coca-Cola opt for red.
“By the time we are four months old we have the basic stuff of colour vision; babies and adults are seeing the same colours but the saturation is turned down on a baby.”
This same effect works on adults. Put simply, we can see bold, contrasting colours more easily than any other combination. This means you are more likely to go to a McDonald’s if you are in a hurry than if you are relaxed.
Colours such as the bold, yellow arches of a McDonald’s sign against a bright red backdrop work wonders to appeal to children of all ages – and send a message of “speed” to adults, Haller explains.
“Yellow is the colour of positive. It’s cheery, it is the big welcoming ‘hello’ and a happy colour and appeals to younger generations,” she says.
“What red does is that it gets children excited, it’s a physically stimulating colour. The mix of red and yellow gets kids in, it conveys energy.”
Green means yes
Green is seen as being the colour for go, OK or yes. Best known as the colour for traffic lights, green has also been associated with the natural world and sustainability.
Green in business can also symbolise a treat – Starbucks, Heineken and Carlsberg all use green as their branding. In buildings, and on board aircraft we are more likely to flock to green fluorescent exit signs because our eyes are equipped to see them better in dark conditions.
This is not a universal language, however. While green emerged in the 19th century as a symbol used by railway companies to tell trains that the path ahead was clear, non-Western countries have associated green with other feelings.In Japan and China, green has come to be seen as representing negativity. In Japan, blue is usually used to represent green in signals, such as traffic lights. This is because Japan’s word for blue, 青, was often used to describe both the colours green and blue.In China, meanwhile, the stock market is often shown as green when stocks are falling. Since red has always been associated with luck or increase in Chinese culture, green has a more negative connotation of anger.
Black: dangerous and timeless
It was Henry Ford who said in 1909 that car customers could have “any colour so long as it is black”. Black has long signified elegance.
The iconic little black dress, epitomised by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is still one of the go-to colours for women today.
Black and grey may suggest passivity and negativity, and are often used as symbols of menace, evil or death, but are also popular as indicators of power.
It’s no coincidence that teenagers turn to black when they want to make a statement. And following them there are brands that want to capture their attention. That may be why apps from Spotify to Snapchat and TikTok, which compete on bright cellphone screens, opt for black to enhance the colour of their brand logos.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)