Color Theory in Building a Brand

February 8, 2022

written by Amanda DeWoody

Color Theory in Brand Design | Poised Avenue Design Studio

According to a study performed by the University of Loyola, Maryland, “color increases brand recognition by up to 80 percent.” Take a moment to think of some notable brands. Tiffany & Co. and their Tiffany blue, for example. Tiffany & Co. has a simple typographic logo, but it’s their brand color that makes them instantly recognizable. They enforce their branding with their signature packaging to give life to the color, but that box in any other color just wouldn’t be the same… right? Similarly, McDonald’s has their golden arches and Starbucks has its green straw. It’s hard to imagine these brands using any other color but the color they use now — the colors that help them to tell their brand story.

Color is a powerful tool in building a brand identity. But to use color, you must first understand it at its most fundamental level. So, let’s take a look at the basics of color:

The Basics of Color Theory

There are a few basic principles of color theory. First, there are 3 primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. These colors can be mixed to create other colors. For example, blue and yellow make green. The primary colors are perceived as fundamental colors. You’ll often see kid’s items in these colors.

One way to distinguish color is by its warmth. There are warm and cool colors. Warm colors are typically in the red, orange, and yellow families, whereas cool colors are in the blue, green, and purple families. However, there can be reds described as “cool” and blues described as “warm” — this is dependent on the base color or how a color is mixed and is referred to as the hue.

In color, there are also tints and shades. Adding white creates a tint, whereas a shade is when black is added. Adding white or black creates an almost endless amount of versions of each color. We have royal blue, baby blue, and navy blue. Each has a different amount of white or black. 

Color Schemes

We often combine colors to create a color palette. Color scheme types are named after where the colors within the palette are located on the color wheel.

A common color palette type is complementary. A complementary color palette is created by combining colors that can be found across from each other on a color wheel. Since these colors are opposites, they pop against one another and catch your attention. The Fanta logo uses this type of color palette using a combination of blue and orange.

If you need three colors, you can make a triadic scheme using three colors that can be found across from one another on the color wheel. Connecting the three colors will make a perfect triangle. Triadic schemes are balanced yet have variety. They are dynamic!

An analogous scheme consists of colors next to one another on the wheel. An analogous scheme won’t catch your attention like a complementary scheme, but it feels unified.

A monochromatic scheme is made up of different shades and tints of one color.

Using Color in Branding

When making a color palette, we consider many factors: the emotion the brand wants to convey, the brand’s values, industry colors, and consumer response (or the psychological responses certain colors will cause within an audience), as well as the culture of the brand’s ideal audience or market.

Colors naturally impact human behavior. There is a field of study all about it called Color Psychology. In brand design, we utilize color psychology to better communicate to our client’s target audience. Before we start designing, we talk with our clients about what emotions they want their brand to evoke. Because different colors have the ability to evoke certain emotions or even have ties to specific things within an audience group (like neon colors and the 80’s/Gen-X) we can use them strategically to align the brand to its audience/market.

I have a feeling McDonald’s followed this method as yellow is comforting and red makes you hungry as well as impulsive. The combination is referred to as the “Ketchup and Mustard Theory.” Next time you are in the grocery store, note all the red and yellow packaging — this color scheme is extremely popular in the food and fast food industry. Can you name a fast food joint that doesn’t use these colors?

Your brand values are heavily involved in choosing colors for your brand because your colors should reflect your brand’s core and mission. For example, if you are looking to market a children’s educational book, consider the primary colors. Parents will be on the lookout for the primary colors as their products are often in that palette, but we also know that because of the high contrast between primary colors, they will also be appealing to children too. This is a perfect example of the way color can help a brand fit into its market and stand out to its ideal customer at the same time. It is then the task of using those colors uniquely in the overall brand identity (or in this example, cover design) that helps turn a product and its color palette into a unique and memorable brand, creating something extremely successful.

In every industry, there are typically standard colors used. Go down the garden aisle, is all the fertilizer in green packaging or otherwise earth-toned colors? As these colors represent growth and nature, it is an obvious choice. However, it’s important to remember that using a standard color within your industry is not always the best choice for your brand. For example, when you are in the cleaning product aisle, you may also see green but in this case, the green is most likely signifying to you that the product is an eco-conscious product. In this case, the brand is using the unconscious understanding we all have about the color green — that it equals nature — to convey quickly its brand mission and core values of being eco-friendly.

In the same way, among all of those green fertilizer bags, an orange bag will grab your attention. Orange signifies optimism and rejuvenation and it’s also of high contrast against greens and other earth tones that may be on the shelf. A consumer shopping for fertilizer may opt for the orange if they have a plant that isn’t blooming fully because of how lively it feels. Maybe the orange is somehow better than all the other greens? 

Color theory is more of a science than an art. However, it takes an artist’s eye to compose color in a way that is pleasing… but it takes a brand designer’s eye to compose color in a way that is scientific in reasoning and pleasing to the consumer.

As brand designers, we balance form and function and science and art to craft beautiful and strategic brands. How do your brand colors help tell your story? Could you be communicating stronger?

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