More Than Meets the Eye: The Changing Role of Color in Branding

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by Brendán Murphy, Lippincott

From Main Street to the supermarket shelf, the use of color has been a visceral differentiator among brands. Brands across all industries have built moats of color to define and defend their brand identity. While the use of color in branding is nothing new, the shift to the digital world has brands using color in more nuanced, strategic and multi-faceted ways to better connect with consumers and give themselves a distinct and authentic brand personality.


So what role should color play in today’s brand environment? Here are ten ideas to keep in mind:

1. Building character

Aligning brand color with brand character gives a strong and concrete foundation from which to begin building equity and affinity. From its early origins, Apple took on the big blues of HP and IBM by forging its own path. And while over the years it has used and defined color trends through product design and advertising, today Apple takes a minimalist approach to “brand” color, giving it incredible flexibility to dip in and out of color trends, to operate across many different industries and always, it seems, to be culturally relevant and of the moment. Apple, with its highly nuanced appreciation for materials, leverages sleek glass and cool aluminum product design and store fascia, and gives its products the freedom to live in and frame its audience’s world of color.

2. Looking beyond the logo

Don’t confuse logo color and brand color. Tiffany blue is one of the world’s most recognized brand colors. But its logo is an understated and refined serif type expression of the Tiffany name in black. Similarly, the store exterior is not painted robin’s egg blue. Tiffany understands the ritual associated with its uniquely colored box and that when it comes to any brand element, less is often more. The New Yorker masthead is black. But it sits comfortably in a world of color brought to life through words, pictures and—my favorite—cartoons.

3. Thinking deeply

Put aside personal preferences and explore what you want your customers to feel. Many color decisions are based on the hidden or overt bias of a management team (toward a favorite sports team, for example), or research panel. Color is a complex and emotional decision that is best explored with ethnography and through a range of experiences, not behind the looking glass of a 12×12 windowless room.

4. Coloring what matters

Don’t confuse a company for a packaged good. People expect their can of Coke to be red and Tide bottle to be orange. Color in this instance becomes a wayfinding device on the store shelf. But today’s companies are not so easily packaged, and the ingredients on the inside—namely, their people, ideas, products and services—are constantly innovating and changing. IBM’s kaleidoscope color approach helps it look and feel more innovative and creative, more like a “Human Era” B2C company talking to me and less like a corporate B2B company talking at me.

5. Balancing the true and the new

Target maintains a singular focus on its brand color—red—but is highly inventive and accessorizes with shape, pattern, music and humor to keeps its color fresh and of the moment. Target is also very aware of its color boundaries and uses a complementary vibrant palette for its Up&Up brand.

6. Being yourself

Many red brands worry about the negativity associated with their color, including cultural concepts like being “in the red.” And while it’s smart not to wave a red cape at bullish consumers in a negative moment, brands should be careful not to let all that could go wrong drive the experience of all that should go right. Consumers are tuned in to the functional, emotional and brand use of color. Yes, red can mean stop, but it’s also the color of the world’s favorite sports team (Manchester United, not the Boston Red Sox). Red is a dynamic color, symbolic of energy and joy, and should be expressed as such.

7. Giving color a supporting cast

In building your brand, it’s important to understand the role that each of the tools in the brand toolbox plays. Color can be a very effective tool, but name, symbol, imagery and graphic elements give you a broad range of ways to establish and maintain your brands relevance. For instance, Coca-Cola is recognized globally for its signature red color. But in addition to this, Coke also has a distinctive logotype, uniquely shaped bottle, iconic wave, and polar bear character to express various dimensions of the brand and help you enjoy the experience.

8. Thinking digital

Consider how color will transition from the physical to digital worlds and vice versa. As someone who has had to repaint a room in his house multiple times after thinking that the a 1” square paint chip would look wonderful on a 12’x 20’ room will attest, colors change with context, volume and light. Equally, colors in the physical world don’t always translate to the digital world, where issues including color contrast, scale and accessibility come into play.

9. Daring to be different

Many challengers have adopted colors that challenge the category color convention to mark out their territory. Mountain Dew and its green is the un-cola. T-Mobile defies expectations in the telecommunications space with its bright pink. Color can serve as a catalyst to put the industry incumbents on notice that red and blue are not the only games in town.

10. Selling whitespace

In a previous life, I had a client who would remind me every time I was putting together his weekly ad that he was not paying for whitespace. While this may still be true of the discount deals that fill up our recycling bins every week, the majority of today’s interfaces are models of logic and restraint. And whether your using paper or screen, whitespace will help guide the user to the “play” or “buy” or “learn more” call to action.

Choosing a brand color can be an emotionally charged, if not a psychology revealing, exercise. Whether pragmatic or inspired, color is often a critical piece of an
integrated and holistic brand program. Color is visceral. Color is meaningful. Color can’t replace customer experience—but it can paint it in the best light possible.

Brendán is a senior partner in design based in Lippincott’s New York office. A native of Dublin, Brendán has over 25 years of experience in creating and implementing global corporate identity programs across the full range of media from print and web-based applications to environmental graphics.

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