Few parts of the brand strategy and ideation process are more inspiring, exciting, and downright fun than creating a brand color palette. Although it’s a creative process, getting a brand color palette right can be a little tricky, and somewhat scientific.
In this post, we will break down the psychology behind effective brand colors, outline the process for developing brand color guidelines, and look broadly at the benefits of creating a distinctive visual identity. Lastly, we’ll highlight some of the top brand colors by industry to show how nailing the right color palette will help your brand resonate with your customers and stand out from your competition.
What is a Brand Color Palette?
Think of your brand color palette like the colors in a country’s flag; they are the colors you fly for all to see. A brand palette defines the color or combination of colors that represent your brand. Second only to your logo, these are the most important visual elements of your overall brand identity.
A brand color palette is typically just one part of a larger brand and style guide that helps businesses make consistent decisions about how their brand should look, no matter where it appears. The main components of a brand color palette include technical descriptions of each color in commonly used formats (e.g. RGB, Hex), descriptions of why these colors were chosen, and how they should be used (and just as importantly, how they should not be used).
Why Create a Brand Color Palette?
Aside from the need to be proactive and smart about cultivating the right brand perception in your target audience through your color palette, there’s the undeniable fact that your brand colors will be plastered across many physical and digital spaces. Where will your brand colors be used? You’ll see them reflected across a wide range of assets, including:
- Your logo
- Website and other digital assets
- Packaging and point of sale
- Ads - print, television, outdoor, direct mail, etc.
- Office and store furnishings
Here’s an easy experiment to show why the right brand color palette is essential... Think about one of your favorite brands, and now describe the colors exactly as you remember them. Do they use these colors in all of the ways they interact with you? Behind each of those brand impressions are a lot of intentional decisions about how things should look and feel.
The more consistently your brand palette is used, the better brand recognition you’ll achieve in the marketplace. Constantly tinkering with colors or failing to enforce brand standards will affect how customers perceive your brand. A company that misses the opportunity to create a cohesive brand presence and a definitive brand identity can appear disorganized and confused.
If you’re conducting a rebrand or launching an entirely new brand we recommend ensuring that you have an in-depth understanding of the psychological factors at play behind particular colors and the effects these have on your audience.
Emotional Connection With Colors
Have you ever wondered why big brands decided on certain colors? The colors certain brands use might even seem abrasive or unsettling at first glance. Do you know why McDonald’s and other large fast-food chains use bright colors like yellow, red, and orange?
These bright, eye-catching colors are highly stimulating and are associated with happiness, friendliness, speed, appetite, and other attributes that low-cost fast-food restaurants want you to associate with their brand.
It’s important to understand these emotional connections with colors before diving into an ideation exercise or making any lasting decisions on your brand color palette. The human experience of color exists on an infinite spectrum; the ways that we see, process, and respond to different colors can vary greatly.
How Colors Affect Behavior
Although our responses to color are typically subconscious, they can be so strong that they affect our entire mood or even our academic performance. Student grades can be impacted by the simple use of the infamous “red pen” by their teacher. Researchers have extensively studied how and to what degree specific outcomes are influenced by color.
While the research is not yet conclusive, it has helped develop a few principles for predicting the range of emotions many people will feel when they see different colors. Color will help you take advantage of every available opportunity to ensure your brand is recognized and is appealing to your target audience.
The Psychology Behind Particular Colors
The list below provides a brief overview of the psychological associations we have with some of the most commonly used colors.
- Green: nature, serenity, vitality, life, prosperity (money is often green)
- Blue: tranquility, security, healing, loyalty, reliability
- Red: stimulation, importance, attention, passion, excitement
- Pink: love, peace, compassion, femininity, nurturing, understanding
- Brown: organic, earthy, growth, sturdy, rustic
- Purple: royalty, luxury, mystery, spirituality, romantic
- Yellow: energy, anxiety, caution but also optimism, friendliness, and happiness
- Gray: neutrality, formality, seriousness
- Orange: positivity, energy, youthfulness, adventure, excitement, creativity
- White: openness, purity, cleanliness, virtuosity, health
- Black: strength, sophistication, power, edgy
Colors can be used in different hues, shades, and tones, and there are a few simple rules for choosing how bold the colors in your brand palette should be.
- Cool tones like pastels are usually lighthearted, non-threatening, and don’t carry a strong sense of authority. These colors are typically used to instill a sense of calmness, peacefulness, openness, and empathy.
- Warm tones like red, yellow, and orange are used to secure attention. These colors can evoke feelings of vigor, appetite, energy, and even caution (e.g. stop signs, construction signs, yield signs).
- In general, darker shades and muted colors evoke a sense of authority, seriousness, respect, and gravity.
Overall, emotional responses to color matter because they affect how people feel about your brand (and branded marketing efforts). Now that you know how color can affect mood, use this power wisely! Maybe you’ll rethink your decision next time you’re buying a new car, selecting a birthday card, or even deciding what color heart emoji to send!
How to Create the Perfect Brand Color Palette
Obviously, creating the perfect color palette and brand color guidelines will be much easier if you have done the work of selecting a stellar brand name. Even if you’re waiting for consensus on your company name, there are still some critical questions that you should seek answers to when building your brand’s visual identity, including the following:
What are your key brand attributes? What is your brand tone? How do you want customers and prospects to feel about your brand when they see it for the first time? How about when they see it for the 101st time?
The overarching themes in your brand identity and its unique characteristics should help illuminate key words and phrases. These words will describe emotions that your customers will feel throughout their buying journey, whether that journey is a few minutes or a few years.
Selecting Brand Colors
- First, settle on a primary color. We don’t mean primary like red, blue, and yellow. We mean primary as in the defining color of your brand; the one that will be used most prominently and most often. In the branding world, this “primary” color is often referred to as the base color. Most experts recommend using only one base color - and at Passport Brand Design, we generally concur. Your base color should reflect your company’s core brand values as strongly as your brand name itself.
- Next, you’ll want secondary and possibly tertiary colors that give you a greater range of options, particularly if you have sub-brands. Choosing other colors to round out your brand color palette should be guided by proven, objective methods like color theory and a color wheel. Many brands decide to select two additional colors: an accent and a neutral.
- Once you have selected colors that perfectly represent your brand, codify the exact color specifications and acceptable usages and variations in a style guide. If you want to see a masterful brand and style guide execution, check out these recently released Adobe Creative Cloud Developer Brand Guidelines. While a project of this scope and detail might feel overwhelming, you will want to produce at least a one-page document that can be used internally and provided to partners to protect the way your brand is represented.
Common Brand Color Examples by Industry
Banks love the color blue. If you start looking for blue in branding from top financial institutions you’ll notice it everywhere (Chase, PNC, Bank of America, Barclays, etc.). Blue is also used widely by other industries that want to inspire confidence and trust in their customers, including airlines, communications companies, and health sciences.
The confidence, appeal, and appetite stimulation caused by the color red make it a top choice for brands in the food and beverage industries. A quick scan of the U.S. Fortune 500 list reveals a plethora of red logos for some of the biggest food and beverage brands, including Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Hormel, KraftHeinz, and Campbells.
Brands that rely on a luxury or premium perception tend to feature black prominently. Notable brands on this list include Marriott, Nordstrom, and Dillard’s. Rolex, arguably one of the most iconic luxury brands in the world, relies on black to offset the dark green and muted yellows used in the logo and elsewhere.
Traditionally a color associated with royalty, purple is still used to impart a sense of gravity, mystery, and luxury (e.g., Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey). Recently, purple has also become more commonly used in the healthcare space (e.g., Aetna).
Although it is typically used by companies that have a natural, organic, or earth-friendly aspect to their brand, a growing number of companies now use green across all industries, including technology companies like Nvidia, Android, Spotify, and Acer. Popular food chains and grocers like Starbucks and Whole Foods also use green to communicate that they have quality ingredients, healthy options, and an environmentally conscious corporate attitude.
While red is still the color most used by restaurants, yellow is a close second as indicated in the McDonald example above. Sonic, Denny’s, and Subway are popular restaurant chains with recognizable yellow branding. Yellow can also be a good choice for companies with a focus on safety, equipment, logistics, and consumer goods (e.g. Stanley, DHL, Nikon, Cat, etc.).
Gray gives a brand a distinct sense of sophistication. Apple, a company with impeccable branding, often displays its simple Apple logo in light gray (or silver) against a white background. The automotive and technology industries commonly use gray (Toyota, Nissan, Samsung) for its clean, modern appeal.
There’s no denying that orange stands out. There’s an entire global brand called... Orange! Brands with a penchant for adventure, youthful appeal, and vigor find success with orange as a base color. The Home Depot, Harley Davidson Motorcycles, and Timberland are great examples of brands that use orange prominently.
Yes, some companies completely break the rules... Microsoft, Slack, Google, eBay, and other large successful brands have departed from more traditional practices and use a variety of different colors in their logos. These colors typically include blue, green, yellow, and red. While these colors are featured in their logos, the same brands will often rely heavily on gray and white to balance color.
Inspiration for Your Brand
If you’re looking for inspiration, try going to websites that collate mood boards and search some of your key brand attributes. Or, look at a competitor that has impeccable branding and reverse engineer their decisions. Can you tell why they selected certain colors?
At Passport Brand Design, we have helped some of the largest and most well-known brands in the world develop the perfect brand color palette and resulting brand guidelines. Reach out if you’d like guidance from one of our experienced branding experts. We are focused on helping your brand become dimensional, purposeful, and character-driven.