How to pick (and juggle) your brand colours

Updated: May 31

A practical guide for considering your brand colour choices that captivate the attention of consumers.

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“How do you choose the colours that we’ll end up using?” is a question I’ve been asked a few times by clients. Sure there are a lot of variables that can go into colour choice but the ultimate goal I work towards for any client is picking a colour(s) they will be known for.

Colour choice for your brand is not about what colour you as the brand custodian (business owner) likes. That said, it can influence the final choice if you have options available.


I also believe that colour choice is less about what colours might imply psychologically when they are applied in the real world. That might be controversial but what I'm alluding to is the stereotypical inferences of what colours mean.


For instance, if green represents money, then every financial institution would use green. Or if green means nature, then every florist or garden centre would be using green in their branding.


They’re obviously not and it’s because colours mean different things to different people not just psychologically but also culturally, contextually and based on their gender or even their mood. While the perception of colour can even shift in relation to other colours or the time of day.


A great example of this, even though it's not brand-related, is Uluru. A rock formation that stands 863m tall, is a natural wonder in the centre of Australia with nothing like it surrounding it. What makes it unique apart from its stature is the shift in colour during different times of the day and weather. From orange to pink, red to purple.



So where am I going with this? Well, I want to make this a useful guide when considering what colours are going to be used to brand your business.


To do so, I want to pose 5 practical considerations when it comes to colour choice that can help you create captivating moments of connection with consumers. In other words, developing an engaging brand that is seen, heard and remembered as the go-to brand people think of first.


And just as a note before we begin, yes in English “English”, we write it as “Colour”, not “Color”. I hope that doesn’t blow your mind…I’m looking at you, my American friends 😉.

 

1. Competitors vs. You


The ultimate place to start with any branding process is to look at your consumers. Having said that, we also want to take a little peek at your competitors and what they are doing, to know:


How are they standing out?


and


What are they doing to captivate a consumer’s attention and be recognised easily?


The easiest bit of research you can ever do when developing a brand identity for your business, or even a brand strategy, is identifying the colours your competitor(s) are using.


So let’s say you have 4 competitors. One uses green, the second uses navy blue and lime green, the third uses red and dark blue, while the fourth uses red. What colour(s) do you pick to stand out?


Well, you can start with the obvious - pick a colour(s) they’re not. It might be purple, orange, pink, coral, cyan blue, yellow or even black.



It’s the bleeding obvious but there’s one good reason for it. You don’t want to be compared to or confused with a competitor, do you?


Now you might have a crowded market of competitors where every colour in the rainbow is already taken. Bummer. What do you do?


My suggestion is to steer clear of the top 1-3 market leaders as your ambition is to be one of those market leaders if you’re not already and pick a colour(s) that are not even close to those competitors. Next is to steer clear of your closest competitor(s). Either geographically or the ones you potentially lose business to/win business from.

However when many different competitors already cover all colour bases and you genuinely believe one colour, in particular, is the one for your brand based on other identity facets, My strong suggestion for a plan of attack is something that I say all the time, USE YOUR COLOURS LIKE THEY ARE GOING OUT OF FASHION. What I mean by that is, make your colours stand out the most, in the most places, the most amount of times, in front of the most viable target consumers. It will make it harder for you to achieve top of mind recall but it can be possible.


Because when a consumer thinks of you, we want to make it as easy as possible for them to remember us and later recognise us. As colour can increase brand recognition by up to 80% - Source: Jill Morton, ‘Why Color Matters’.


In other words, it helps your brand achieve salience in the mind of your consumers.


Marketing professor, Mark Ritson suggests when positioning your brand in the mind of a consumer, you’ve only got three tiny brain cells of theirs to plant the seed of your brand. So if one of those brain cells is purely filled with a colour they can easily recall, being remembered as “that purple real estate agency” or “that red and blue dentist” might be all it takes for a consumer to think of you first, or at least keep you top of mind until the time they need you.



Now I want to throw a spanner in the works here for your consideration. It's not for everyone but it's another plan of attack when it comes to colour usage.


Maybe you’re not the market leader and maybe your strategy is to nip at the heels of the leader’s brand equity so that you dance a fine line of similarity for consumers to consider your brand alternatively to a competitor that might be more top of mind but perhaps not present in certain contexts.


A great example of what I mean by this is Aldi, who blatantly and quite cleverly, mind you, creates knock-off “like-brands” of popular products/brands consumers are already familiar with. For example, Nobby’s sells nut varieties here in Australia. Their basic salted peanuts come in a dark blue foil colour package. Aldi also sells salted peanut packs, using a similar dark blue foil packaging. They may look different when side by side, but when they don’t appear side by side when a consumer is in Aldi, a consumer’s eye is drawn to the blue colour from a learned association of salted peanuts from the market leader, Nobby’s.



It’s much the same as chip (crisps/potato chips) packaging. Flavours are codified to easily distinguish between chicken, salt n’ vinegar, plain salt and other flavours. Interestingly each country has a different colour code for chips. To give you an example, in Australia:


Pink = Salt n’ vinegar

Blue = Plain salt

Green = Chicken

Light Green = Light n’ tangy

Light Blue = Sour cream & chives

Yellow = Cheese & onion

Orange = Barbecue

Maroon = Bacon


What are they in your country? I bet most are totally different. Weird, huh?!



 


2. One vs. multiple colours


This is a battle I have when seeing brands that have many colours and those who only rock out with one colour (plus black/white/grey or shades of that one main colour). The battle lies with their effectiveness.


Much like passwords we use to log in to online banking, social media, email, software programs and our devices. The more unique passwords we have the harder it becomes to remember them. It’s why products like 1Password or even a simple notepad and pen are needed to store all those passwords so that they can be managed and used when required.

This is no different to having multiple colours for your branding. Knowing where and how to use them singularly or in combination? What ratio to use them in and in what context does one colour get used and not another?

At a bare minimum, you’re going to need a brand guidelines document but more ideally you need a creative on hand that knows how to utilise those colours effectively to maintain consistency and achieve salience as I mentioned earlier.


This is why I recommend making ONE colour the hero of your brand. Just the same as having only one logo to represent your business or one concept that ties your whole identity together.


Sure, you might have some supplementary colours that complement or contrast with the main colour to stand out. But one colour makes your job (and the job of your team) much easier to manage your brand across many touchpoints. Especially if you don’t have a designer on hand.


That said, you might be wondering if there is actually a good reason to have multiple colours for your brand and there actually is.


It has to do with multiple product/service distinctiveness.

So let's say you are a dentist and your clinic offers 5 key offerings. You could distinguish them with a colour for ease of communication in the brand experience you provide your patients. This could be present on your website or even in the rooms of your clinic to codify the multiple services.


For example:

  1. Orthodontics - blue

  2. Surgical & X-ray - red

  3. General dental - yellow

  4. Oral hygiene - green

  5. Cosmetic - pink


Just in case you are taking me literally, colour-wise, they don't need to be a rainbow of colours like a set of juggling balls either, they could be varying shades or a choice of complementary colours that can help generate a certain look of colours that feel harmonious:

  1. Orthodontics - red

  2. Surgical & X-ray - coral

  3. General dental - orange

  4. Oral hygiene - pink

  5. Cosmetic - yellow


With that as an example, my recommendation still stands. Aim for one hero colour you can be known for and keep other colours supplementary to enhance the overall brand experience.


If one colour is too challenging, then by all means pick two colours but I’d truely recommend going no further than that for your primary colours. Because if I could compare this to anything, it’s like juggling balls.


One ball is perfectly manageable.


Throw two around and you’re still pretty capable.


But when you have 3 or more, it takes skill to make it work for your brand without them all falling to the floor.



 


3. Bright vs. muted colours


There’s an interesting observation I’ve noticed purely when looking at my fellow creatives who run their own businesses and show up in their online presence when it comes to colour.


It’s definitely not the case for everyone, so don’t take it as a blanket statement. But what I’ve observed is that many male creatives (like myself) use bright, bold and vibrant colours to represent themselves and the businesses they help brand/market. While I see many female creatives using more muted tones in their branding and that of the businesses they help brand/market, especially if they are female-led or consumer-focused businesses.


That aesthetic in branding is comparable to male birds and female birds, where the males do their best to attract the attention of the female species to procreate. This is why many species of birds genetically gift males more colourful feathers to help them do so.


It’s where the term “peacocking” comes from in the dating world after the male peacock that uses its lavishly coloured feathers and does a dance to attract a mate… I would know, as it’s how I got the attention of my wife when I started dressing up a little bit nicer to work before we started dating, haha.



Anyways, where I’m going with this, as it really doesn’t have much to do with gender, is that this idea of standing out to get attention is what we’re trying to achieve when branding and marketing our businesses.

So take yellow for instance. It’s the most visible colour that will catch your eye first and those brands who use it as their main colour really stand out for it. CAT industrial vehicles, Ray White real estate (here in Australia), Best Buy and JB Hi-Fi (two electronics stores), Hertz car hire, the Tour De France, Mailchimp email services, and of course, the Yellow Pages directory.


Yellow aside, if you take a look at any well-known brand that is nationally or globally present, how many of them use muted colours? If you take a look by doing a little google search for “FAMOUS LOGOS”, it’s a low percentage if you exclude those that use black/white for their branding. For these well-known brands, colour is being used to their advantage to stand out in their market.


While brighter colours captivate our attention more so that more eyes are looking at your brand than the rest. On the flip side, going too bright can be an issue.

Yellow, as I mentioned before can also be an irritating colour to the eyes. Not only that, but bright, highly saturated colours can make the legibility of text difficult for consumers to read. For instance, white or black text on highly saturated and bright levels of colour like a fluro yellow is challenging compared to a more muted yellow, as shown in the example below. So while you don’t need to go pastel or unsaturated, a slightly muted tone of an engaging colour can be of benefit for practical usability.



QUICK LITTLE BONUS NOTE: When uploaded to some social media platforms, colours and text can be quite disruptive for certain colours. For example, I’ve found that white text on the pink I use for my brand can be significantly degraded in quality because of the compression of pixels in your image file when uploading.


Additionally, colours have their place in branding to evoke the experience and emotion you want a consumer to expect of your business from their first impression of your brand. Brighter colours can reflect the intensity and energy you bring to the market in your product/service. While muted colours could represent a more comfortable, pleasant experience from your product/service.

I know I’m bordering on contradicting myself on this point when I said that colour choice is less about psychological stereotypes. But the keyword in my statement was ‘less’, meaning it’s not a primary consideration. So we can start at a place where we pick colours that align with the personality and experience we are communicating to consumers.

Now I want to give you an interesting use of muted colours for a brand you would think should be bright and vibrant. It’s the colour choice for one of my clients, Kunty Kards. Their greeting cards use muted tones in combination with elegant script writing, to contrast and throw recipients off the scent that they actually are naughty cards, full of profanity. So that the spicy words used to wish someone a “Happy Fu**ing Birthday, Mum”, will elevate the reaction Kunty Kards strives to deliver. See what I mean? Clever, right?



Which way should you go? Well, if you’re familiar with that Pareto 80-20 rule, it kinda comes into play here in a weird way. As I’d say 80% of brands will benefit from going bright, while 20% will benefit from muted. This even plays out in my own portfolio of work on my site where 80% of my client’s brands have been developed using bright colours. So it comes down to if you want to use colour to stand out or to represent the emotion or experience you want to give your consumers upon first impression of your brand.



 


4. Screen vs. print colours


When it comes to colour, considerations for screen use and print use is the most challenging aspect of choosing a colour(s) and later managing your brand colour(s).


So for screen use, we’re talking about RGB colour. There are RGB print machines out there, but they are typically made for professional photo printing.


Now RGB colour typically can produce more vibrant and even fluorescent colours that can really pop on screens and grab attention on social media, your website and other digital touchpoints. However, many rich RGB colours won’t print the same as what you see on the screen when using CMYK printers.


One of my first branding clients was digital-first and I developed really vibrant colours for their branding using RGB values. However, after completing their branding, they wanted to have their marketing and packaging collateral printed using their new brand colours. Sure enough, those vibrant colours were washed out when printed and weren’t even comparable to the ones on screen.



This is a big pitfall for many clients and it’s why I recommend you pick colours first from CMYK colour values - it’s what I do first when designing a visual identity for a business. So that when you convert CMYK to RGB it’s more likely to look the same than an RGB colour to a CMYK colour will as most turn out to be washed out and nowhere near as saturated.

You can however choose Pantone spot colours (also referred to as PMS colours). These specified ink colours are specially formulated by one company, Pantone, to maintain colour accuracy across printed touchpoints, including packaging and signage. But I would still start with CMYK colours, as PMS colour printing is generally reserved for large scale printing as the economy of scale when printing greater quantities weigh in favour of PMS colour printing. So if you’re not going to be doing any of that kind of large quantity printing, stress a little less without the need for those colour values in your back pocket, even though a good designer will additionally provide you with them.


The other consideration for colours for print using CMYK colour and PMS is that every printer is different in how it reproduces colour. The same goes for different paper stocks or other materials that can influence the perception of colour or even change the colour.


For instance, colour can look more saturated on glossy paper or metal than it would on matt linen paper or fabric. This is why you may have to adjust your colours manually on certain touchpoints to achieve comparative similarity.

This is no different to seeing the same colour on different types of screens, as they too can also create a different perception of colour based on the display’s colour accuracy. So on one screen like an iPad looks one way, while the colour can look entirely different on a different brand of computer monitor.


This colour consideration is thought to make or break consistency. But I don’t think you need to be that stringent. Choose colours that generally appear the same for both print and digital on the screens you generally use and the printer you typically work with. That said as I pointed out before, typically if you choose a colour in CMYK, it will generally translate into RGB values fairly well.


So my recommendation is to start your colour choice by looking at CMYK colour values first and proceeding from there.



 

5. Specific vs. general colour decision making


We may be able to see over 7 million colours, but does recognising the slight details matter when it comes to colour recognition? Meaning, is it worth fighting over what specific colour values you end up choosing?

Lyndsay, a fellow branding friend posted this image below on Linkedin, asking which Coca-Cola red is the right red?



To be honest I’ve got no idea which shade of red it is and nor does it matter. If consumers are looking for your brand, they’re looking for it in context and it most likely comes with other brand codes like your logo, signage, packaging style or faces.


So when I want to buy a Coca-Cola, I’m buying it at a shop where drinks are sold and Coke bottles/cans easily stand out.


It’s no different to seeing an advertisement on TV for a brand you’ve not seen before. So let’s say you’d never seen or heard of Coca-Cola before and you saw an ad of theirs for the first time and wanted to go buy a Coke. You’d most likely take in the name, the colour of the liquid, maybe the bottle/can shape and of course, the red colour. But do you need to remember the shade of red? No, of course not.


Sticking with red, there are two supermarket chains here in Australia. One is Coles and the other is IGA. Both use red as their predominant colour and I’m sure both don’t use the exact same red. But does that matter to me as a consumer? I don’t think it does… what do you think? To separate the two, it comes down to other factors of their brand like their name, logos and that one is a large national supermarket and the other is a smaller regional/local cooperative supermarket.



Sure, you need to decide on specific values so that you know what you need to use each time, but like I said in the last point of consideration, find a general colour that works for your brand and then see if they line up well between CMYK and RGB.


Getting too granular with a specific colour choice and making sure they look the same every time is too hard of a task if you think it’s what is needed in order to be distinctive. Like I said in the last consideration, every device, print material, time of day, mood and even other colours in the vicinity of it can alter the actual or perceived colour of your brand colour.


Brands like Coca-Cola and Cadbury do get granular and it’s not to say you can’t either, but they’re also long-established and have had the time (and money) to hone in on their touchpoints to ensure the accuracy of their specific colour values are maintained with the resources they have. While your resources are more likely to be better placed in getting your brand out there in front of as many people as possible.


So my point here is that when you’re working with a designer, like myself, definitely collaborate with us to decide on general colours and then alleviate yourself of the technical choice conundrum by leaving it to us to select the specific colour values that work best for print and digital. As we will also advise colour combinations, as well as working out the ratio of how much each colour is present to strike a good balance that fits the aesthetic of your brand identity.


If you can pick your colour based on the previous 4 considerations and, to a reasonable degree, replicate it across your likely touchpoints to be noticed distinctively and remembered easily, that’s kicking goals to me. Because the more you use it, the more effective it will become over time.


 

FINAL TIP


As a final tip to leave you with, colour choice for your brand is not limited to that which is used in your logo. The colour(s) of your packaging, signage, merchandise and stationery may be different to your logo/branding colours and these considerations are just as valid for those items as it is in your logo as it all adds to your brand identity as a whole.



 

I hope this proves to be a practical guide to take something away from when considering your brand colours, no matter if you’re starting out, rebranding or helping someone else rebrand their business.


Use your colours consistently, correctly and on everything you can get them on.