Using colour effectively in your marketing materials

Colour psychologist Angela Wright, of Colour Affects, investigates how colours can be used in your company materials for maximum impact.

Using colour effectively in your marketing materials

Using colour effectively in your marketing materials

Choosing colours

Savvy businesspeople are aware that colour is an important element in their marketing, but at the same time they know it can be a scary business – not helped by the myths surrounding colour. The main ones are:

  • Response to colour is too subjective to teach, and it is therefore too random to predict.
  • Colour psychology is entirely based on cultural preferences.
  • Age and gender are major factors.

The good news is that, while it is true to say that response to colour is subjective, it is certainly not random. Recent findings have identified underlying patterns of colour, so response can be accurately predicted. These days, with the benefit of some professional tips, choosing colours for your business is not as complicated as it sounds.

Before we get into the guidelines, there is one finding that is very important if you do business internationally: while culture, age and gender do have some influence on our responses, this influence is relatively superficial – secondary to the universal effects of pure colour psychology. In essence, the same colours will unconsciously appeal to all markets in the same way.

What are we looking at?

This guide will look at colour in a variety of businesses, but there are some points that apply to every business:

  1. If you use black, white or grey, your promotional materials will not evoke any emotional response. Most of the time, that is a lost opportunity – but if you only wish to communicate information and arouse the minimum reaction, it could be the perfect choice.
  2. You need to take a holistic approach and consider your corporate palette as a whole. It is not the one colour you are looking at that produces your reaction – it is colour combinations that produce results. Everybody might love crimson, but check that it is not going to kill the existing core colours. Develop the habit of always considering colours in context.
  3. It is a fact that, where words and colours conflict, the human response is to believe the colours and doubt the words. It is one thing to present your business in a slightly embellished version of itself – but if you choose colours to try and present a different personality altogether, it could backfire.
  4. Be careful about how you use black text. It can add gravitas, but it can also turn your warm colours into a cheap and gaudy picture.

How to get it right for your business

Trust yourself. You know your business better than anyone else, and with a bit of help from Epson, you are best placed to choose the right key colour. Once you have made that important decision, you need to choose a palette of colours to use with the corporate colour for various applications – advertising campaign, web refresh, PR business blogs, and other marketing initiatives. Make sure that they all relate back to your keynote brand colour. Ask yourself: “Does that green positively complement the corporate red – or are they clashing?” You don’t want your powerful logo to be compromised and deadened by the other colours around it.


Clear signals

Your main logo colour should ideally signal the type of business you are in. The most popular corporate colours globally are red and blue. Generally, red predominates in brands built on products, blue presents service industries. The four psychological primary colours are red, blue, yellow and green – respectively acting on the body, the mind, the emotions and the crucial balance between the three.

One of the first questions people ask is: ‘Well, if there is one colour that is particularly suitable for our business sector, how on earth can we differentiate ourselves?” It’s a good point. You don’t want to end up indistinguishable from every other brand in your field. However, if you follow the basic principles of colour psychology, that won’t happen.

True, we have very few basic colours, but there are literally millions of variations of each. The key to success with colour lies in the specific variation of the basic hue you choose and how you use it. Even with a monochrome logo it is not difficult to express your unmistakeable brand. Let’s take a quick look at some very well-known examples in the public domain. I have randomly picked leaders in the field of IT:


These global brands have all gone for blue – presumably from instinct; people instinctively recognise the meanings of the main colours – but each of them has chosen a different blue, and used it in different ways. Blue is the colour of the mind: strong blues encourage clear thinking, and soft pale blues aid concentration. It is the prime colour of communication and it is all about trust and reliability. It is, therefore, the first choice of a company in the business of Information Technology – efficient communications at their most advanced.

Because the blues are different , and the designs vary, it is very easy to differentiate between them. The Microsoft blue is warm and dark, suggesting that this brand is well-established and takes itself (and its customers) seriously. The IBM blue is also dark, but quite different in its tone. It is cold, clear and sharp, telling us that IBM is authoritative and extremely efficient, and can be relied upon to pay attention to detail. Then we have Dell, who chose a lighter, brighter warm blue and a quirky design, which makes it very distinctive from the others, and particularly emphasises its original ‘new kid’ persona.

Another approach might be to choose a colour that you know is popular in your sector, but use a second colour, to differentiate. This time, let’s take a look at oil companies and red:


Oil companies are still a predominantly macho industry – and red is the first choice for communicating power and dominance. These three brands have used the same red, but very differently: Esso has chosen red, white and blue, to suggest national pride and patriotism (that colour combination is very popular for flags – USA, UK and France come to mind). Shell defined their warm and friendly combination of red and yellow about 25 years ago, and they protect their colours quite fiercely. Texaco is making no bones about appealing to the male motorist; they are telling us that theirs are the petrol stations selling the widest range of motor parts, tools, etc, to encourage the boy racer. Women running low on petrol late at night might well be happier to see a Shell or an Esso sign ahead than the potentially rather aggressive Texaco logo. All three logos are very clearly differentiating themselves.

Colour in finance

It will be no surprise to learn that the first choice for a company involved in finance is blue. In recent years, banks and other financial institutions have come under far more scrutiny than they are used to. It will no doubt take a little longer to restore their reputations fully, but the properties of blue are particularly relevant now. Blue is one of the four psychological primary colours and acts on our mental abilities, helping us to think straight and apply reason and logic. Blue is not an emotional colour, so anything (or anyone) presented in blue is deemed to be competent; in view of the current view of the banks, the other characteristic of blue – trustworthiness – is particularly useful.

If you decide you do not want to use blue, it is probably still a good idea to feature a touch of it somewhere in your branding. Either way, you would be well advised to choose a palette that is not too bright. Strong colours are not taken seriously, and although you might want the world to know what a lively, fun company you are, your customers would feel happier knowing that you know what you are doing with their money. Tone your colours down.

Colour in the public sector

One cannot be too specific about such a huge slice of corporate life as the Public Sector, because there is very little human activity that is not covered by it. However, you will need to think about what your particular branch of the Public Sector is doing. For example, staying with blue for a moment, it might be the very colour not to use when marketing bureaucracy. The reason for this is that, as mentioned earlier, blue is about the mind and efficiency; it is not particularly friendly, or emotional; the negative perceptions of blue actually centre on too much bureaucracy. The friendliest colours are warm, light reds or yellows, because a colourful design is always friendlier and more informal than a minimalist presentation of neutral tones. Of course, the corporate colour of the NHS is blue, but that is a warm, light blue, which reminds us of summer skies. It works, because the NHS needs to tell us it knows what it is doing, as well as being friendly and caring.

However, if you really want to use blue in marketing your part of the Public Sector, you can balance it with another main hue. For example, using blue and orange together in bureaucracy marketing works very well.

Colour in healthcare

We have already mentioned the light blue branding of the NHS, but the best colour to use in Healthcare is actually green. It is the most reassuring colour and falls in the middle of the colour spectrum, making it not tiring to look at. It has another property that is particularly useful in the operating theatres: it is complementary to red and helps restore the balance in the eyes of the surgical team when they look up from focusing on the red of blood.

However, there is a potential problem: historically, green was so good in Healthcare that it became overused – there was a particularly dark green that featured everywhere in hospitals for well over a hundred years, eventually becoming known as ‘Hospital Green’. The negative associations meant that green eventually became the one colour that would never be recommended for Healthcare.

Happily, it is safe for green to come out again, but these days you would be well advised to choose light, warm greens as part of your colour scheme – especially in promoting areas of healthcare where reassurance is paramount. In general terms, warm, light colours are always good in this context – not too bright, but youthful and friendly. Some examples would be apple green, sky blue, peach, touches of light red (but not too much), lilac and soft yellow. Nothing too heavy or too dark.

Colour in legal and accounting

Clearly, blue has a part to play in branding Legal and Accountancy, as well as the Financial sector. However, the calm, steady lawyers and accountants are different from the consumer-facing retail banks and most of them are speaking to an entirely different audience. The Big Four accountancy practices and the Top Ten law firms probably resemble the Financial sector more than they do the great majority of firms dealing with smaller businesses or personal clients. Here, darker blues will work, and the innate balance contained in all greens is perfect for both Law and Accountancy. You can’t go wrong with a green or blue logo in this sector.

It usually makes sense to choose warm, earthy colours that contain black in their mix (not black itself though) such as warm navy blue, forest green, warm burgundy red, or aubergine. These slightly heavier colours communicate gravitas and traditional values.

Colour in education

There is a popular view that schools should be presented in as many bright and stimulating colours as possible. While it is true to say that colours are more likely to support education than the dreary greys or ivory tones that are so popular, it is wise to bear in mind that children are people and they need a balance between stimulus and ease in a reasonably peaceful environment. Branding would ideally reflect that.

In a similar way to the Public Sector (of which it is of course often a part), Education touches different aspects of life, and a school is a microcosm of life. The following general advice takes into account what needs to be emphasised in promoting specific areas of education:

  • Primary Education: a wide variety of basic hues work in this context to echo the broad base of activities taking place. However, you need to avoid heavy, dark, or over-strong colours. Young children are more supported by warm pastel versions of the main hues. Highly saturated colours will stress them, because their mechanism for processing colour is not yet fully developed
  • Academic: again, blue captures the fundamental element of education: intellectual activity and learning. Stronger blues help to focus young minds and soft blues aid concentration
  • Sporting: the basic hue that captures and expresses sporting activity more than any other is pure red. It is no coincidence that so many of the world’s most successful Football clubs adopt bright red strips. Red gives us energy, raises our pulse rate and stands out by capturing the attention.
  • Creative: the most supportive colour for any creative endeavour is yellow. Yellow lifts the spirits, increases confidence and creates optimism. However, you will need to be careful about backgrounds – as any graphic designer will confirm – yellow on posters or promotional materials can disappear if it is placed on a white background.

Colour in retail and hospitality

Let’s get come controversy out of the way: the worst colour you can use in the context of either Retail or Hospitality is grey, and yes, I know that many designers say it is “elegant”, “up-market”, “goes with everything”, etc. Consequently, it is one of the most popular colours in these two sectors. It absolves an insecure designer from making any statement at all, so is viewed to be very safe.

Grey is completely neutral, evoking no emotion. Except that in many parts of the world, the environment turns grey just before the onset of winter, so the human response to grey is to hibernate. This is particularly undesirable in the workplace! When the world turns grey and we recognise the onset of winter, we instinctively think about hoarding resources: who knows how long this winter will be? This cautious attitude is exactly what a retailer does NOT want to encourage.

By the same token, if you want people to spend freely, your best colour is green. In the natural world, when we see green, we recognise the presence of water and therefore healthy vegetation so we know instinctively that we are not going to starve. As well as in your branding, it is always a good idea to use some green around the cash desk, or anywhere that money is changing hands; you will reduce ‘Buyer’s Remorse’.

Both the Retail and Hospitality sectors benefit from the adventurous use of colour. Most colours work well in these environments, with one exception: blue is not the best colour for a restaurant. Given what you already know about blue, you would imagine that blue makes you think carefully so you are likely to be on your best behaviour and unlikely to splash out on a fancy restaurant.

Orange is the best colour to promote the Hospitality industry – it makes you hungry, it is sensual and it is the best fun colour.

Final thoughts

So, as you can see, colour can be very specific to its application in certain industries. That’s why making sure that your use of the correct colours in your corporate branding and marketing materials is critical – it can have a significant impact on your customers’ perceptions and behaviours in regards to your business. Think what you want them to understand about your business, and how the colours can help you shape this message, and you’re definitely on the right path to the perfect use of colour in your materials.