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Cracking the Color Code: What Marketers Need To Know About Color and the Brain

Posted by Caroline Winnett on December 10th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Michelangelo once said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”  And while most marketers would like to channel their inner Michelangelo when it comes to being creative, the reality is that creating that next great marketing message can be highly dependent on color.  Here’s what we know about the brain and color.

People make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment, or product within seconds of initial viewing.  Through consumer neuroscience, we now know that color alone can play a pivotal role in a consumer’s overall decision-making process.  Color happens not in the eye, but in the brain. There are different processing systems for color than for shape and motion, and even variations between processing systems for different colors. The brain’s response to color is highly complex and emotional. In short, there is a lot going on in your brain when you see red, or any other color for that matter.

Consumer neuroscience has also helped debunk long-standing stereotypes when it comes to color associations. The brain actually responds to different colors often based on survival cues from the earliest days of civilization – for example, green for food, yellow for sunlight, and orange for fire. These associations continue to affect our perception of colors today.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when folks of all creative stripes wait anxiously for Pantone to announce the “Color of the Year.”  Through this annual ritual, Pantone strives to identify a particular color that best reflects the current state of society that embodies the leading zeitgeist when it comes to color. The brain responds most automatically to the primary colors. For more nuanced colors, the brain has a more complex response, but the general color family is relevant. So in the wake of Emerald Green being named Pantone’s color of the year, this choice will have an effect on how the brain responds.

Here's how the brain responds to the primary color families:

  • Red – Stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response and increases blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. Red is good for last-minute purchases because it elicits energy and encouragement. Brands should use red as an accent color at the point-of-purchase to stimulate shoppers to take note of displays and offers. Red primes attention and creates focus in the brain.
  • Orange – Associated with hunger, physical comfort, and fun. Orange has very high visibility and therefore serves as a good combination of the physical and emotional benefits of a product. Since its contrasting color is sky blue, “safety orange” is often used to call attention to potential dangers, particularly outdoors.
  • Green – A cool color which provides a sense of calm and reduced tension. Green is a natural and highly balanced color for the human brain. As a color commonly found in nature, green should be used to suggest natural, soothing, or safe products.
  • Blue – A calming color, blue connotes stability, openness, and relaxation.  Blue is often used to suggest trust, elite status, excellence, and loyalty. Blue primes creativity and exploration in the brain.
  • Purple – Connotes luxury and spirituality. As it is an unusual color within nature, purple suggests introspection. When marketers use purple effectively, it can highlight a sense of luxury or richness in a product.
  • Black – Communicates sophistication and glamour for women, and power and status for men. Black is great for text and contrast especially with white, but overuse as a background shade  makes reading difficult. Brands can also use black to suggest weight and seriousness.
  • White – Suggests lightness, perfect hygiene, simplicity, and clarity.  Marketers who use white create a heightened sense of space while denoting light or low-fat product characteristics.
  • Brown – Evokes the earth, a sense of history, maturity, and tradition.  When marketers use brown, they’re communicating reliability and approachability.  And as a credible and unintimidating color, brown may be seen as dull and mundane, so marketers should avoid it when seeking to communicate an active or energetic idea.

Although neuroscience is a relatively new tool in the industry, it’s turning the old adage of “never judge a book by its cover” on its head.  Therefore it is vitally important that marketers understand how powerful these neurological insights can be in helping creative executives understand which colors tend to trigger certain emotions in consumers, and ultimately result in sales in the form of their favorite color: green.

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