DESIGN: The colour-coded secrets of brands - Unexpected colour associations can help a brand stand out in the crowd

For marketers, a flash of colour can be more potent than the brand name itself. Green spells Harrods, easyJet orange and Virgin red have been extended across their brand extensions, while Coca-Cola embodies the red-white combination.

For marketers, a flash of colour can be more potent than the brand

name itself. Green spells Harrods, easyJet orange and Virgin red have

been extended across their brand extensions, while Coca-Cola embodies

the red-white combination.

Colours derive their effect through lifelong associations with

particular sectors. Washing powders and cleaning products tend to be

green or blue, while red and yellow are popular in the food sector.

Mobile phone company Orange has achieved success in the communications

sector with the colour as brand approach. It is notable because blues

and greys dominate the sector, and because orange denotes energy and


Newer financial institutions such as First Direct and Egg, have also

broken free of the standard colour shackles which are associated with

their sector - grey - to appear bright and modern.

But while some of the most recognisable and successful brands have a

strong affinity with a particular colour, to what degree must colour be

built into the design process?

When deciding on a colour, it’s vital to look for clashes with other

brands in the same category. The colour also has to be relevant to the

brand. Risk-taking in such decisions must be planned.

In a move which flew in the face of category convention, Bachelors used

blue for its soup, noodles and pasta product packaging. ’Blue is a cold

colour, but we have made a distinct blue synonymous with Bachelors,’

says David Rivett, chief executive of Design Bridge. ’Colour-blocking in

supermarkets is important - a wall of blue is powerful.’

But there’s always a risk involved in adopting a revolutionary approach

toward colour. ’Flouting convention is certainly worth considering, but

we’d be foolish to ignore the weight of history behind these colours,’

says Shaughn McGurk, BGA senior designer.

’Tango managed to break the rules successfully by using an

’unrefreshing’ colour - black. It wanted to be seen as irreverent, but

it takes a lot of time, investment and support to follow that kind of

strategy,’ says Andy Wilson, brand strategist at corporate branding

consultancy, Corporate Edge.

Under the 1994 Trademarks Act, companies can register a colour for use

in a particular sector with the Register of Trademarks. However, this

requires significant market penetration, as the company must prove the

colour is distinctive in relation to certain goods and services.

Orange has registered its colour, as has BP for the combination of

yellow and green on forecourt services. ’The harmonisation and ownership

of a colour is taken much more seriously these days,’ says Rivett.

’First Direct, with its monochrome approach, is the best example of that

in the banking sector - it has a holistic view of the brand.’

Corporate Edge recently undertook a consumer study to gauge the effect

of colour alone. Blue and black were found to be associated with

authority and professionalism, but were also seen as clinical. Yellow

was seen as indicative of food products, while red was thought to

accentuate the impact of a design, without denoting value in itself.

Primary colours have traditionally led the way in branding. One reason

is that these colours are much easier to produce across a variety of

media - an important consideration in the worldwide marketplace, as

printing technology varies across continents.

These colours also ’go’ with almost everything. ’Blue is a stable

colour, which acts as an aesthetically beautiful foil,’ says McGurk. ’If

khaki was the base, you would have to work harder.’

For Orange, the colour embodies the firm’s identity and extends across

all its communications. ’If we were called ’Blue’ and our logo was a

blue square, we would be a different company - the choice of the name is

integral,’ says Rob Furness, head of Orange brand marketing.

’In building an identity, and evolving and moving forward, it’s not just

about the colour - you can own a whole look and feel,’ he adds.

Colmans, which has been in existence for 150 years, has developed a

feeling of ’warmth’ and being ’established’ around its products through

its use of colour. Its vivid yellow packaging is instantly recognisable

and is deployed across a wide range of sauces. ’Repetition plays an

important part in helping people associate colours with brands,’

explains McGurk.

As consumers’ shopping habits change, extending the brand into new media

with a degree of accuracy will be the challenge facing companies in the


In establishing an online presence, colour will become a key issue for

products seeking a consistent image. But while it is vital that brand

colouring can extend into this field with the same level of accuracy

that exists in print reproduction, with a palette of 256 colours, the

internet can be fairly limiting if you have registered a colour and need

an exact reproduction.

Corporate Edge’s Wilson describes brand stand-out on the high street as

’the November afternoon test’ - some colours simply blend into the

concrete jungle, while others catch the attention. The same criteria

will apply to brands on the web and digital television. Standing out in

these media may just involve breaking the colour-association norm to a

new extent.

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