Marketing, branding, and the psychology of colour

04.08.23 | By Kimberley Killender | design

Colour Theory: marketing, branding, and the psychology of colour.

Are you seeing red, feeling blue, or green with envy?

Instinctively, we know there’s a relationship between colours and emotions. Maybe you’ve painted a room pale blue to add some calm to your home. Or dyed your hair black as a teenager to show your existential angst to the world. (Guilty.) Or maybe you’re ‘dopamine dressing’, a clothing trend focused on wearing certain mood-boosting colours. The connection even colours our language: seeing red, feeling blue, green with envy. 

Whilst how we react to certain colours can often depend on our psychology, background, and biological conditioning, there are overarching emotions and feelings colours create in people. This is why colour theory is crucial in advertising and marketing. Colour choice actually has a significant impact on how consumers perceive and respond to brands, products, and messages. In fact, up to 90% of people base their first impressions of a product on colour alone. 

Why should you care about colour theory:

  • Visual impact and attention: Amidst a sea of competing ads, your colour palette acts as a visual siren. When you're scanning a shelf or scrolling a website, what catches your eye is often a burst of vibrant colour or the unexpected pop of a contrasting shade.

  • Brand recognition: Colours boost brand visibility and memorability. Consistent use of your brand's colours creates immediate associations, like Cadbury purple or Coca-Cola red. Whereas unique colour pairings, like Ultraviolette skinscreen's bright blue with neon accents, help create a distinct market presence.

  • Brand personality: Choosing a palette that aligns with your brand personality can help consumers understand why your brand's vibe is from the first look. Are you young and vibrant, or all about legacy and luxury? Your colours will help clue people in immediately. 

  • Differentiation and competitive advantage: Do something different to your competitors and choose colours outside the norm for your industry. It helps keep you top-of-mind when a consumer needs your product or service, and ensures you stand out in your market.

  • Emotional influence: Colours possess a remarkable ability to evoke specific feelings, so selecting hues that tap into the right emotions is crucial. By leveraging the impact of colours on people's emotional responses, you can create a profound connection to your brand.

By understanding the psychology behind colours, you can strategically use them to enhance your messaging and influence consumer behaviour. 

A guide to colour meanings, psychology, and flags for brands.


Meaning: Passionate, bold, courageous, energetic, exciting, urgent.

Scientifically: Provokes the strongest emotions of any colour. Stimulates appetite, spikes energy and excitement.  

Brands doing it best: Coca-Cola, Netflix, KFC

Flags: Red is also deeply associated with warning and panic, so use carefully.


Meaning: Trustworthy, stable, calm, reliable, dependable, secure, professional.

Scientifically:  Produces a calming effect on the brain and body. Strong blues stimulate clear thought, and lighter, softer blues calm the mind.

Brands doing it best: Facebook, Officeworks, Ultraviolette


  • One-third of the world’s top brands already use blue.

  • Some pigments of blue don’t dry fully, and will transfer colour. Business cards, shopping bags, product packaging can all rub off onto other things if your blue uses alkali blue pigments.  


Meaning: Optimism, happiness, warmth, creativity, logic, enthusiasm, originality.

Scientifically: Activates the left brain (that’s the analytical part)

Brands doing it best: McDonalds, IKEA, National Geographic


  • Yellow is too bright to stand on its own and will always require a secondary background or bordering colour.

  • Associated universally with caution.

  • Can cause visual fatigue if used excessively (basically, don’t make it your website background). 


Meaning: Balance, harmony, health, growth, freshness, natural, ease, clean, simple. 


  • Encourages decisiveness.

  • Evokes feelings of abundance, refreshment, peace, and rest.

  • The easiest colour for the eye to take in.

Brands doing it best: Spotify, Vitable, Woolworths, The Body Shop

Flags: The consumer image around green can automatically associate green with sustainability. Be careful not to accidentally greenwash your products or brand.


Meaning: Creativity, enthusiasm, playfulness, vitality, friendliness, confidence.

Scientifically: Stimulates mental activity and creativity.

Brands doing it best: Nickelodeon, Fanta, Airbnb 

Flag: Orange is also associated with caution as a universal warning colour. 


Meaning: Luxury, spirituality, imagination, and creativity.

Scientifically: Stimulates the brain activity used in problem solving and evokes feelings of calm, trustworthiness and nostalgia. 

Brands doing it best: Cadbury, Hallmark, Twitch

Flag: Purple can be seen as a feminine-leaning colour. Whilst we believe colours are gender neutral, your target audience might not. 


Meaning: Love, sweetness, innocence, playfulness.

Scientifically: Pink is thought to be calming, to the point that a specific shade of it is used in jails and opponents' sporting locker rooms to create passiveness. However further research has shown that pink was only calming upon initial exposure, and when used in prisons, inmates often become even more agitated once they become accustomed to the colour. Whoops. 

Brands doing it best: Barbie, Priceline, Donut King 

Flag: Pink washing is a term used for when companies say they want to empower women, but don’t follow through on that promise with their actions. Be careful not to use pink to position your brand as empowering women if it actually doesn't in practice. 


Meaning: Earthiness, security, richness, and warmth.

Scientifically: Linked to an increase in tryptophan (related to sleep and our immune systems) and serotonin (linked to mood.) 

Brands doing it best: Nespresso, Hershey’s, M&M’s


  • Can be seen as a boring colour due to its neutrality.

  • Most effective use is alongside food or drink such as coffee and chocolate.


Meaning: Power, discipline, success, luxury, elegance.

Scientifically: Black is a two sided colour. For some, it is associated with the feeling of sadness, depression, fear, and anger. However, it can also be seen as oozing elegance, conveying self-control and self-discipline, and a sign of success. Luckily for brands, people don’t often feel an overwhelming sense of fear around a logo, so it’s fairly safe to assume black means luxury and power in this space. 

Brands doing it best: Gucci, Nike, Uber

Flags: Black logos do not often appear as black on actual products outside of fashion. For example, a black Apple logo is used for digital and print, but the physical Apple accents on products are always in some form of complementary chrome.


Meaning: Purity, innocence, cleanliness, simplicity, peace, and minimalism.

Scientifically: Uplifting, offers mood quietness and mental organisation.

Brands doing it best: Apple, Wikipedia. Whilst white is a very useful colour, being both versatile and a great partner for most other colours, it’s unusual for it to be an ownable shade for brands.

Flags: In Asia and the Middle East, white is associated with mourning and misfortune.


Meaning: Bright, bold, adventurous, young, progressive.

Scientifically: Can feel energising and may make you feel more alert.

Brands doing it best: Contiki, Ultraviolette (as a series of accent colours)

Flags: Accessibility can be an issue with neon colours. They can be overwhelming, distracting, and can cause anxiety. It’s also harder to match your online presence to your packaging as digital and print neon tones differ significantly. If you are going to go neon, take Contiki's lead and use black to contrast against it wherever it appears.

The power of pairing colours.

When it comes to branding, the art of colour pairing holds incredible sway. Brands typically have a primary colour and a complementary palette, and how these hues interact and convey meaning is pivotal in creating impactful branding.

Take McDonalds, universally known for their yellow arches and vibrant splashes of red. Red is stimulating and helps jumpstart your appetite. Pair it with yellow, associated with happiness and warmth, and you have a mouth-watering brand palette that makes you hungry and happy all at once. Yellow is also the most visible colour in daylight, which is why a Macca’s logo is so easy to spot on a crowded road. 

Of course, being a fast food giant also helps with that association and awareness. So let’s scale it down, to a fan-fave donut shop in Newcastle: Doughheads. The donuts and gelato were freshly made, but their branding was feeling stale. We paired powerful mouthwatering red with candy and coffee inspired colours, icy blue, vanilla cream, caramel shades, and floss pink, for a brand that dripped with nostalgic ice cream parlour energy. Then, once the colours were set, we added a delicious modern twist in the form of typography, copy, and a cute custom character. Colours played a pivotal role in creating that all-important first impression, complemented by every other visual element, to create the story of Doughheads.

Do I have to work within the confines of colour theory?

We’re big believers in breaking rules. Can colour help customers easily identify what kind of business you are? Sure. Do you NEED to stick with the most obvious colours to do that? Absolutely not. 

Take Tiffany for example. Their blue is iconic, not because the colour itself brings an automatic sense of luxury and exclusivity, but because they made it that way. No one else in the luxury jewellery space was using such bold colours. It signified a turn to modern luxury that continues to evolve today.

Of course, sometimes, when no one else is doing it, there’s a reason. Like why funeral homes don’t use neon yellow in their branding. Knowing your target market, and considering what will appeal to them as a priority is the best way to ensure you don’t trip up on your palette. 

How do I make an accessible brand colour palette?

There are a few great resources to help nail accessibility with brand colours. Our favourite is the Colour Contrast Checker. It helps make sure your palette is readable and clear, based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards. (Plus, you can include your font and play with font sizing in order to be REALLY sure it's all working.)

How do I make sure my colours work globally?

If you're looking to work in new markets, make sure you're doing your research into the cultural colour theory of the region. For example, whilst in Western countries orange is energetic and creative, it's associated with loss and mourning in the Middle East.

Got a bright idea, but need help striking the balance between unique and impactful? Our design team knows how to strike that perfectly coloured sweet spot for your brand. Let's chat.

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