Colour Theory: How it Can Boost Your Brand Strength

Can you guess this brand based on colour alone?

If you guessed Instagram, you’d be correct. Isn’t it funny how powerfully a brand’s colours can stick in your mind?

Colour plays a crucial role in establishing the visual identity of your brand. Studies estimate that it can boost your brand recognition by up to 80%. Your visual identity is the first impression you make on potential customers, so it forms the foundation of your brand reputation.

It all comes down to colour theory, which traditionally refers to ancient ideas about how colour relates to emotion, symbolises values and ultimately evokes a reaction in the viewer. But how relevant is this to branding right now? With more and more brands choosing disruptive or industry-atypical colours for their look, there might be more to it than “red spells danger”.

Colour theory is especially important when considering things like web design and digital marketing. It can also play a large role in how you think about your social media strategy. But it can feel overwhelming to know where to start.

We spoke to two experts in all things branding to shed some light on how to colour your brand as well as examined a brand that got it right.

The Context of Colour

“The colour red is known to make people hungry, which is why food brands use it so heavily,” says Kate, Creative Director at Oregon-based branding agency, Saint Friend.

Meanwhile, “a lot of tech companies, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft, for example, started with blue,” says Alex Vasili, Head of Creative Services at Expert Market. This is because it’s a colour commonly associated with stimulating communication and signifies trust and dependability.

Fun fact, it’s also the world’s most common favourite colour.

Different industries have historically gravitated towards different colours due to the associations with that shade, but also because of trends. So it’s wise to conduct some industry research before choosing your own brand colours to understand what your competitors are doing. While you should not view industry standards as strict boundaries, it’s important to know the context of the field you’re working in.

Another thing to note is cultural differences. For example, Kate points out that “the colour green in the US is synonymous with money, but in Europe, it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Green is broadly associated with nature, which is psychologically embedded in us. As Alex explains: “We’re surrounded by so much natural colour, green being associated with nature isn’t so much a colour theory – it’s just what we see. Blue is the sky and sea. The vibrancy of orange and yellow in the sun. Nature has its own colour theory that we use.”

While it’s fun to explore these associations, there are no hard and fast rules in contemporary branding. Historically, companies had one key priority – a strong, recognisable logo, that would stand the test of time. So choosing a signature colour for your logo was key. Now with the evolution of technology and of course, social media, companies still need a logo, but they also need a broader visual style that can be applied to various platforms.

Companies may think about web design, print design, billboards, packaging etc. depending on the medium of their operations. Great branding will work seamlessly across media platforms to establish uniformity and recognisability. To avoid your branding becoming stale, it must be created with growth and flexibility in mind. Consulting with a branding or social media agency can help this process go smoother.

First things first, an eye-catching website is key to creating a strong visual identity, check out our helpful guide on web design mistakes to avoid before starting.

Case Study: Spotify

As a quick interlude, let’s look at a stellar, real-world example of flexibility within branding – Spotify. While it has established rock-solid brand recognition with its signature core colours, green and black, the branding has consistently evolved with the growth of the product.

“They have an amazing in-house team, who create work with a lot of flexibility within the Spotify brand. There’s the logo, the green and black, but then there are a couple of different illustration styles that they rotate,” says Alex.

Initially, Spotify had a strong visual identity of green and black, which is still used on both its interface and its logo. A logo is especially important for apps since logos need to be recognisable when users are locating the app on their screen. Spotify excelled in this, making such a bold, recognisable logo and colour that many users could locate.

If you look at other music streaming platforms, like Apple Music, Soundcloud and Deezer, they gravitate towards red, orange and black. By choosing the opposite shade of the colour wheel to its competitors, Spotify has always stood out on its users’ home pages.

While the green and black combination is still synonymous with Spotify, if you take a closer look at its graphics and illustrations, it has diversified massively in the last few years. With newer features such as its Spotify Wrapped feature, as well as Spotify-branded playlists and a strong social media presence, an entire visual re-design has also been rolled out.

Image from Spotify Design
Image from Spotify Design

As you can see, Spotify’s signature green is only used as an accent in its most recent Wrapped series, yet the design still feels distinctly Spotify. This is a great demonstration of a broader visual identity.

Identifying Brand Values

So back to the main program, if you want to create a visual identity as strong as Spotify, you’ll need to look at your brand’s values and characteristics. That’s what underpins content feeling like your brand, even if it strays away from your colours. Spotify writes that its brand characteristics are “adaptable, diverse, quality-driven, human-centred, warm and friendly”. These attributes led it to the decision to employ brighter hues, rather than the darker muted tones it was known for. Importantly, using ‘bright hues’ as a broad central theme does not limit Spotify to any one colour and leaves it able to fulfil the value of adaptability and diversity in its branding.

A great way to define your brand values is to sit down with your team and hold an in-person brainstorming session. Crack out the whiteboards, highlighters and markers and really look at the core of your brand without even thinking about the look of it. Your brand values can relate to your product, but also your priorities, your goals and any causes you support.

Once you’ve understood who you are as a brand, this information can inform not only your brand colours and visual identity but also your web design, your interactions with customers and your style of copywriting. So it’s really important to clarify this if you haven’t already.

Finding a Colour Palette

As expertly demonstrated by Spotify, you can create a strong visual identity based on colour without having to be limited to one shade. But how do you ensure your branding is cohesive if you’re straying away from your core colours?

Alex says: “It’s fine to have a set few colours but give yourself some space and think about how you might want to introduce different gradients.” Alex recommends the online tool, Coolors, which has a plethora of ready-made colour palettes to use. This means you have the flexibility to use diverse hues, that are matched on their undertone or by using complementary shades of the same colour.

The best web design agencies can assist in choosing a colour palette that is flexible while building a signature brand identity.

Expert Tips

With other pressing operational costs, you may not prioritise hiring a professional design team. In that case, it’s completely feasible to create stunning branding for yourself.

We asked our experts for their top tips for any small business owners braving the process of crafting a visual identity solo.

  1. “Consider your audience’s mindset—what industry are you in? Do they have positive or negative associations with a certain combination of colours? (maybe a rival sports team has the same brand colours you’re suggesting!) – Kate
  2. “Create a number of colour options to user-test, you’ll be surprised at the different associations. We also create a black and white version because colour has such a weighting.” – Alex
  3. “Consider accessibility. A bright yellow logo is impossible to read in many instances. Red and green can be difficult too, because of certain types of colour blindness. If your brand relies on these colours, are you establishing good contrast for legibility?” – Kate
  4. “You need to know where your brand is going to exist, as in the digital or real world. That’s going to define what colours you’re going to be using. Colours are different whether they’re RGB or HEX.” – Alex
  5. “If you know that your site is going to have black text and that text is going to be layered over all of your colours, try that out. There are loads of tools available to see how it’ll look.” – Alex
  6. “You can present new things, but consistency is key — whether it’s the use of colour, style of photography, or even the position of a logo. It takes 8 to 10 times for someone to see a brand and start recognizing it, and if it’s different every time it won’t land with people. ” – Kate
Next Steps

Out with one signature colour and in with flexible colour palettes to suit the ever-changing media landscape. While it can be daunting launching a brand, or re-brand, it’s one of the most fun and creative parts of building a business.

Colour and visual identity are key ways in which you can establish a positive brand reputation right from the start. It’s also a way to express personality in your brand, so have fun with it. Other areas in which you can explore this are the font, brand name, brand voice and packaging. If you’re looking for more inspiration on digital marketing, we rounded up our favourite strategies.

A final word from our experts:

Alex: “As much as you want to be notorious and have fame within your brand, give yourself some flexibility and don’t put yourself in the corner. Be true to who you are as a brand and as a business.”

Kate: “Consistency leads to trust, which leads to loyalty, which leads to evangelism about a brand. And that’s exactly what every brand should be looking for.”

Written by:
Alice is one of Expert Market's resident software experts, helping businesses improve their efficiency or reach, with an emphasis on productivity software, CRM and telecommunications.