21 outstanding uses of colour in branding
Colour theory is a central and often overlooked area of design. On a simple level, the colours on the warm side of the spectrum – such as red and yellow – are bold, uplifting and energetic, while their cooler counterparts, blue and green, exude calmness and feel more reserved.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to branding. On an emotional level, in terms of how consumers feel when they look at it; but also on a practical level, in terms of market standout.
For a company to effectively 'own' a colour in its sector can provide an enormous competitive advantage, achieving instant recognition – in some cases even without a logo, or even a mention of its name. That's the power of colour, done right.
Depending on the popularity and market saturation of a particular colour, we could be talking as specific as an officially registered Pantone shade (Cadbury 2685C, anyone?), or as general as being the only brand in competitive set to use that colour.
This is a notoriously difficult colour to own in any sector, especially in its primary form. It's the colour of anger and danger, but also warmth and passion. And since it's also scientifically proven to increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure, it's a bold choice to use it extensively.
Two 'red' brands in particular stand out in their sectors – although the first is perhaps the world's most instantly recognised brand in any sector. Red is linked so inextricably with Coca-Cola that popular legend tells it rebadged Santa Claus to match (sadly, this is an urban myth). Recent, more minimalist packaging and advertising has pared right back to that primary red, with the customary flourish of white.
Meanwhile, America's number-two supermarket chain takes on the ubiquitous blue of its rival Walmart with an ocean of red across its stores, logo, advertising and beyond. Target's shade of red is a registered trademark; communist grocery shop owners beware.
Designed in 1997 by Saatchi & Saatchi, Vodafone's previous logo featured a distinctive speech mark symbolising conversation and speech communication, while the red stands for sound, talking and passion. It was set against a silver backdrop representing sophistication and perfection.
An update to the brand in 2017 by Brand Union put more focus on the speech mark, maintaining the brand red, but dropped the silver backdrop.
Bright, fun and friendly, orange has a playful, childlike appeal and three very different brands claim ownership of it in their respective sectors.
There's no better place to start than the brand that's actually named after this colour. Although Orange is now defunct, it still arguably owns this colour. Few telecommunications companies would be foolish enough to try and out-orange Orange.
In the US comes a retail chain that’s taken to blanketing its stores with a single colour: Home Depot has trademarked orange for use on advertising, lettering or any other signage in its sector, tying things up pretty neatly.
And then, of course, there's everyone's favourite budget service provider, easyGroup – another ocean of orange, spanning everything from the original low-cost airline to car rental, finance, hotels and more. It's also the only contender to have tried to out-orange Orange: anyone remember easyMobile?
Next page: yellow and green…
Positive, sunny and optimistic, yellow is energetic and eye-catching – and particularly effective for point-of-sale messaging, as it’s proven to catch the eye quicker than any other colour.
07. Veuve Clicquot
Yellow provides standout for premium champagne brand Veuve Clicquot – cutting through a sea of green, gold and cream with a punchy shot of bright yellow.
Meanwhile, in a sector that couldn't be more different, construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has a very distinctive, trademarked shade of yellow connected to its brand – featured in the triangle on its logo, and also on the liveries of its vehicles. Of course, in the field, the colour is invariably faded by constant weathering on construction sites, so it's rare to find a perfect match.
Yellow, of course, is an excellently eye-catching colour for potentially dangerous heavy machinery, so it’s no surprise that it’s also used by Britain’s J.C. Bamford, better known as JCB.
Green is an emotionally positive colour, signifying growth and rebirth and, of course, nature. It represents stability and endurance, but it also prosperity and abundance, and taken to the extreme it can be a colour of wealth and luxury; a real mix of meanings.
10. John Deere
Joining Caterpillar and JCB in the large-scale vehicle corner is farm machinery firm John Deere, whose iconic bright green-painted tractors (with a touch of yellow) are instantly recognisable – especially when you’re stuck behind one on a country lane.
At the other end of the market, rich, dark green has associations with wealth and prestige – so it’s no surprise that luxury department store Harrods has chosen it as a key part of its branding scheme. From bags and signage to all manner of own-branded products, the shade exudes class and sophistication.
Starbucks started life in 1972 with a brown logo – appropriate enough considering the coffee beans that it originally sold before introducing the wild concept of selling actual cups of coffee – then in 1987 the colour of its stylised woodcut of a siren was changed to green. The reason? It's a reference to the University of San Francisco, where all three founders were educated.
Next page: blue, purple and brown…
Blue is a cool, clear colour which has a trustworthy, dependable feel, and is often the colour of choice for financial institutions as a result – notably Barclays.
In the UK, the National Health Service uses a distinctive shade of blue that takes advantage of its cool, reassuring and secure characteristics.
14. Tiffany & Co
Like red, of course, blue is used so broadly in different kinds of branding that standout in a particular sector is difficult: Tiffany’s solves this problem with its own iconic shade of ‘robin’s egg’ blue, trademarked as Tiffany Blue and ubiquitous on everything from jewellery boxes to shopping bags to advertising.
Originally designed by Cuban Council in 2006, the Facebook logo has been tweaked over the years – most recently in 2013 when it pulled the ‘f’ down to the edge of the box, and lost the pale blue line running beneath it – but has retained its blue colour, which Mark Zuckerberg originally chose based on his colour blindness.
Pale lavender has a nostalgic, sentimental feel, whereas richer, darker purple has a sophisticated tone often linked with royalty.
Purple’s the most recognisable association is with Cadbury’s chocolate: Pantone 2685C is officially Cadbury Purple.
Purple and Cadbury's have been happy bedfellows since 1914, and woe betide any brand who tries to lay claim to it: Nestlé tried and failed, and Cadbury's won the right to exclusive use for chocolate bar and drink packaging. The association is so deeply ingrained that its advertising can be confident enough to remove mention of the brand altogether, as in Fallon's Black Pencil-winning Gorilla spot.
Earthy, simple and evocative of honesty and simplicity, brown (as well as green) is often used by organic companies to emphasise their links to the soil – although outside of this sector it's largely avoided in a branding context due to potential negative connotations with 'dirt', although this of course depends on the shade chosen. The fact that brown hides dirt can be twisted to a company's advantage – one reason for Pullman railway coaches to have developed their distinctive shade.
And it was Pullman Brown that the United States Postal Service plumped for in 1916, for a combination of practical reasons and the fact that the colour was perceived as the “epitome of luxury” at the time. It would become an inseparable part of UPS’ branding, even becoming shorthand for the company itself, as in its former slogan: ‘What can Brown do for you?’
Next page: pink, black and white…
The level of intensity with which pink is used makes a big difference to its impact. Paler shades are often have ‘girly’ associations, while dusty pinks have a sentimental tone – both uses are relatively clichéd and absolutely everywhere, so standout with that goal in mind is next to impossible.
Vibrant, hot pinks have a youthful energy and sense of fun that lends itself well to trendy, inexpensive products for young women or girls – but they're also increasingly used in other sectors where a punch of bright colour is needed. T-Mobile's eye-catching magenta has been registered since 2000, and is splashed liberally across its stores and branding. Lastminute.com uses a similar punchy shade.
Okay, so most brands use black in their branding some capacity – but used as the primary brand colour, it has a bold, powerful, classic effect that feels confident and sophisticated for more expensive products.
19. Hotel Chocolat
Once such example is premium British confectionery company Hotel Chocolat, which coats its stores, packaging and branding with black like the darkest of dark chocolate.
Of course, when the colour of your product is one of its most distinctive characteristics it makes sense to shout about it in your branding: nowhere is this truer than The Black Stuff. The Irish icon makes liberal use of black and white in its multi-award-winning advertising, including its iconic surfer ad.
Simplicity and purity are the overwhelming associations with white in branding, and its brightness immediately catches the eye when used in signage. Baby and healthcare products regularly make use of it, and as a result, standout is tricky.
Where white is far from ubiquitous, however, is in the technology and computing sectors: here, Cupertino’s finest has it all tied up. Whether it’s the soothing simplicity of its packaging, the simple purity of its logo (which has long since ditched its rainbow stripes) or the fact that iPhones and iPads are available in white, Apple’s use of white is nothing short of iconic. The silhouette ads with the white headphones say it all.