Color my World; How to Use Color Effectively in your Marketing

So, let’s take a walk down the yellow (or is it Bisque? Saffron? Tawny?) brick road of color in marketing.

Color 101

Any discussion of color must begin where we left off in grammar school art class. There, we learned about the three types of colors—primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary colors are the foundation of color because, when mixed together in different combinations, we can create all other colors from them. There are just three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue. Take a close look at toys, children’s books and children's Web sites, and you’ll notice they contain blocks of bright, primary colors. This is because young children respond more positively to primary colors than to pastels or muted blends.

Secondary colors are formed by mixing equal amounts of primary colors together and include orange (red + yellow), green (yellow + blue) and purple (red + blue). Primary and secondary colors are used in company identity work to attract attention and create energy.

Tertiary colors make up the remaining color tones and because they come from an infinite number of mixtures of primary and secondary colors, they number in the millions.

What do certain colors mean?


Red grabs our attention. Because it’s the warmest and most energetic color in the spectrum, it is a color that can literally turn us on. People surrounded by red may find their hearts beating faster. Not surprisingly, the ancient Romans waved a red flag as a signal for battle.

Because it carries a jolt of energy, red should be used lightly to help create your company identity. Use it to call out sections of copy in a direct mail piece or a burst on your website, or to highlight your warranty in a brochure sidebar. Red draws the buyer’s eye and can be used very effectively to highlight important communications.


Ask any group of people what their favorite color is and a clear majority will say blue. Over the ages, it has become associated with steadfastness, dependability, and authority. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that in ancient Rome, public servants wore blue. Look around you today and notice how many uniforms, of police and other public servants, are blue. For example, helmets for United Nations’ soldiers are blue.

Research has shown that seeing the color blue causes the body to produce chemicals that are calming, thus slowing the pulse rate. As a result, think of blue as a color to ease jangled nerves.


Yellow reminds us of sunshine, light and warmth. Be careful not to overuse the color though; it can quickly overpower someone if too much is featured. Instead, use it as an accent to call attention to something. In nature, yellow and black work well together to draw attention: think sunflowers and honey bees.


Green is the color of growth, nature, and money. Along with blue, it is another calming color. Green is most often associated with envy, good luck, generosity and fertility. The dark forest green can create conservative, masculine and wealthy feelings.

However, green does have some cultural stigmas attached to it. For instance, in China, green hats mean a man's wife is cheating on him. In France, studies have indicated green is not a good color choice for packaging.


Orange is seen as the warmest of all colors, and as a result is often associated with fun times, energy and warmth. There is nothing even remotely calm about this color. It can be used sparingly as a highlight color, but is not a good choice for conveying a serious message.

Lighter shades of orange, such as peach, apricot, coral, and melon, can be pleasing to the eye and seem to appeal more to the affluent market. Internationally, orange is popular in cultures such as Mexico and India.


When you think of royalty, what color comes to mind? Purple. Because the robes of kings and queens were purple, we often associate the color with wealth, prosperity and rich sophistication. Use purple carefully to lend an air of mystery, wisdom, or respect. Since the color purple seldom appears in a natural setting, it can also be considered exotic. Caution: in Brazil, purple represents death.


Brown conjures up images of reliability and stability. Because it’s the color of the earth itself (Terra Firma) it is often associated with natural or organic things. Caution: in India, it is the color of mourning.


Black is the absence of light, and therefore is a somber color that, many times, is associated with evil (e.g. the cowboy with the black hat). Black can also connote authority and power.

For more variety in your visuals, try using various “screens” of black. This is accomplished by varying the tinting of the color and can produce such shades as gray.


For most of the world, white is associated with purity (wedding dresses) and cleanliness (doctors in white coats). It is also used to project neutrality or peace. In America, we use white in figures of speech like "lily white" and we commonly associate white with the good guy in movies.

In marketing circles, it is widely known that white is the best background color for websites. If you choose not to use white as the background color for your website, my advice to you is test this very carefully.

Avoid cultural stigmas

If your company has an international presence, you’ll want to know what stigmas are attached to your company color in the host country. For example, blue is a very popular color in the United States, yet in China it can be perceived as evil or sinister. Likewise, the color purple has gained a foothold in American culture (e.g. the movie The Color Purple, Prince’s Purple Rain movie and album), yet certain shades of purple have always been associated with death and morbidity in Catholic Europe. If your company has international offices, you have an obligation to understand how certain colors are received in these countries.

Use this color strategy to differentiate

Without a doubt, the best color strategy your company can have is to choose a color that is different from your competitors. This sounds so simple, yet I see companies blunder here constantly. Instead of choosing a color that any of your competitors use, consciously choose a color that’s been ignored by them. To identify what this color is, get copies of competitors’ brochures, website pages, flyers, and any other marketing materials. Note which colors they already use in their logos, brochure headers and footers, signs and website’s home page. Then choose a color that you don’t see represented here.

How UPS distinguishes its identity through color

Have you seen how UPS uses its color as a focal point for its company identity? In advertising spots, the company’s brown color is the primary color used in its advertising and even its tagline is "What can brown do for you?" If you visit the company’s website, brown is featured in its logo, banner, subhead text and textbox banners. And you’ve no doubt noticed that the company’s uniforms also feature the color. Just look at the commitment the company has made to its color as a brand feature:

• UPS’s 269 airplanes, affectionately called “Browntails”, are painted brown.

• Over 142,000 gallons of brown paint are used annually to paint each of the company’s 88,000 delivery cars, vans, trucks and motorcycles.

• Over 1,673,000 yards of brown cloth and 175,000 miles of brown thread are tied up in its worldwide uniforms.

And the company is so committed to the color brown that in 1998, it registered two trademarks for the color brown, thus preventing any other delivery company from using the color.

A need for contrast

Contrast (when colors with opposing qualities are used together) is a key tool for marketers, especially when you want things to be read by your buyers. Look at this page for a moment. What do you see? Black type against a white background. This is one of the most basic contrasts available, and one of the most popular. The reason for this should be obvious: the black type contrasting against the white background produces the easiest type to read. When it comes time to discuss a layout with your graphic designer, argue for contrast.

A heads up for using color in body copy

According to Colin Wheildon’s excellent book "Type and Layout; How typography and design can get your message across—or get in the way", comprehension decreases significantly when you use color types different than black. In a controlled experiment, he tested reading comprehension levels for five different colors of type: black, deep purple, French blue, olive green and warm red. The result?

Reading comprehension was “good” for 70% of respondents when they read black type. Comprehension dropped to 51% with deep purple type, and none of the other three colors (French blue, olive green and warm red) scored above 30%. Despite what the creative folks say, keep your type colored black if you want it to be read and remembered.

The case for pink urinals

When a men’s athletic team sets foot in the University of Iowa’s visitor’s locker room, they are greeted by a very strange sight indeed. The entire locker room, including the urinals, is painted pink. Because pink has been shown to have a calming effect on humans, this school has decided to use color to its advantage.

You as a marketer must also appreciate how influential color can be—indeed to a buyer’s behavior. Make wise decisions about color and you’ll not only get your company noticed, but you’ll also influence buyers’ emotions.

Author Bio

Jay Lipe is president of, a firm that has helped hundreds of small businesses and Fortune 500 clients grow through strategic marketing. He is also the author of two marketing books: "The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses" and "Stand Out from the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity".

Sign up for his free e-newsletter “Marketing Tips & Tools” at .


Jay Lipe is president of, a firm that has helped hundreds of small businesses and Fortune 500 clients grow through focused marketing efforts. He is the author of two marketing books: "The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses" and "Stand Out from the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity". Sign up for his free e-newsletter “Marketing Tips & Tools” at .

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