We’ve all heard the adage that there is psychology behind colors, and that it affects marketing and emotions.
However, this usually comes across as just a vague statement, like red is angry and energetic. It has always bothered me when people say that green is pleasant because it’s found in nature, and blue is calming because of the ocean and sky, and red is jarring because it reminds us of blood or something. Those explanations always felt reductive at best.
I came across a paper by Elliott that discusses the context of color. I really liked this idea to evaluate the psychology of color in marketing. Tldr; is basically that how we feel about colors depends on the context, and some of this context can also be sociocultural. For example, let’s consider the social construct that is the blue ribbon. First place, yay! Blue in the context of receiving awards is good and evokes positive emotions. However, blue in the context of meat is not good since it indicates it’s rotten (1).
The psychology of color is incredibly nuanced. For example, how does red influence consumer behavior? Unsurprisingly–it really depends. People with higher interpersonal hostility exhibit a preference to the color red, and they also see the color red more frequently (
How Can We Use the Psychology of Color in Marketing?
The first thing we must consider when thinking about marketing colors is using said color in a proper context.
Red vs Blue in Marketing
If you work in marketing, you may have heard that websites that use blue are considered trustworthy (2). Many studies indicate that red draws attention, raises heart rate, and can even cause feelings of anxiety (3). So why is it that so many brands seem to use colors that feel counterintuitive or possibly even negative?
The psychology of color is incredibly nuanced. For example, how does red influence consumer behavior? Unsurprisingly–it really depends. People with higher interpersonal hostility exhibit a preference to the color red, and they also see the color red more frequently(4).
Let’s narrow this down to just the realm of food. We’ve seen red at every supermarket and fast food chain we can think of. Surprisingly, “The color red reduces snack food and soft drink intake” (5). It has also been known to decrease motivation.
In addition, in a study on simulated retail environments, more purchases for customers in the predominantly blue rather than predominantly red. Which goes against just about every grocery store we’ve ever been to. Red does draw attention, but it can make you feel closed off/anxious. Belizzi and Hite did a follow-up study and theorize that affect (red-negative vs. blue-positive) is more important than the sheer arousal valence (3).
Put more simply:
Affect > arousal valence (red-negative vs blue-positive)
We will get more into the actual reasons behind wavelengths making us feel some type of way, but for now the question still remains:
If red is so negative, why do so many grocery stores and fast-food companies use it?
I’m looking at you, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Chick-Fil-A. Maybe if you’re made more anxious by the color red, you will get more panicky and hungry, right? Unfortunately, no. A lot of these red logos may have been created based on studies from decades ago that were not as nuanced and focused solely on valence of arousal. Business Insider (6), however, points out that positive brand memories likely outweigh the psychological decision of choosing blue over red. McDonald’s changing its brand colors would certainly hurt business more than them continuing to stay red. If you do not have the brand recognition of, say, McDonald’s, you’re better off with blue branding.
However, I wasn't especially satisfied with this answer either. Red draws attention but arguably doesn't elicit as good of feelings, so how would a company with a red logo become so popular in the first place if it causes us to be so avoidant? Attention is everything when it comes to decision making.*
A study (7) at the University of British Columbia looked at how people performed tasks on a screen with a red background or a blue background. A red background resulted in 31% better performance, but this was only for more analytical tasks like proofreading or puzzles. However, in contrast, blue seemed to aid creative tasks. In summary, Ravi Mehta suggests that red is helpful for avoiding mistakes, while blue helps with approachability and openness. Another study found that red toothpaste labeling was chosen when it said "avoid cavities" while blue labeling was chosen when it said "whiter teeth," again highlighting this notion of red being used as an avoidance tool.
It is relatively accepted in the literature (8) that short wavelength colors elicit more positive emotions than longer wavelength colors. In other words, blues and greens are better than the red side of the scale.
However, context is everything.
Studies about ambience are certainly interesting, and relevant in marketing for supermarkets and offices. But even what we think we know about that falls apart when we look at Stone's fascinating study (9) that found blue was more positive in open concept environments, while red was better in tighter quarters. There are, however, arguments that saturation and lightness matter more than hue.
This topic, ended up being far more in depth than I anticipated, and many papers deep, many more saved, and a couple book purchases later, I realize this is to be continued.
1 (Elliott, 2015)
5 (Genschow, Wänke, 2012)