How to Choose Brand Colors

November 4, 2020     Branding

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How to Choose Brand Colors

You do all you can to make your brand successful. But are you prepared when it comes to choosing the best colors to represent you? That choice can make or break your efforts, and we want to help you get started.

We’ve used this guide to help organizations of all different kinds get a fresh start, from eCommerce to aerospace, healthcare to industrial safety. Our award-winning work has made a tangible difference for these businesses.

We want to use our design insight and expertise to give you a guide to choosing your brand colors. Here’s the first part of our guide to choosing the right color palette (where we’ll also get into a bit of color psychology).

Your branding is like your organization’s handshake, your first impression. We want to show you some of the ways you can use color to create the exact first impression you want. 

Whether you’re just starting out and making a name for yourself or already established but trying to reset for a new era, your color choices can have a significant impact on how your brand is perceived. 

Color choices are loaded with meaning, some old and deeply ingrained in our DNA and some influenced by the reputations of landmark brands. Meaning can also vary depending on your audience, making context key for analyzing any color choice.

At Kokopelli, when we’re working on a rebrand, our first building block is color. Color guides us. It gives the brand a personality before we begin working on a logo or website. It gives everyone on our team—especially the designers—direction to provide a framework for their creativity. 

Plus, it works. We’ve tried a lot of different methods for helping companies rebrand. Everyone on our team agrees: start with color.

To kick off this series, we’re going to look at color palettes for branding and explore some of the effects described by color psychology. But first, let’s meet our imaginary organizations.

Four Examples: See Color in Action

We’ve created a group of hypothetical organizations so that we can look at colors in context and examine the impact of color choices for specific situations. 

Let’s say we have four companies: A, B, C, and D. 

Remember, this is about choosing the right colors for your brand, not naming. 

A is a new company, just getting off the ground. They make pre-assembled roadside safety kits geared towards young drivers and first-time car owners. 

B, on the other hand, has been around for decades. They’re branching out, though, and bringing a new Software as a Service (SaaS) product to the business-to-business (B2B) market. 

As a non-profit, C works to reach people who are concerned about preserving wilderness spaces and project a sense of trustworthiness. 

Lastly, D is a local bakery trying to make the pivot to online sales and shipping with an eye on an upscale market (also, don’t come up with hypothetical companies at lunchtime). 

Example 1: A New Business Selling Safety Kits

Let’s gather what we know already about Organization A.

Their intended audience is generally young people in their teens and 20s. Of course, when we think about this audience, we also need to think about their parents and family members who may very well be doing the actual purchasing for them. 

Therefore, they want to appeal to energetic young buyers, while also making potential buyers feel like their loved one's safety is in good hands.

Surveys show that people associate orange with ideas like confidence, innovation, and energy, all of which could be useful in conveying this message. On the negative side, they also associate orange with immaturity and cheapness, so there are some negative connotations to consider.

But when we think of the nature of this particular product, there’s an additional layer of meaning to consider. Think of when you encounter the color orange on the road. Construction signs, cones, pylons, warning triangles: all things associated with safety or caution.

This added meaning means that orange reinforces the brand’s message, so that added benefit may well offset any negative associations.

With that settled, what other colors do we bring in?

Now would be a good time to break out your color wheel—you may remember it from your elementary art class. 

Color Wheel

When you want to highlight a particular color, it’s always a good idea to pair it with a contrasting color. These are the colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel and contain little to no traces of one another.

Blue contrasts quite nicely with orange, and you may have seen it used in the logo of Firefox and certain underperforming football teams. 

The in-between shades on either side of blue—indigo and turquoise—also present interesting options compared to orange. But for this company, black may be best. It provides a contrast to all shades of orange while suggesting things like asphalt and tires. 

We can use some white for highlighting to provide some shading and additional definition.

Blue orange palette

Example 2: A New Look for a Long-Standing Brand

When trying to bring new energy to an established brand, it’s important to evaluate your brand’s standing in order to decide if you need a slight makeover or a complete revamp. 

Even if it’s time for a refresh, you don’t want to necessarily throw away all the goodwill you’ve built up over the decades. It is generally a good idea to retain more elements of your existing branding: a primary color, sure, but also logo concepts, use of shapes and lines, and more.

But suppose there’s not a lot of equity built up in a brand, what then? In that case, there’s more work to do, but less of a concern about preserving the recognizable vestiges of the existing brand. 

The total rebrand is a hallmark of organizations that have gone through PR nightmares (I’m old enough to remember when WorldCom became MCI again). But an organization doesn’t need to be implicated in unsavory practices to need an overhaul.

Maybe your brand has always underperformed, or maybe time has moved on and your once-solid brand now seems dated. It’s this last scenario that we’ll look at now. 

For a company looking to pivot to a more tech-oriented space, it can be a good idea to lead with blue. However, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword: blue is used by so many high-profile tech companies that people associate it strongly with tech expertise, but on the other hand, using blue alone then makes it that much harder to stand out.

Now, just because Organization B is a B2B outfit doesn’t mean color psychology doesn’t apply. While the buying process may be more formal and less emotional, these effects still come into play. You’re trying to project an image. That image gets you to the table in the first place. 

Since your audience is comprised of people who are more cautious with their purchasing, you want to take pains to reinforce your organization’s trustworthiness. While blue still leads the pack here, white or silver are other strong options. 

Both white and silver are also popular tech choices (think of the interior of an Apple store), again strengthening a sense of trust and expertise that your organization will back up with your services. 

When applied to the familiar shapes and elements of the existing branding, this refresh can help position this organization for the future. 

Blue, Silver, and White Color Palette Example

Example 3: Colors for Nature-Oriented Non-Profit

Now, you might be thinking, “it seems oddly specific that they chose a nature-oriented non-profit, is something up with that?” 

You’re correct! It was our clever ruse to discuss the complicated psychology of the color green. 

Green seems the obvious choice here. And there are definite plusses. Unsurprisingly, people associate green with nature (think about the Whole Foods logo and the branding of fossil fuel companies looking to change their image). That bodes well for our hypothetical non-profit. 

On the other side of the coin, though, green carries strong connotations of money, greed, and power. Not great for anyone wishing to establish a new relationship, but especially risky for a non-profit looking to assure donors they’re responsible stewards of their money. 

It’s up to you to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks here. In this case, the connection with nature is stronger than any negative associations, so it’s worthwhile to make this the primary color. 

The rest of this color palette is easy to fill out since nature gives us guidance. Muted earth tones, browns, and sky blues can all help us to make this design pop for Organization C while adding shades that inspire trust to counterbalance green’s drawbacks.

Green, Sand, and Blue color palette example

Example 4: Local Upscale Bakery

When targeting upscale markets, such as the case for Organization D, the obvious choice is also a bold and risky one. Black. 

Survey respondents say black made them feel cold, or even feel a sense of mourning or menace (these things may say more about us than about brands or color, frankly).

On the other hand, it’s the color most associated with sophistication and luxury (seen most often in the branding of high street fashion brands). And for a baker producing high-end patisserie, that may give you an advantage.

Black is best used sparingly though, lest your brand designs become too heavy. That’s why it’s most often used for text or for simple shapes in designs featuring plenty of negative space.

This is a case where you don’t want to bring in too many other colors, because to overdo it would ruin the sophisticated image we’re working towards.

White is one option for highlighting, but it’s not necessarily the most appetizing. There’s not a lot of white food other than cauliflower and maybe marshmallows, if we’re willing to stretch the definition of “food” a bit.

Red, on the other hand, is shown to stimulate the appetite and, in the right shade, can provide a nice bit of contrast to our black primary color. Maybe a small raspberry or strawberry icon somewhere to tie it together and make people crave a soft, warm jelly donut… 

(I really should make lunch)

Black, Raspberry, and White Color Palette

Conclusion 

We’ve just barely scratched the surface of color psychology here (and for a fascinating look at this and other surprising things that affect us every day, read Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter). 

Each color, not to mention the multitudinous variations in shades, tints, and tones, carries its own meaning that can vary greatly depending on the context. And, of course, yours or your client’s organization may or may not be similar to these hypotheticals. 

That’s why it’s important to bring expert designers on board when considering your branding. These are the people who don’t just understand color psychology but are best able to help you reach your goals.

Next time, we’ll explore the role of color in web design and how color affects accessibility.  

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