By Help Scout

The psychology of color as it relates to persuasion is one of the most interesting — and most controversial — aspects of marketing.

At Help Scout we believe the problem has always been depth of analysis. Color theory is a topic of complexity and nuance, but splashy infographics rarely go beyond See ‘n Say levels of coverage.

Green Lantern can’t turn lemons into lemonade and I’m left equally unequipped to make smart decisions about the spectrum which shades our world. But why is such a potentially colorful conversation so unwaveringly shallow?

Misconceptions around the psychology of color

As research shows, it’s likely because personal preference, experiences, upbringing, cultural differences, and context often muddy the effect individual colors have on us. So the idea that colors such as yellow or purple are able to evoke some sort of hyper-specific emotion is about as accurate as your standard palm reading.

But there’s still plenty to learn and consider if we humbly accept that concrete answers aren’t a guarantee. The key is to look for practical ways to make decisions about color.

The importance of colors in branding

First let’s address branding, which is one of the more important issues relating to color perception and the area where many articles on this subject run into problems. As mentioned, there have been myriad attempts to classify consumer responses to different individual colors:

But the truth is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings. There are, however, broader messaging patterns to be found in color perceptions.

In a study titled “Impact of color on marketing,” researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone, depending on the product. Regarding the role that color plays in branding, results from another study show that the relationship between brands and color hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the color being used for the particular brand (does the color “fit” what is being sold?).

A study titled “Exciting red and competent blue” also confirms that purchasing intent is greatly affected by colors due to their effect on how a brand is perceived; colors influence how customers view the “personality” of the brand in question. Who, for example, would want to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle if they didn’t get the feeling that Harleys were rugged and cool?

Additional studies have revealed our brains prefer immediately recognizable brands, which makes color an important element when creating a brand identity. One journal article even suggests it’s important for new brands to pick colors that ensure differentiation from entrenched competitors — personally, I think we’re getting into minutiae without additional context, such as how and why you’re positioning against a direct competitor, and how you’re using color to achieve that goal.

When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself. If Harley owners buy the product in order to feel rugged, colors that work best will play to that emotion. When it comes to picking the “right” color, research has found that predicting consumer reaction to color appropriateness is far more important than the individual color itself. If Harley owners buy the product in order to feel rugged, colors that work best will play to that emotion.

Psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker has conducted studies on this very topic, and her paper titled “Dimensions of Brand Personality” points out five core dimensions that play a role in a brand’s personality.