Does the colour of a brand really matter?

“Any color – so long as it’s black.”

Henry Ford


If you followed the virtual sensation of what colour was the dress as people debated online about whether its colours were blue and black or white and gold then you would agree colour does matter. Research suggests cells in secondary visual cortex (V2)  is particularly responsible for how we see colour consistency, which explains why a red apple still looks red if we look at it outside, under a lamp or in different lightening conditions – unless you are looking at a blue or white dress.

Loyola College research points to the connection between colour and memory: seeing a logo in colour makes it 39% more memorable than seeing the same logo in black and white. Colour also drives engagement: adding colour to blog posts, product guides, print advertising and other brand collateral increases readership by 80%

According to KissMetrics, “Color increases brand recognition by 80%.” But you also need to differentiate your brand from the pack. If you are starting up a new bank you might want to use a different colour than blue which is used by: Chase, JP Morgan, Deutsche bank, RBS, RBC, Prudential, Barclays, Citibank, Capital One, Union Bank, Bank of Montreal, to name a few. Then there are those who used the colour orange as the new blue, like ING Bank and the new bank Tangerine.

It is no surprise financial institutions and many other brands use the colour of ‘true blue’ as it emotes feelings for trust and dependability. But, according to a study published in the Journal of Business Research, customers are actually 15% more likely to return to stores with blue colour schemes than to those with orange colour schemes. Try to tell ING Bank that the orange isn’t working for them as they turned a profit of 3.5 billion Euros in 2014.

The Birth of a Brand Colour

There has been a great deal of work done in the area of psychology of colour in branding. But, to me it’s like buying a house. You make the initial decision based on emotion and then you rationalize it after the fact to legitimize your purchase. The birth of a brand identity really starts with the logo design which is generally done by a graphic designer. Depending on your budget, you can employ a single individual of a massive agency team (Top 15 graphic design companies from around the globe) then it will depend on their ability to sell you on the colour.

My assumption with most start-up companies is that the brand logo design and its colour aren’t the biggest concerns of the day. It isn’t where they are investing or spending their time. Their biggest concern is focused on getting their product or service to market.

To believe they have the brand all figured-out would be a stretch. You might know where you want to go, but how you get there is not always in your control and that includes your brand. I am sure the college dropouts Steven Jobs and Steven Wozniak, who started Apple Computers in Job’s garage, didn’t have a clear vision of where the Apple brand was going. Their first logo void of any colour could have easily been a Tolkien book cover (author of the famous The Lord of the Rings book series) than a company logo. The logo depicted Isaac Newton sitting under a tree with an apple dangling over his head. You know the rest of the gravity story.


This logo survived only a year, but the company now had the funds to be able to commission a real graphic designer Rob Janoff. He designed the rainbow colour apple with a bite taken out of it. This logo lasted 22 years until 1997 when the colours were replaced with a more modern monochromatic sleek look. It is these redesigns and modernization of brands that the rationalization and supporting stories are developed alongside the million plus dollar price tag from the mega graphic design firms. It is interesting that as the Apple brand became more popular, myths began to be told about how the Apple brand came to be.

Starbucks started with a brown or mocha coloured logo of a siren (or mermaid) from Greek mythology, which made sense since they were selling rich dark-roast coffee by the cup in Seattle on the west coast. But, 15 years later the logo was refined and the colour changed to green. Why? It is believed the three founders wanted to honour their alum matter, the University of San Francisco, which happens to a similar green.


There has been a great deal of research done to understand the effects of colour on consumer’s response. But Gergory Ciotti, marketing strategist at Help Scout, points out that there has been “numerous attempts to classify consumer responses to different individual colors… but the truth of the matter is that color is too dependent on personal experiences to be universally translated to specific feelings.” He goes on to explain that gender, background, and culture all play a role in how consumers are influenced by colour perceptions, but that doesn’t seem to stop the rationalizations.


If this is true why are all STOP signs and SALE signs red? According to a study published in the journal Emotion, Professor Andrew Elliot found that people react faster and more forcefully when they see the colour red, with the primary reason behind the phenomena being that the colour red enhances physical reactions as it is programmed into our psyche as a cue for danger.

A brand that has used the power of red successfully for over 128 years has been Coca-Cola, which sells about 19,400 beverages every second around the world. Like the SALE sign, Coca-Cola started advertising their brand by painting big red signs on the side of buildings and coolers. They continued on in the early 1900’s with outdoor billboards and traditional advertising. In 1931 they successfully tied their brand to the man in red – Old St. Nicholas. As the years passed, the colour red became synonymous with Coca-Cola. It required years and years of persistence and hardnosed application of the brand principles. As the brand developed over time, a process was developed to define and codify the brand values and its essence. In this process, the brand colour(s) also get encoded into the brands DNA.

white coke canII

In 2011, Coca-Cola slipped up by changing their sacred red Coke can to white during the December holiday season to celebrate their highly successful polar bear advertising campaign. Within weeks, the white “polar bear” cans were pulled off the shelves because of a tremendous backlash from retailers and consumers, who were confused by the change from the traditional red. Some even complained that the taste of the soda was different—all because of the colour of the can!

Getting the brand DNA right takes time and is built on what works for the brand’s customers, but once the brand colour is locked in you must be ruthless in protecting this relationship to a colour and what the brand represents.  Can you see a John Deere customer selecting the colour he wants for his tractor? It comes in green or green or green.

heinz-ez-squirt-275When you think of Heinz ketchup you automatically think of the tomato red coloured bottle. They had the opposite results from changing their red coloured bottle to green. The Heinz EZ Squirt Blastin’ Green ketchup was a phenomenal success. But, to be fair, they still had the red bottle for those customers who didn’t want to change. More than 10 million green bottles were sold in the first seven months following its introduction. All because of a simple colour change. I am not sure if the ketchup tasted better.

Colour is a powerful signifier of a brand. When customers visually scan store shelves, they look first at colour clues, then at shapes, and finally at the label or name of the brand. Research conducted by the Seoul International Color Expo 2004 found that 92.6% of customers put visual factors as most importance when purchasing products and the colour accounted for almost 50% as the important factor. The Institute for Color Research found that people make a subconscious judgement about an environment or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing and that between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on colour alone!

The colour a company uses to brand itself conveys how trustworthy they are, the quality of their products, how fun they are and much more. So, you need to have the right colour to succeed.

Paul Bottomley and John Doyle authored a study: The interactive effects of colors and products on perceptions of brand logo appropriateness where they demonstrated that the relationship between brands and colour are based on the perceived appropriateness of the colour being used and the particular brand personality you are trying to portray.

Does the colour fit what the brand represents? An obvious misfit would be the colour pick with a somber and serious lawyer firm brand or a funeral home. While the colour of pink might differentiate the brand, it might not built a solid brand message. Because there are so many brands today, it is getting harder and harder for new brands to build their own unique brand colour positioning, so they are pushing the limits of what is appropriate. In every business category, there is an outlier who isn’t following the colour code like Orange’s orange, T Mobile’s neon pink, Veuve Clicquot’s bright yellow, Yahoo’s purple, and BP’s lime green.

If you want your brand to be synonymous with a colour, you need to use your colour everywhere. The store environment or anywhere it makes sense. A fleet of planes painted orange with airline attends wearing orange uniforms (EasyJet), a fleet of brown delivery vans with drivers wearing brown uniforms (UPS), the tastefully accent colour of robin egg blue surrounding gold, silver and diamonds with the iconic blue box (Tiffany & Co), and flooding the exterior and the interior of the store and staff in yellow and red (Shell and McDonald’s). The colour is part of the brand experience.

I wonder how many brand colours were the results of the whims of the graphic designer exploring the next trend or the personal taste of the CEO’s spouse. In the case of Facebook, the founder Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colour blind so blue was his choice.

Well thought-out colours can help define a brand’s value, strength and positioning, which will boost awareness and customer recall and differentiate the brand from the competition. If chosen effectively, it can even set the emotional stage for the overall brand experience.

The right colour does matter.


The Scent of a Successful Brand

car interior scent

I still remember the scent of my first new car. It was a sweet smell of success—a blend of new leather mixed with glues, solvents and plastic smells.  I’m sure these chemicals aren’t healthy but very recognizable. The new car smell is so popular that the fragrance industry sells a “new car scent.” Of all the senses we use, the least respected is the olfaction, the ability to smell. Without it, our food would be reduced to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A glass of wine wouldn’t have the rich layers of berry fruit, cherry, black pepper, caramel with hints of vanilla, chocolate and tobacco. For those brands that have face-to-face interactions with their customers, the scent of a brand is critical.

We use our five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) every day to help make decisions and navigate the world of consumerism. Most brands focus their relevancy strongest on only two of these – sight and sound. Strong emotional ties are built between a brand and its customer through imagery, design, texture, colour, and rich sounds. But the strongest sense for evoking an emotional reaction is the smell. Let’s take a look at the scent of a successful brand.

“When we think about any experience, whether it’s personal or commercial, our sense of smell so profoundly plays into how we perceive and make judgments on the experience,” says Ed Burke, director of training and communications for ScentAir, a company that develops scents for other companies.

People are using their noses more acutely as we have become more sophisticated in many aspects of our lives. Today, we are all culinary experts embracing new cuisines and use many new exotic spices thanks to our noses. Connoisseurs of wine, beer and scotch as we swirl our glasses and stick our noses into the vapours. We are refining our sense of smell in many areas of our lives and are more aware of what we like and what we don’t like—so a brand’s smell does matter.

Fortune Business Insights reports that the home fragrance market size could reach $8 billion by 2026. But Unity Marketing believes this market is growing so quickly that it may well surpass $10 billion.

Smells Trigger Memories

According to Aradhna Krishna, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, scent marketing falls into sensory marketing. In her book, Customer Sense: How the 5 Senses Influence Buying Behavior, she defines sensory marketing as “marketing that engages the consumer’s senses and affects their perception, judgment and behaviour.” Krishna says that “no other cue is as potent as a scent-based cue” and explains that the human brain’s structure is responsible for the close link between memory and smell.

Experts have suggested the special impact of odour on our memory could be related to the proximity of our olfactory bulb’s closeness, which helps us process smells, and the amygdala and hippocampus brain regions, which control emotion and memory.

A well-known idea called the Proustian Phenomenon” proposes that distinctive smells have more power than any other sense to help us recall distant memories.

Everyone has a library of smells that trigger memories like the scent of fresh-cut grass, hot apple pie, vanilla ice-cream, someone’s perfume or after-shave, baked bread, coffee, balsam fir tree, and a dirty diaper. Pew!

Scent marketing is made up of two specific categories:

  • Ambient scenting uses pre-existing smells, such as movie-theatre popcorn, to recall consumer memory, and sets the stage.
  • Olfactive branding, which creates signature scents based on a brand’s qualitative traits and specific clientele.

Brand Scents

Bloomingdale’s uses ambient scenting throughout their stores. They use the soft scent of baby powder to trigger the mother’s memory in the infant department. The soothing scent of lilac in the intimate apparel department and coconut in the swimsuit department. You will find the scents of sugar cookies, chocolate, and evergreen to incite the shoppers during the holiday shopping season.

Any business that has the ability to control the customer’s environment can use ambient and olfactive branding. High-end retail chains, hotels, airlines, stores, banks, and even cruise ships use signature scents to build their brands.

Retail Scents

After touring the mall with my nose front and center, the most obvious and somewhat irritating use of distinctive fragrance is Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister as they pump their musky and masculine colognes through their ventilation systems. I need to hold my nose, as I’m not their target audience of 12- 24 age youth who desires a heavy-duty stimulus of smells and loud music to get a reaction.

Other brands like Anthropologie, Aritzia, American Eagle Outfitters, Urban Outfitters and Old Navy all had subtle, unique fragrances that resonated with their environments. Standing out was the fashionable Hugo Boss store with its signature-scent of citrus, tamboti wood and tonka bean. Lululemon with its grassy and rosemary fragrance. The posh Tiffany& Co jewelry store with its festive cotton-candy scent. I am not sure that was a fit. Maybe it helps with the $100,000 sticker shock. Love can be such sweet sorrow.


Interior Scents

Ed Burke says the upscale hotel chains have embraced scent branding in a big way, with the Westin Hotels utilizing the scent of White tea and Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco chain using a blend of soft citrus, green tea, black pepper and cloves. Good enough to drink.

Carnival Cruises, Qantas Airlines, home-builder Jayman Homes in Calgary all profess to use unique fragrances specifically chosen and designed to enhance their customers’ brand experience. Jayman’s director of marketing, Careen Chrusch, says, “It doesn’t take away from the visual experience, and helps solidify the positive memories [consumers] have when they think of our brand.”

A study conducted by Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation claimed the amount of money gambled at a Las Vegas casino slot machine increased by 45 percent when the site was odorized with a pleasant aroma.

Scent Manipulation

But is this invisible brand-enhancing ethical?

While marketers say they are just beautifying the consumer experience, critics would argue that consumers are unknowingly manipulated.

The Canadian Marketing Association’s code of ethics states that marketers must not knowingly mislead consumers. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission says it is unethical to transmit information below the consumer’s awareness threshold.

Scent Advantage

Today, brand identity is more critical than ever before. Businesses and products compete for consumer attention across an ever-increasing variety of channels. Our senses play a vital and complex role in forming our thoughts, impressions and behaviours. By targeting the senses, brands establish a stronger and enduring emotional connection with their consumers. As online shopping continues to skyrocket, it becomes vital that every face-to-face brand time becomes more memorable.

Many brands fail to make use of their customers’ sense of smell. Harnessing the power of scents is an excellent opportunity for you to differentiate your brand from your competitors. Our memories are closely tied to smell. The longer you build your olfactive brand, the more positive memories will be associated with your brand down memory lane.

Stop and smell your brand. Does it smell like a successful brand?


Brands Need to Be Faster to Stay Alive

I don’t think anyone is surprised that the speed of life has consumers demanding instant gratification. In the past, if you wanted to watch a movie you had two choices: go to a movie theatre or sit down in front of your TV. But you were stuck with a small selection of maybe two to five movie choices. The next evolution was video stores – remember Blockbuster? You could select from the 100s of new releases or old favorites as long as you had a video player to view it. Then the next innovation was video-on-demand cable but the big game changer was Netflix who went from rent-by-mail to online – hundreds of movies anytime, anywhere for a low cost monthly fee. The selection process went from hours of planning down to minutes and seconds. It took 25 years for Blockbuster to go from one store to 9,000 locations and $800 million in late fees to bankruptcy. While in less than 15 years YouTube has users watching 6 billion hours of video each month and uploading 100 hours worth of video every minute and along the way has made many people famous.


Using Sex to Build a Brand

It’s a known fact that using sex to sell a brand works. But does it build lasting brands? If you ask Calvin Klein, he would say yes. In the last 40 years, he made a 2.5 billion dollar business using provocative and sexual images. (1)

For years, cars, beer, perfume and recently, deodorant and fast food are sold to men through images of scantily-clad, perfectly sculptured women. Tapping into the basic instincts that sex is universal interest. Sexy pictures drive eyeballs, especially men who think about sex every 7 seconds! (2)

Sexual Brand Content Get Noticed

“Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective,” said researcher Tom Reichert who conducted a study at the University of Georgia on sexual advertising. (3) “Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hard-wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.”

“Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy,” he said. “But, brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguable, Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are not much different than Hanes, Jockey or Playtex, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as ‘sexy,’ and some customers want that.”

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch markets its erotic brand image to college-age adults but ends-up attracting many younger teens. Not only do they show beautiful youth in their advertising, but they hire the best-looking young people to model their clothes in the stores. They made sure the brand lives not only in the advertising but in the stores. I wonder why beer stores don’t respect their brands the same way.

Scientists claim they have discovered precisely why sex sells a brand – and it isn’t just because consumers think that if they buy the car, they can get the girl. Researchers found seeing an attractive man or woman in provocative clothing and positions in advertising excites the areas of the brain that make us buy on impulse, bypassing the sections which control rational thought. Their study found that advertising using logical persuasion – simple, convincing facts – is less useful in making us buy than advertising using non-rational influence – feel good, stimulating images. (4) Did we need research to tell us that sex sells brands?

The fact that using sex to sell a brand in advertising has almost doubled in 30 years isn’t a big surprise. (3) But what was sexy 30 years ago has changed drastically today, where pornography is mainstream in our culture.



Risky Brand Business

Sex comes with many risks (including rashes and bumps in areas that we don’t want to talk about). Klein doesn’t apologize for pushing the envelope in what is deemed decent and what isn’t. “Sometimes people look at the advertising and resent it or feel threatened by what they see — but in the end, if the sales are good, the images must be OK,” Klein said. The fact is CK’s men’s underwear owns the underwear market ever since Mark Wahlberg wore nothing but.

Both Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch continue to walk the fine line between sexy and softcore porn. Consumer groups have launched boycott campaigns against both companies over the years and have successfully had advertising campaigns removed from public viewing. For example, the Virginia Beach police seized photos from an Abercrombie store that were deemed indecent.

The fact is beautiful airbrushed, and naked people can help sell products and build a sexually compelling brand. Dove soap took a different approach by showcasing their products on nude, everyday, wholesome women, so maybe we’re not as superficial after all. They did get bad press when it was discovered some of the women’s images were digitally enhanced to make them look better. OK, maybe we are superficial.


Eat It Up or Spit It Out?

It makes sense to use provocative, sexy brand images that are closely associated with the product brands such as underwear, perfume and maybe alcohol, but selling a hamburger is a stretch.


Hannah Ferguson’s and Paris Hilton’s hypersexual ad to sell Carl’s Jr. Texas BBQ Thickburger is an easy way to accomplish edginess and draw attention, but does it fulfill Carl’s Jr. brand promise and is it sustainable? I don’t think so.

Make sure you use this power wisely and don’t flaunt it unnecessarily, or it could do more damage than good to your brand. Remember, over-promising can only lead to disappointment and negative feelings, which aren’t brand builders. Using sex to sell a brand that is unrelated to sex can be seen as a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product brand.

Your audience will always have the final say, and they’ll tell you at the cash register. Continue to provoke, shock and engage, because as long as your audience has permitted you, they’ll eat it up like a CoolWhip® bikini.


The title image was taken from a Body Shop ad to sell soap on a rope. For real.

(1) 1996 was the only sales figure I could find as the company was private until sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. in 2002.
(2) Kinsey Institute disputes this claim; they state that 54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day, and 43% a few times per month or a few times per week.
(3) Magazine trends study finds an increase in advertisements using Sex, UGA Today online news, June 5, 2012, http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/magazine-trends-study-finds-increase-in-advertisements-using-sex/
(4) Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, UCLA and George Washington University, research lead by Dr. Ian Cook, September 2011 http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/buyer-beware-advertising-may-seduce-215473

Be First In The Customer’s Mind

Branding is all about mind over matter

It’s important to understand how the brain works if you want to build a lasting brand. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a number of successful books on this topic in the ’90s. The 22 Immutable laws of Marketing and Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind are my two favorites. Their major point: Be first in the customer’s mind — first in positioning in the market or category. Why? The simple fact, most people won’t remember the second best. There are a number of examples to support this theory. Do you remember the first movie that you saw in a movie theatre or the first music concert you went to? Or your first date? Most people could easily answer this question. The first experience of anything that defines a new market, or category and changes your perception or memory has a very good chance to be encoded in your brain – especially, if the memory is emotionally charged. Now, tell me the second or third movie or concert you saw? The answers are not as easy. Unless I asked you, what was the first country music concert (which might not be your first concert) or the first horror movie you saw? We will skip the second or third date question that could be too complicated.


A memory begins with perception; it is encoded and stored using the language of electricity and chemicals. To properly encode a memory, you must first be paying attention. Since we are inundated with brand messages daily (over 3,000 per day) most of what we encounter every day is simply filtered out, and only a few stimuli pass into our conscious awareness. If we remembered every single thing we noticed, our memory would be full before we left the house in the morning.



Contextual Memory

The human brain is an incredible machine. In the book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, the author Gary Marcus, a psychologist, tackles the idea that we have two thinking systems inside our skulls. He argues that human evolution has created two distinct ways of thinking – an ancestral system that is instinctual and reflexive, and a more modern, deliberative one that involves reasoning. He explains that humans developed “contextual memory”, which means we pull things from our memory by using context or clues that hint at what we are looking for, therefore we are better at the quick retrieval of general information rather than specific details.

Examples of this are seen in branding every day, where we take complex products and compartmentalize them into a simple ‘first’ attribute or benefit.

For example: Vehicle Safety = Volvo, Fights Cavities = Crest, It Tastes Awful = Buckley’s, King of Beers = Budweiser, Magical = Disney, you get the picture.

So what does this mean when building brands? Be the first to offer a new brand promise that is simple and easy for the consumer to consume. If you can synthesize it down to a single thought, image or word you have a greater chance of locking up a place in the consumers mind. Here are some examples:

  • iPod – connecting over 220 million ears to the iconic white earphones
  • Twitter – making news 140 characters at a time.Twitter says there are about 284 million active users and about 500 million tweets per day – plus or minus a revolution.
  • PlayStation – Over 100 million boys barricade themselves in their bedrooms finally found something else to do with their hands.
  • Netflix – Over 50 million customers in over 40 countries have entertainment choices, where and when they want it.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi continue to be wildly successful with two distinctly different brand positions: Coca-Cola is the “real thing” (first in the minds of consumers) but Pepsi had successfully position itself as the youthful coke as the “new generation” to carve a new category.

evolution_of_manBasic Instincts

Back to author Gary Marcus insights, about the human mind where he says, most pleasures are attributed from the ancestral, reflexive system. This would explain why we are always distracted and are attracted to anecdotal and emotional hearsay that affect the way we see the world, filter information and make irrational decisions.

While we like to portray ourselves as highly evolved logical, reasonable bioforms, we are still tied to our basic instincts. Tapping into this insight, brands must have a connection to the non-rational side of the brain. This would explain a number of successful products who have built their brands on emotion and why the best technically superior products don’t necessarily win. As a matter of fact, I have an almost brand-new beta video player and a blue-ray disk player for sale, if you are interested.