The Psychology of the Colors

The Psychology of the Colors

Marketers, advertisers and graphic artists agree that the effects of color on the consumer certainly can
help facilitate the exchange process.  Studies have shown how color can grab and retain attention, can
stimulate emotional responses, can affect an individual’s perception, can form attitudes, and improve
learning and persuasiveness.  Color is influential at every level of the marketplace, from brand logo,
image, signage, display, packaging, and even the product itself.  Color exercises very strong effects plus
induces reactions in individuals based on both instincts and associations.

This paper will review research and literature on the psychological and socio-cultural association and
meaning of color in a cross cultural context.  It will present evidence that people of various cultures
and/or geographic areas possess disparate perceptions and response to color which will support research
demonstrating that our response to color is both physiological and learned.

The fact is, the physical world has no color – there are only light waves of different wave lengths.  It is
left to the retina cover of our eye to distinguish among the band of light that makes the world a rainbow
for us.

The eye again is your complex receptor. Simply, the rods and cones in your retina respond to light
whereby an electro- chemical process sends signals by way of the optic neurons to the visual center of the
brain where seeing “really occurs”.  The cones in your retina are of three types – those sensitive only to
blue, to green and to red: but as you can assume, they work in complex combination to provide the many
color variations we see.  In fact, the human eye can see at least 7 million colors.  You are born with most
of your ability to take in color.

Interestingly, not all signals reach the brain’s visual center; about 20% stop at the pituitary gland.  This
gland is the gland that sends out chemicals that signal other glands in the body.  They are our response to
color. Our brain also sometimes gets confused with color.

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There are a number of diverse viewpoints regarding an individual’s response to color and human
behavior.  The two major schools of thought are:  color reaction could be innate or instinctive origin
(Humphrey 1976 – Grossman 1999) or of a learned/associative origin (Adams 1973 - Hupka 1997).

Are color preferences learned over time as shared affective meanings or a result of experience or as a
conscious association of language, literature and other cultural factors?  There are some that argue
(Crozier 1996) that the difference in color associations are more a difference in latent philosophical
religious attitudes than innate differences in the perception of color.
There are also a number of studies (Boyatzis & Varghese – 1994, Krishna – 1972, Choungourian – 1968
& Yang – 2001) suggesting that demographic factors such as age, sex and even ethnicity also should be
considered in explaining the communication values of various colors.
A recent and renewed area of research that perhaps can help individuals understand the development of
color and color preferences is “associative learning,” indicating that perhaps a favorable experience (or
conditioning) with a color leads to a preference for certain colors.
Traditionally, classical conditioning researchers examine physiological responses in which a conditioned
stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus are paired and would elicit a conditioned response.  Whereas
classical conditioning is a specific mechanism for creating association, associative learning is a more
broad application of classical conditioning and includes any systematic pairing of stimulus to create a
connection among them.  (Bierley, McSweeney – 1985)
This associative learning framework can be used to explain human physiological response to
color.  Researchers have suggested that color associations may have been formulated early in human
history when man associated black/dark blue with night and therefore unknowness/passitivity and bright
yellow (sunlight) with alertness/arousal.  (McCracken – 1988)
Other studies, mainly in the mid-90’s suggested that color may, indeed, have both an arousal component
and an evaluative component as well.  (Kim – 1998 & Shimp – 1991)  More recently, researchers in the
classical conditioning school have begun to discover that attitudes formulated through a conditioning
process may result both from belief formation, a cognitive process, and perhaps even through direct
“affect” transfer, which would be an emotional process.
Our response to color is learned.  Much of our learning is influenced by a number of variables. We know
that demographic variables like age, gender, and ethnicity “influence” the effectiveness of color.  In fact,
several studies have demonstrated differences in color perception among people of differing geographical
heritage, sunlight exposure and even economic development. These factors might provide a better
explanation for color preferences than the usual environmental influencers marketers first consider:  that
of a country’s culture.
For example, it has been proposed that in areas where sunlight is extremely bright, colors and contrasts
decline in intensity.  Consequently, people living closer to the equator have a more highly developed
vision (a larger number of efficient rods in the retina).  It has been documented that people living near the
equator possess greater amounts of yellow intraocular
 pigmentation in the eye that causes a depression in
color discrimination for example, a reduction in the perception of blueness. People from northern latitudes,
where light is reflected less directly, have developed a more refined color vision.
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This indicates that some fundamental physiological differences might help explain the need for differing
chromatic stimulation to facilitate the perception of color when dealing with signage and advertising as
well as corporate branding.
Marketers and certainly advertisers today understand the importance of color.  For over 60 years,
researchers have studied the effects of color and we know that they are multifaceted in facilitating the
exchange process.
We know that color can stimulate emotional response, affect persuasiveness, reflect prestige, and color
can certainly affect a consumer’s overall perception of a product.  In advertising, color has been shown to
reinforce copy claims, improve learning and increase readership.
Colors exercise powerful affects and induce reactions based on both instincts and associations.  Colors
alter the meaning of the objects or situations with which they are associated, and color preferences can
predict consumer behavior.
Thus, color is an integral element of corporate and marketing communications.  It induces moods and
emotions, influences
 perception and helps companies position or differentiate from the competition.
The use of color in branding has taken on new importance as more companies go global.  Global brands
such as BP (British Petroleum) (green), Cadburys Chocolate (purple), Hershey’s Chocolate (brown), and
Kodak (yellow) use color to differentiate, but also to stand out.
Brands are fortified in memory by way of an “associative memory network.”   Marketers use color to
strengthen associations.  For example, we all have evoked
sets.  This is the set of brands that come into
our head when we have a need for something (e.g., rent-a-car companies).  What company do you
associate with the colors red, yellow, blue, etc.?  If consumers lack the motivation or ability to evaluate a
product they may use signals or “extrinsic values” such as appearance or color to make a decision.  In
today’s world of product parity and competition (with lots of options and brands), branding and perhaps
color will be more important.
Color will have more importance in countries where illiteracy prevails or the use of symbolism is
widespread.  International brand and product names also are often plagued by problems of language,
pronunciation, meaning, cultural considerations and legalities and as a result, non-verbal cues have
become increasingly important in positioning international brands quickly and effectively.
So, if color is an integral part of a brand, logo, product, or package, let’s look at some cross-cultural
patterns of both similarity and dissimilarity in color preference and color meaning association. A number
of studies have assessed the preferences of colors across cultural borders.  The results have demonstrated
that people of different cultures have various preferences for color.  Cultural differences in color
meanings and associations have also been identified.
In the Journal of International Marketing, Vol. 8, No. 4 2000, article entitled “Managing Images in
Different Cultures:  A Cross-National Study of Color, Meaning and Preferences”   talks about semantic
differential scale anchors, means for liking ratings, and principle coordinate analysis for color association
by country.  In the first chart the colors have been arranged from the most liked to least liked for each
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country. Overall blue was the most liked color with a mean of 6 on a 7-point scale.  Blue was rated as the
most liked color in 5 of the 8 countries and second most liked in the remaining three countries.  As an
aside – blue is the most frequently used color in corporate America – logos, brands and packaging. In the
second chart; diagrams the various elements of color perception including physical and especially cultural.
The bottom diagram depicts the basic interactions of color in marketing that supports earlier claims.
Another chart entitled “The Cross-Culture Spectrum of Meaning and Associations of Color in Marketing”
comes from a recent article which takes issue with some long held beliefs regarding color and contains
some new findings.  The article is entitled, “Are You Selling the Right Colors? A Cross-Cultural Review
of Colors as a Marketing Cue”, Journal of Marketing Communication, Vol. 12, No. 1, March 2006.

We live in a world of global products and while there are many efficiencies that can be realized through
standardization of some or all aspects of a product, some of the subtleties of cultural difference may be
lost in the quest for cost-efficiency.  Marketers should be knowledgeable and flexible enough to
understand that colors do not have universal meanings and associations.

WHITE: Symbolizes mourning or death in East Asia, but happiness and purity in Australia, New
Zealand and USA
BLUE:  The most popular and most common corporate color in the U.S. is perceived as cold and evil in
East Asia but stands for warmth in the Netherlands; interestingly coldness in Sweden; death in Iran and
purity in India. Blue denotes femininity in Belgium and the Netherlands, but masculinity in Sweden and
the USA
GREEN:  Represents danger or disease in Malaysia, envy in Belgium, love and happiness in Japan and
sincerity, trustworthiness and dependability in China.
RED    Means unlucky in Nigeria and Germany, but lucky in China, Denmark and Argentina. It reflects
ambition and desire in India and love in China, Korea and Japan
YELLOW:      Represents warmth in the USA, but infidelity in France. It is associated with jealousy in
Russia, but pleasant, happy, good taste, royalty in China. In Brazil purple and yellow are perceived as
symbolic of sorrow and despair.
 PURPLE: Purple is the color of love in China and South Korea.  Anger and envy in Mexico, sin and fear
in Japan.  Purple is considered expensive in China also. Many studies have attempted to evaluate the
interaction between color and product, or packaging and product (woe to the grocery store that instead of
clear cellophane would use a green shade to package their red meats). Having already reinforced the need
for culturally accepted colors to go with particular products, one also has to realize that different hues (a
light yellow to a sun burst yellow, for example) also have to be considered.
One study, rated colors on their “saturation” potency scale – that is the more saturated the color, the more
potent the object becomes. More in-depth research is needed in a number of areas:
- Are color perceptions and associations stable over time?
- How do colors reflect a national personality and do color preferences change over time?
- Is color identification influenced by the coloring of existing products (coke red, for    
  example, or the color of a country flag – red is strongly identified with China)?

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-Are there gender, age or other demographic differences that might cause a specific target
  market to react differently from the general population?

For marketers, color has many uses.  Many times it is the very first thing we notice.  Color shapes the way
we think in an immediate and visceral way.  Color can be a primary tool in the hands of a marketer. In a
society faced with information and stimulation overload, color communicates with refreshing simplicity
and impact.  Color has strong associative meaning, it can communicate quickly, and it can elicit a
powerful subconscious response. In the last couple of decades, globalization has become a general
tendency of the overall market.  Companies need to be aware of cultural color differences that exist
among most nations worldwide.  Color perception, meanings and preferences vary by culture and
ethnicity. It is definitely a significant factor in global marketing.

Adams, F. M., & Osgood, D. (1973), “A Cross-cultural Study of the Affective Meanings of
Color,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 4, 135-156.

Aslam, M. M., (2006), “Are You Selling the Right Colors? A cross-Cultural Review of Colors as
a Marketing Cue,” Journal of Marketing Communications, Vol. 12, No. 1, 15-30.

Friedman, Thomas L., (2000), the Lexus and the Olive Tree:  Understanding
Globalization.  Anchor:  New York, NY.

Greenberg, Karl (2002), “Blue Gets the Blue Ribbon,” Brandweek, 43, 9, 28.

Grieve, K. W. (1991), “Traditional Beliefs and Color Perception,” Perceptual Motor Skills 72 (3),

Grimes, A., & Doole, I. (1998), “Exploring the Relationship Between Color and International
Branding,” Journal of Marketing Management, 14, 799-817.

Jacobs, Laurence, Charles Keown, Reginald Worthley, and Kyung-Il Ghymn (1991), “Cross-
Cultural Color Comparisons:  Global Marketers Beware!” International Marketing
Review, 8(3), 21-30.

Madden, Thomas J., Kelly Hewlett, and Martin S. Roth (2000), “Managing Images in Different
Cultures:  A Cross-National Study of Color Meanings and Preferences,” Journal of
International Marketing, 8, 4, 9.

Paul, Pamela (2002), “Color by Numbers,” American Demographics, 24, 2 (Feb), 30.
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