Harnessing the emotional and behaviour-altering effects of colour is nothing new. The Ancient Egyptians studied the impact of colour for holistic purposes, and humans have been building on that knowledge ever since. And with good reason. Studies from the CCI Color Institute of Color Research show that we make a subconscious judgment about a person, place, or product within 90 seconds. And up to 90% of that assessment is based on colour alone.
No surprise then, that brands have placed such importance on colour, with some companies trademarking their signature shade to capitalise on the behaviour-influencing ‘colour effect’. American toy company, Mattel, trademarked ‘Barbie Pink’, a colour strongly associated in the US with femininity, while for 24 years, Cadbury claimed sole rights to ‘Cadbury Purple’, a colour associated with royalty and which invoked a sense of luxury and richness.
Tiffany Blue® – with its Pantone Number 1837, reflecting the Company’s founding year – is the specific shade of colour owned by the upmarket jeweller, chosen for its elegance and sophistication. Pick up a Tiffany blue box, and you immediately feel part of that elegant world – a world that got rocked when Tiffany changed its famous blue to zingy yellow overnight. Changing such an iconic colour – albeit as part of a marketing stunt – was deliberately designed to provoke a powerful emotional reaction and to pull in a new, younger generation of luxury buyers drawn by the more energetic branding. So could yellow be the new blue?
Ever wondered why so many of the world’s largest food franchises use red in their branding? Research shows that red stimulates the appetite, which is why companies like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and KFC, use it as a form of subconscious steering. Colour also affects our perception of flavour. Think about different coloured foods. Red foods are typically associated with sweetness such as strawberry, while yellow foods are associated with sour flavours like lemon, and green foods with a tart flavour, such as apples or limes. There’s even evidence that the colour of food can influence our taste.
Suppressing rather than stimulating emotions and feelings is something else colour is capable of doing. ‘Drunk tank pink’ is a shade proven to have a tranquilizing effect on the body. As a consequence, some prisons are painted in this colour. The calm-inducing shade has also been exploited by sports teams who have painted their away-team dressing rooms pink to dampen down the opposition’s fighting spirit and gain a competitive edge.
Conversely, a phenomenon known as ‘dopamine dressing’ has historically dominated fashion trends following times of global austerity and constraint. Mood-boosting pops of feel-good bright clothes were big in the 1950s and 60s after the drab wartime greys and in 2022 after the miseries of Covid. Wearing brightly coloured clothes were shown to lift your spirits, reinforcing the powerful connection between what we wear and what we feel. Once again, colour weaves its way into the fabric of our feelings.
The way colours are perceived varies greatly from country to country. Pink, primarily recognised as a feminine colour in the US, has a masculine association in Japan, with pink cherry tree blossoms said to represent fallen Japanese warriors. And should you happen to be mourning a loved one in South Africa, you might well choose to dress in red. Do the same in China, where red is forbidden at funerals, and you’d soon run into trouble.
Colour perceptions around clothes have seen huge shifts, especially in relation to gender. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mothers were advised to dress their boys in masculine colours like pink and to dress girls in feminine colours like blue. Pink was seen as a boyish version of the masculine colour red, while blue had associations with the Virgin Mary. By the mid 20th century, things had changed with people turning away from traditional gender norms. Millennial Pink – a shade almost universally embraced by millennials – was seen as more gender-fluid, a soft, calming hue that provided a soothing break from the cold blue light of a phone screen. The impact of colour then is dramatic and far-reaching. And for creatives, it’s a vital part of our toolkit, used to ignite fires in the subconscious mind.