The Meaning of Colours

Jan 15, 2020

And their effect on branding

When creating a style for a brand, color is one of the key elements defining the brand’s character. Not only can colors convey a brand’s message, they also play an important role in standing out from the crowd. In most cases selecting a colorpallet is based on what would fit the personality of the brand. But based on what criteria do we decide which characteristics belong to which color?

They weren’t suddenly there, they were formed by psychology and shaped by culture. Based on common associations that exist in the minds of people. Curious about the nature of these associations, I dug into the colorful world of colors. Because in order to steer perceptions, you must know what drives them. Then you can create designs that trigger certain emotions and in the end isn’t that what branding is all about?

The science part

Let’s start with some science to back things up a bit. As I said in the introduction, colors play an important role in branding. More specifically, consumers have a first impression of a product within 0,67 second, mainly based on color. We all know the importance of a first impression and that also counts for products, since 67% of the decision to buy or not to buy a product is based on it. To stick with the numbers, research from Loyola University (2007) showed that using colors to communicate important messages enhances attention by 82% and brand recognition by 80%.

To take things further, people even experience psychological change when they are in contact with different colors. Some colors can stimulate and excite, while others calm you down and even reduce blood pressure. The color of a room can also influence the way in which you experience the temperature. Painted in cool colors, the same space feels several degrees cooler than it does when painted in warm colors. And did you know that a relaxing color can lower the perceived loading time on a website? That knowledge might come in handy sometime.

I think we can agree that colors affect us more than we might be aware of. Each color comes with it’s own set of characterics and associations. You might prefer one color over another, the psychology behind it goes a bit deeper than that.


Red for example is the most stimulating color of all. In Roman times a red flag was the symbol of battle and when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia red became the color of Communism. Maybe not the most sympathetic examples.. but the use of red in these cases makes sense since it increases enthusiasm and energy. Red is therefore also often used in advertising and on national flags.

In physical spaces, according to the ancient philosophy of Feng Shui, red creates the perfect dynamic for exercise areas. For a bedroom on the other hand, it’s better to pick another color since the exiting red can cause restlessness and insomnia. This also makes sense when you know that seeing the color red makes your blood pressure go up.

Red, the color of blood, symbolizes life and vitality. It’s a color that is hard to miss. Driving through a red traffic sign is almost never because you didn’t see it. And as the color of the ‘fire element’ red also stands for fiery heat and warmth, it makes it the color of passion and love.

A famous brand that went for red is Netflix, perfectly combining both the excitement and passion the color brings. Knowing this about red, ‘Netflix & chill’ suddenly becomes a very logical link.


Yellow is the most cheerful and optimistic colour, not surprisingly so since yellow is associated with the sun in most cultures. It signifies wisdom and stimulates joy. In Greek mythology yellow is the color of Mercury, the messenger of the gods and conveyer of mental and spiritual enlightenment. It’s the color of intelligence and wisdom in Feng Shui, which fits the characteristics described in the Indian tradition of Ayurveda where yellow is known for stimulating the brain and boosting the memory. Maybe this explains why the original Post-it’s are yellow…

Some might have a negative association with yellow, because it can also refer to aging and illness. But generally people have a positive emotional reaction to this color. In times of stress there is even an increase in the sale of yellow foods. Custard, macaroni & cheese, all comforting foods that will definitely cheer you up. And as the most visible color, yellow is a good color for school busses and taxi’s to stand out in traffic for both safety and recognition.

The cheerful, optimistic character of yellow makes it a logical choice for Snapchat, the playful picture sharing app — with the quirky logo. They picked a bright, almost painful, shade of yellow, making a bold statement in the more conservative pallet of social media — Facebook (blue), Instagram (purple/orange), LinkedIn (blue).


From cheerful yellow, on to more grounded green. In Feng Shui green represents growth and new beginnings. It has an healing power and, according to Ayurveda, green can be used as a blood purifier. It has a soothing effect on people, mentally as well as physically. The color expresses a feeling of safety and is associated with getting permission. Hence the expression ‘green light’ when you are allowed to proceed with a project. Although that might also have something to do with traffic lights.

For Heineken the choice for green in their branding had probably little to do with the Feng Shui or Ayurvedic associations with green. Although in some circumstances you might see beer as a ‘healing power’, it’s definitely not a ‘blood purifier’. However, the natural character of green makes it a sensible choice for Heineken. A brand that stands for pure and natural flavors and is positioned as a quality brand.

Green is perceived as a natural color, and is often used by sustainable, healthy and organic brands — preferably in combination with unbleached paperboard and a logo with leaves. The color green itself however isn’t exactly so ‘green’. It is such a difficult color to make, that most of the time toxic substances are used to stabilize it, making recycling green paper impossible without contamination. Back in the 18th and 19th century people even died because they wanted their rooms painted green. In that time many green paints were made with arsenic, so you can imagine the fatal consequences.


From nature loving green, to competent and trustworthy blue. Apparently blue is the most popular color in the world. It is associated with competence, intelligence and trustworthiness. Not a surprise that it is the number one choice in corporate branding. More darker blues are associated with authority and law and order, probably because of the uniforms of the police forces worldwide. Funny when you know that Egyptian pharaohs wore blue to ward off evil.

Blue tones have a calming effect on the mind. Where red makes your blood pressure rise, blue tends to lower it. In Feng Shui, blue is therefore the suggested color for bedrooms. For plates it’s best to go for red, which is the most appetizing color. Blue on the other hand is an appetite suppressant, but if you’re working on your summer body, a blue plate might not be such a bad idea.

For the more spiritual among us, blue represents the ‘throat chakra’, which enables the expression of thought and feelings. Which is in line with the general characteristic of blue, that it encourages easy communication and promotes interaction.

For cloud storage service Dropbox blue might not have been the smartest move if they wanted to stand out from all the other ‘innovative’ corporates and ‘lean’ digital startups. On the other hand, it does communicate that the company is trustworthy, fresh and competent. Plus, the link with cloud service — sky — blue is also there for the taking.


Then last but not least, purple. With a mix of a strong warm hue (red) and a strong cool hue (blue), purple has both warm and cool properties. Too much purple can make you feel moody, but the right amount can bring inspiration and relaxation. In a working environment, purple is perfect for stimulating creativity (Feng Shui).

In general purple calms the mind and nerves, it can even offer a sense of spirituality. Leonardo da Vinci even believed the power of meditation increased ten times when bathed in purple light.

Historically purple is seen as a royal color, only worn by the wealthy and sophisticated royalty. This heritage is still noticeable in it’s association with luxury and quality. Also explaining why in the US the poker chip with the most value is purple. For greeting card icon Hallmark, the association with creativity and quality makes purple the perfect choice for their brand’s color.

If you’ve read all the way to here, I must say: I’m impressed! Of course there is so much more to tell about colors. For example how different hues and saturations affect the characteristics and personality of a color, how color work in combination, how different cultures have different associations with colors, etc. But let’s save that for another time!

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