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Why Colour Semiotics Are Vital To Branding

Why Colour Semiotics Are Vital To Branding

First of all, what are colour semiotics?

In the 1860s, an American philosopher named Charles Peirce coined the term colour semiotics. The real meaning of semiotics at this time was the examination of signs from a philosophical standpoint.

Charles believed that in semiotics, human thought was the action of signs and that everything in existence communicates and sends a message. 

People then receive those messages or signs and create meaning from them. (For example, an open door indicates the sign that we are allowed to walk in.)

When it comes to colour semiotics, this refers to the meanings that we as humans draw from the signs that colours give off. 

Several areas can communicate signs when creating a brand strategy in the marketing and branding of a business or product. 

These signs have underlying meanings, influencing a consumer's purchasing decisions and opinion on the brand itself.

The colours a brand chooses to use in its brand identity are one of the most critical parts of a brand when communicating signs and influencing consumer opinion and purchase decisions.

This is why, when it comes to choosing a set of brand colours, it's vital to think about its colour semiotics and the meaning behind each colour and how the world will see your brand because of these colours.

The importance of context in colours

Colour Wheel

When using and understanding colour semiotics, three contextual variables are vital for brands when choosing colours for their product.

This is because colours and their different interpretations are bespoke to everyone. For example, your favourite colour is likely to vary from your friend's favourite colour for reasons such as the emotions the colours invoke inside you and how you connect to the colour.

This is the same when colours are taken to a global scale. Different colours give off different signs in different cultures.

These three contextual variables to always keep in mind when choosing brand colours are:


As stated above, different countries bestow different meanings in different colours.

An excellent example of this is in China, where red is associated with luck. However, in North America, red symbolises anger. Similarly, in many parts of Europe, red is associated with passion and sensuality.

When it comes to the colour blue, it is also used by corporations and businesses in Western culture because it's associated with trust and professionalism. However, in East Asia, blue is often avoided as it's seen as a colour of evil!

If your brand is international or used by international consumers, it's essential to keep these cultural differences in mind when choosing a colour semiotics for your branding. 

The signs and interpretations of colours around the world don't always align!


Colours provoke emotions and are often the perfect way to describe emotion and feeling without actually saying anything.

When emotions come into play, colour psychology works with colour semiotics and physics to alter the psychological state.

This works well in places such as gyms, where colours like green (health), yellow (vitality) and red (power), however not so well if the emotions invoked are not correlated to your brand.

For example, yellow is often associated with warmth and creativity. However, when placed against black, it instantly issues a warning: think hazard signs, hazard tape and even wasps that sting! 

Customers may be turned off by the wrong colour combination, which can harm the brand.


Believe it or not, colours even influence how we view the socio-economic status of everyone and everything around us.

Purple is an excellent example of this, as it's commonly seen as the colour of royalty. Gold is another good example, as it's often seen as superior and wealthier than other colours.

These interpretations of socio-economic status can significantly impact how your brand is seen when it comes to brand consumers.  

Suppose your brand image suggests that it is for people of all walks of life and differing economies, but your colour palette is a mix of regal purple and rich gold. 

In that case, you will be sending conflicting messages, which may cause the branding to fail to connect with its target audience.

Colour Strategies

There are four central colour schemes: generic, differentiated, colour adaptations in different cultures, and marketing-related colours. 

Typical colours associated with a product category are referred to as generic colours; for example, blue indicates whole milk.

Differentiated colours are used to make the packaging of a particular product stand out among its competitors. Green ketchup from Heinz is an excellent example of differentiated colour usage.

In addition, a brand's trademark colours also illustrate how distinct colours may capture the consumer's attention in a competitive marketplace. 

Colour change or relinquishing brand colours when a brand or corporate colours are exposed to different cultures, countries, or markets is commonly associated with colour adaptation in different societies and marketing coloured usage.

In marketing, what are some colour meanings?

Colour Psychology In Logo Design

The meanings behind colours matter when it comes to your branding and marketing.

Businesses must understand the meaning of different colours if they want their marketing campaign or products to succeed. 

This isn't just about painting logos with bright colours anymore; it's about establishing and building a brand that potential customers will remember.

The last thing you want is to spend hours designing your logo and colour scheme only to find out later on down the road that it conflicts with the target market; especially if all of the competitors are using similar colours as you (of course, this isn't always a bad thing as long as the logo and colour scheme is cleverly designed).

Here are some colours and their meanings to help you make a decision:


Red is an attention-grabbing colour that influences feelings of action, power, energy and strength. It is often used for products or brands that want to have a dominating or high-energy feel.

Examples of brands that have used red as a brand colour include Mcdonald's, Dominos and KFC. All of these are food chains, with red frequently being thought to provoke appetite.


Yet another attractive colour, orange, influences feelings of warmth, happiness and creativity.

Related:  Sans-Serif vs Serif Fonts: The Typography Debate

Some examples of orange in branding include Pizza Hut, Kettle Chips and Home Depot (hardware). These brands frequently use this colour to convey a warm, inviting feel that helps them build relationships with their consumers.


A highly distinguishing colour is often used for products or brands that want joy, fun, and youth in their branding.  

Yellow is frequently used as a colour for clothing and accessories as it represents the sun.

Some examples of yellow brands in their branding include Toys R Us, Nintendo and Shell (oil). 

The first two are utilising this colour to convey a sense of fun and happiness, something that's great for children and young adults (after all, their primary consumers are the targeted audience). 

On the other hand, Shell uses yellow to convey a sense of energy and movement, which helps people associate it with the idea that the oil industry is fast-paced and advanced.


Green is often used for health or environment-focused brands. It influences feelings of rejuvenation, harmony and nature. 

When green is used with white, it's seen as bracing and fresh. However, if placed against black, it can appear dull and is sometimes associated with sickness.

Green may be a challenge to strike, but Spotify and Starbucks are two excellent examples of doing it correctly. Green doesn't have to repel consumers if your brand narrative enables your visual identity components.


A luxurious colour that often invokes feelings of wealth or royalty, purple is a creative colour that conveys a sense of luxury, fashion and style.

One example of purple being used in branding is Cadbury's and Victoria Secret, and Tiffany's. These brands use a combination of purple and another colour to convey their message.


Blue is often thought to invoke feelings of calm, security and wholesomeness.

Years ago, people associated the colour blue with water which led it to be used for brands that involved any swimming, however now it's commonly used for cleanliness or aquatic brands. 

It's also common for banks and finance companies to use this colour as it's seen as a safe and secure brand image.

For example, Microsoft Word used its blue colour to produce a branded product. The blue utilises feelings of trustworthiness and stability for those consumers who need to use the item every day to work.


Black is a powerful, timeless and strict colour. It's commonly used for luxury brands as it invokes feelings of elegance and sophistication.

Many designers will use white to offset the darkness of black as it helps make the text easier to read and give off a clean feel. For example, Harrods uses white typeface on a black background to produce a chic feel.


A balanced colour that is often used for cleanliness or health-based brands. It influences feelings of purity, simplicity and order.  

Frequently it will be mixed with another brand colour – such as blue – to give off a fresh and relaxed feeling. For example, Dove (a Unilever brand) uses white to help express its health-based message.


Brown is a grounding colour that influences feelings of comfort, dependability and security. It's often used for brands related to nature or the outdoors due to earth tones being the most common representation of this colour.

One example of brown utilised well is Patagonia (a clothing brand). They use this colour to emphasise their love for nature and our planet; it also helps create a warm and inviting brand tone.


A feminine and gentle colour that influences feelings of care, optimism and nurturing. It's used best when paired with black or white, as pink on its own can be too sweet and playful.

For example, the Pantone brand has used this colour frequently for their branding and marketing materials because it's a unique hue tied to them as a company. 

It shows off their individuality and helps them stand out from other printers.


A futuristic and stylish colour that often invokes feelings of wealth, artistry and modernity. Silver is commonly used for technology brands to help create a sleek and modern tone.

For example, Sony utilised the silver branding to produce an image that focuses on their “cool” technology and innovative features, such as Blu-Ray. 

They also use purple in the mix, which other brands have used, so it helps them create a unique feel for themselves and stand out from competitors.


Gold is a regal colour that can be masculine or feminine. It influences feelings of luxury, royalty and extravagance.

Gold is commonly used in high-end brands to help produce a sense of quality and sophistication for the products they are selling. For example, Apple uses this colour in their logo to make consumers feel like they are buying a high-end product worth the money.

Why is colour semiotics so important in marketing?

Brand Colour Psychology The Art Of Choosing Brand Colours

Colour plays a vital role in all marketing strategies because it can make the product feel more relatable, trustworthy and powerful.

There are millions of colours to use in your brand identity; not all of them will make sense at first glance. 

However, take the time to study your competitors or analyse existing businesses that utilise similar concepts. You'll understand how to utilise colours for your product or business effectively.

A brand is who you are, how you make people feel and what they can expect from your company. 

A poor colour choice can repel customers, but a stunning combination of hues can induce great feelings and thoughts about your business.

As long as you do the research and keep testing out colours until you find the right one, you'll eventually produce eye-catching colours that will make your business reach new heights.

Why colour semiotics important when thinking of your brand?

The art of branding isn't always about producing impactful, fantastic visuals; it's also about making sure colours suit the business and the customer. 

This is crucial when creating a brand strategy for your company or product, as choosing the wrong colour semiotics can lead to an unsuccessful sale or even failure in terms of marketing strategies.

Colour semiotics have been used for marketing purposes since ancient times to influence those around them. 

In the modern-day, this has evolved from simple marketing to one-on-one product interactions where packaging, logos or even typefaces can be carefully selected to resonate with a target market.

Photo of author

Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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