Do You Speak My Language? Color Strategy for Brands


Color meaning by culture

Color meaning by culture


Not everyone sees color in the same way.  There are of course people with forms of color blindness, a physiological condition (most common among men in the red/green color ranges).  But color is also perceived differently between cultures.  For example, ‘death’ is often associated with black in Western cultures, but in Asia (China and India) ‘white’ is associated with death, and in some South American native populations ‘green’ is! (See chart – Exhibit).  Talk about love?  There is a wide range of colors associated between cultures on that emotion (from red to green to yellow and blue).

Color is a subject that has been explored often by social research to determine linguistic relativity.  Most people know that men and women generally have different color preferences – and women are more likely to have a color preference than men.  This can get started early on and reinforced by ‘political/cultural correctness‘.  And while men and women see the same colors (unless there is a physiological condition, e.g. color blindness), they categorize them differently (women are more ‘granular’ vs. men).  Thus, the argument goes, because women are  familiar with more color terms (e.g. olive and chartreuse vs. ‘green’) they have greater awareness of the subject.  Academics argue that because, in the case of women, they are familiar with more color terms, it has a greater influence on their thinking.  A cross-cultural example of this are the Inuit (Eskimo) words for ‘snow’.  Because snow is ever-present in their world and awareness of its condition can be critical to survival, they developed a complex categorization of ‘snow‘.  Literally hundreds of words for snow!

In branding a company, product or service, we need to be keenly aware of the audiences we wish to connect with and form relationships.  The choices we make in how to express our brand may be received differently (and negatively) in different audiences.  For example:

During its 1994 launch campaign, the telecom company Orange had to change its ads in Northern Ireland. “The future’s bright … the future’s Orange.” That campaign is an advertising legend. However, in the North the term Orange suggests the Orange Order. The implied message that the future is bright, the future is Protestant, loyalist… didn’t sit well with the Catholic Irish population.

Social scientists who believe that linguistic relativity goes beyond influencing thinking, but actually determines thought and perceptions of the world (called a ‘strong’ version of Linguistic Relativity), would argue that we are limited in what we can comprehend by our vocabulary.  As this relates to brand strategy, we may not only be using colors, symbols or even shapes that are ‘less appealing’ with certain audiences, but our brands could actually seem as ‘alien or foreign’ to their thinking.  Responses could be either to ignore your brand or provoke curiosity, but unlikely to generate sales…. And even if your brand’s reach is local, or confined to the USA (or other nations or regions), there is considerable diversity of perceptions and cognitive understanding within those local communities.  Turquoise deodorant for men? white packaging for vitamins in Asian markets?

If you would like to discuss color in branding, contact Raleigh Green.

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