Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

50 shades of blue? Corporate colours in an age of austerity

This post was written for the Huffington Post UK

 

Exactly ten years ago this month I wrote an article for the British Airways Business Life magazine on corporate colours. Hardly one of design’s darker arts but a fascinating subset of the marketing MO all the same, and one that draws on a whole range of sources, from history, to science, to the wilder blue yonder of ‘colour psychology’. The latter’s practitioners specialise in recommending colours for different sectors according to the same seasonal palettes that Color Me Beautiful first popularised (and which no doubt come in very handy when deciding what to go for in the executive washroom). According to one such website, spring colours are suitable for toys and childrenswear businesses, while summer tones are ideal for lingerie and luxury hotels. So now you know.

You may think that’s taking the whole colour thing a bit far, but there’s a crock of fact at the end of this particular rainbow. One reason why the Western world associates blue with trustworthiness, for example, stems from its traditional use in depictions of the Virgin Mary, which was itself originally prompted by the fact that blue pigment – made from lapis lazuli – was one of the most expensive available. But blue’s halo effect goes well beyond such subliminal messages.

Scientific experiments have proved that merely looking at blue has a calming influence while ‘seeing red’ has – yes, you’ve guessed it – quite the opposite effect. In fact red is almost universally equated with aggression, power or sex, or any combination of all three. In the animal kingdom red is the colour of warning and hostile display, more than three-quarters of the world’s flags contain red, and a ‘red light’ district is a commonly-understood term throughout the world. So with the two opposing primaries having these enormously powerful connotations it’s no surprise to find that banks and financial services have been the biggest fans of blue in the corporate world, while red is the choice of the manufacturers of sports cars and electronic boys’ toys.

But back in the heady days of 2003 when I first wrote my piece, the colour of the moment was neither red nor blue, but orange. For most of the 20th century orange languished unloved by business, evoking only cut prices and low quality (there was even a 1991 article in Forbes entitled ‘Does orange mean cheap?’), but by the mid 90s it was everywhere. In fact so many companies were choosing it or switching to it that I headlined my article ‘Any colour you like as long as it’s orange’. The mobile phone company started it, of course, but they were rapidly followed by a whole bag of oranges including BG Group, GlaxoSmithKline, easyJet and a more contemporary makeover of one of the original corporate oranges, Sainsbury’s. In fact back then easyJet even boasted of having an ‘orange culture’ which apparently included being ‘up for it’, ‘passionate’ and ‘sharp’.

So ten years on, where are we now? Has an age of austerity sent all those business re-brandings rushing for cover to reassuring hues of blue? That’s certainly what I expected to discover when I started looking through the most recent corporate makeovers. But the answer was rather more variegated than I initially expected. Sitting firmly in the blue corner were two of the biggest new blockbuster brands of the 21st century, Facebook and Twitter, and that set me wondering whether they opted for blue – consciously or not – because it might inspire confidence in those contemplating entrusting their personal information to social media sites.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there were significant numbers of high-profile companies who’d actually plumped for more colour, not less, in these tougher times. For example, when RBS Insurance rebranded itself as Direct Line Group in 2012 it added a rainbow ribbon to its new logotype, though interestingly did not change the overwhelming red of the main consumer-facing brand. Likewise ITV now has a multi-coloured logo, and the mighty Microsoft has gone from a monolithic black to a softer grey typeface with a colourful windowpane.  It hasn’t all been one-way though: it didn’t take long for Kraft to ditch its new pastel ‘petals’ for a red and blue logo that looks remarkably like the one it started with four years before.

One thing that does seem to have evolved since the credit crunch is companies’ understanding of how corporate colours work. Just as some logos have become more polychrome, so their use has become more nuanced. As one of my copywriting clients, Philip Mann of design agency Bostock & Pollitt told me, “We used to present designs and get the typical response ‘I prefer blue’ or ‘I don’t like green’. These days, people are much more aware of what messages colours can give, and how you can use them to reinforce everything else they want to say about their brand.”

So if you’re mulling a makeover of that tired corporate logo, or simply wondering what not to wear, here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide to what your choice of colour could say about you.

Red

Associated with

Power, love, sex, danger, anger, blood, aggression, competition, passion

Loved by

Coca-Cola, Manchester United, Virgin, London buses, Ferrari, fire engines,

Use it when you want to

Attract attention

Appeal to men

Up the temperature

Did you know

Though Father Christmas had been depicted in red and white for centuries, it was Coca-Cola advertising in the early 1930s that made Santa scarlet for good and all.

Bees can’t see red, so red flowers are usually pollinated by other creatures like birds and butterflies.

Chinese New Year is celebrated with red decorations.  Young children are also given red envelopes with ‘luck money’ to bring them good fortune for the rest of the year.

Blue

Associated with

Harmony, serenity, dependability, coolness, truth, dignity, sadness

Loved by

Chelsea FC, Gillette, Unilever, P&G, and just about the whole of the banking industry

Use it when you want to

Look authoritative

Inspire trust

Play safe

Did you know

Blue is overwhelmingly the world’s favourite colour.  It’s also the least gender-specific, liked equally by men and women.

No-one’s quite sure why IBM is known as ‘Big Blue’ but it could be because its 1960s System 360 mainframe was as big as a room and came in a blue case.

Green

Associated with

Luck (good or bad, depending on where you’re from), nature, envy, money, safety, sickness

Loved by

Environmentalists, BP, Heineken, Starbucks, Ireland, jolly giants

Use it when you want to

Emphasise your environmental credentials

Get back to nature

Go Celtic

Did you know

In Japan, green is the colour of eternal life.

British motor sport ended up with ‘racing green’ rather than one of the national colours of red, white and blue, because those had already been taken by Italy, Germany and France.

Orange

Associated with

Energy, fun, warmth, autumn, Hallowe’en, the 1970s

Loved by

Orange, Sainsbury’s, GlaxoSmithKline, easyJet, Holland, space hoppers

Use it when you want to

Go retro

Feel funky

Challenge the establishment

Did you know

In most cases the ‘black box’ in an aeroplane is actually painted orange.

Orange smarties are the only ones that have their own taste.

Alexander the Great dyed his hair with saffron, so he’s probably the first person ever to have been well and truly Tangoed

Yellow

Associated with

Sunshine, cowardice, quarantine, happiness, Spring, youth

Loved by

Shell, Selfridges, business directories, the construction industry, American taxis

Use it when you want to

Make a quick impact

Look light-hearted

Raise a smile

Did you know

The first time yellow was used for a phone directory was in 1883, when a printer ran out of white paper and switched to yellow instead.

In the Middle Ages actors portraying the dead wore yellow costumes, while sending yellow roses means friendship, not love.

Purple

Associated with

Wealth, empire, sophistication, intelligence, age, mystery

Loved by

Cadbury’s, government departments, Yahoo!, princes, Prince

Use it when you want to

Gain gravitas

Add some elegance

Be a bit different

Did you know

Purple was the royal colour of the Roman emperors, and they were the only ones allowed to wear it – it took more than 12,000 shellfish to extract only two grams of the dye.

Queen Victoria’s favourite colour was said to be purple – that’s why Cadbury’s chose it