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The power of colour PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alixe MacRae   

ImageIn 1924, Philip Morris launched a women's cigarette brand called Marlboro. Its tag line was Mild as May and its market share languished at about 1%. About 30 years later, the company decided to reposition it as a man's cigarette. The lipstick red package colour remained but the cowboy - also known as The Marlboro Man was born. Within a year it ranked as the fourth highest selling brand and, today, Marlboro remains the largest cigarette brand in the world. By the way; they didn't lose the female customers, they just added the men.

Part of the reason for Marlboro's success continues to be the colour of its packaging. Every advertising expert will state without reservation, people react to colour. It's a behaviour trigger. The right colour is a key element in brand positioning as well as in advertising and marketing campaigns.

For example, red is the colour of action. It makes the heart beat faster. It's also the colour of appetite, gambling, adventure and daring. That's why red is a popular colour in restaurants, in Las Vegas and is the primary colour for Virgin Airlines. It's also the colour of passion and wedding dresses in China.

Pink is soothing and calming. The web site says in a number of countries the most violent criminals are incarcerated in pink cells. They claim it saps energy and calms aggression. It's also the colour of the bestselling brand of insulation. That's also the reason, according to Terry O'Reilly, writer and presenter of CBC Radio's acclaimed series on marketing and advertising - Under the Influence - that a coach painted the visitor's change room pink.

Blue has a totally different message. It is the colour of steadfastness, loyalty, wisdom and calmness. It is the colour of the UN flag, the message of IBM (big blue) and the colour of many insurance companies. It's also an appetite depressant; the shade of Loblaw's Blue Menu, and the colour recommended for a dieter's dining room or plates. Does you want your store's brand to be wise or adventurous?

Blue, specifically Robin's Egg Blue, is also the colour of Tiffany. In fact, Robin's Egg Blue's Pantone number 1837, the year of the iconic department store was founded. This colour is so closely associated with the store that customers recognize the colour first. It's also the background colour of their website and their boxes are instantly recognizable because of it.

Black is the colour of power and authority. The cowboy in the "black hat" was presumed to be evil. Black is the colour of graduate gowns, judge's robes and the mask that covers the to-be-executed. If you want to convey power; use black. There are risks in using such a strong colour as it is not friendly, trustworthy or warm.

Black is also a "heavy" colour. Terry O'Reilly noted in one of his broadcasts that one company's warehouse associates complained that its black-painted boxes were too heavy to carry. The company changed the colour to mint green. The boxes were the same weight, but the complaints disappeared.

Speaking of complaints; an office building was barraged by complaints about the slowness of their elevators. There was little they could do to make them faster but the installation of mirrors on the sides of the elevators eliminated the complaints. See for the full story.

Orange conveys inexpensive while being seen as vital and energetic. This is way it's used by online banker ING (with its complementary colour blue) and Joe Fresh. Terry O'Reilly says a hot dog chain in the U.S. changed their primary colour to orange and their sales increased 7% - without making any other modifications.

McDonald's uses red and gold, which looks and works much like orange. Orange also conveys warmth and suggest a bargain, which explains why Home Depot loves bright orange (PMS 165) as does the discount English airline Easyjet, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and, of course, Reese's Pieces.

Yellow is not orange. But it is the colour of optimism, creativity, laughter and good times. Again, according to it must be used with care, too intense a shade of yellow works in reverse. Yellow is the primary colour for Ferrari, Best Buy, Kodak and IKEA. It is also the colour for legal pads; after all, lawyers need to be creative at times. Do you want your brand to be seen as creative?

Confectionary giant Cadbury favours the colour purple (Pantone 2865c); which it first used to pay homage to Queen Victoria. Purple has always associated with royalty because of the cost to make the dye. It also connotes mystery, ambition, completion and dignity and is the colour of DreamWorks, FedEx ground, Ralph Lauren and Thai Airlines.

Next let's look at brown. UPS uses a shade known as Pullman Brown in its ‘What can Brown do for You?' campaign. Most people associate brown with reliability, friendship, nature as well as our favourite food - chocolate. Brown is also the main colour for Hershey's, Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

White stands for purity - which is why nurses and doctors traditionally use it as their uniform/coat colour. It also suggests a clean slate, as in The Beatles' White Album; or youthful vigour. It is also a colour to be used with care as the absence of colour (white's other major connotation) could be seen as bland; but if used carefully can send a powerful message, as it does for Coke, Starbucks and the TD Bank.

And finally green - the colour of growth, rebirth, relaxation, healing, recycle and fertility. We can see more shades of green than any other colour. Guests waiting to appear on David Letterman's Late Night talk show sit in the green room. Operating rooms are often green. Check out the well- known brands associated with the colour green: Starbucks, American Express, The Body Shop, Whole Foods, TD Bank, Perrier, Subway (eat fresh), L. L. Bean and Land Rover.

The key is to think about your brand before selecting a colour; and make it consistent. It should be on your trucks, website, uniforms if applicable, business cards and all advertising. It's a much your image as anything in your arsenal.

Alixe MacRae is one of this country's best known merchandisers, having held senior positions at a variety of well-known Canadian retailers including Stoney Creek Furniture, Sears Canada and The Bay. She now owns Concierge Relocation (, a company specializing in move management, especially for dramatically downsizing seniors and their overwhelmed children.

Editor's Note: For more about Terry O'Reilly check out

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