Can you imagine a classic coke can in any other colour? How about the golden arches of McDonald’s – can you see them in blue? The essense of the brand is expressed through that single colour. Consumers rely on that colour recognition to make a choice about a brand. One of my favourite branding stories is about colour.

Michael Wolff, of the famous branding consultancy Wolff Olins, was invited to pitch for the original rebranding of British Petroleum (BP). There was tough competition from some of the brightest branding companies on the planet. But Michael Wolff had the nerve to give a presentation with no words, no brand strategy document, no hint of new logo. He just showed slides of rolling fields and trees. He proposed BP owned the colour green. The colour green would be the linchpin for the rebranding exercise.

BP took this a step further when they merged with Amoco in 1998. They needed to reinvent the energy business, to go beyond petroleum, not by abandoning oil and gas, but by improving the ways in which it is used and produced so our business is aligned with the long–term needs of the world.’ (Lord John Browne, Group Chief Executive, BP). Landor Associates were tasked with the redesign. BP has such a strong brand, the green was retained and built upon with a new positioning, ‘Beyond Petroleum’, and a new logo which took the relationship with nature a step further.

Colour expresses personality

Colour is used in branding to evoke a reaction and stimulate brand association. The Orange brand was created in 1994 for Hutchison Telecom’s UK mobile phone network. Immediately, the brand was distinctive, fresh and appealing to the target market. The brand used primarily Helvetica as the typeface, but it was the simple, bold and consistent colour usage that made the bold statement in a brand marketplace. The orange colour was often coupled with white, or black, presenting a simple, sophisticated image. The resultant modernist appearance appealed to a certain audience demographic; mostly young, professional men with a high disposable income. Orange were perhaps the first mobile phone network to introduce style in order to sell phones. They were an aspirational brand; they wanted people to aspire to use their products. They built this up through advertising, marketing, sponsorship and careful product placement. Throughout all of this activity, the primary vehicle in brand recognition was a colour: orange.

Colour brand basics

Own a colour

As discussed earlier in this chapter, owning a colour is the holy grail of brand identity.

Use colour to build meaning

In chapter thirteen, I described the various meanings colours have. If you can align your brand, or design, with a colour that makes sense, this will reinforce the meaning of your design.

Develop the best tools to get consistency of colour

On the web, we have good standards for colour reproduction – RGB and Hex values. The only down side is the discrepancies between monitors. LCD screens tend to wash colour out – specifically pastel tones. PC’s and Apple Macs have different gamma settings – PCs generally being slightly darker and richer in tone. Ensuring colour is consistent across all of these devices is impossible, but you should still stick to the standards. Any slight deviation can undermine a brand.

Consistency across all media

Not only do different monitors display slightly different colours, as described over leaf, but different media display colours differently. For example, mobile phones may have different screen settings. TV and cinema screens, different compression codecs in video compression can affect colour. Make sure you know the problems, and design for the middle ground.

Be careful with colour coding

You may decide to assign different sub-brand colours to different sections of a website. Colour coding different sub–brands is a common practice, but depending on the amount of sub- brands, can quickly turn into a nightmare. You see, there aren’t enough colours with suitable contrast – you can quickly run out. To circumvent this, build a brand that does not rely solely on colours to determine differentiation.

Colour usage should be a considered design decision as part of the broader design process. Your colour choices can be based on your intuition, or by following some of the theory I’ve discussed – both are correct approaches. Your intuition will be informed by colour you see around you and you may be surprised at how it closely it follows the theory. When working with clients, or other members of a team, be mindful that every one has a favourite colour, or one they hate. It’s your job – however difficult – to provide considered rationale for choosing a particular colour. It shouldn’t be because you like it, but because it’s the right choice.