Colours are a powerful communication tool. They can draw our attention, evoke specific emotions and make information stick in our memories. But how can you apply colours to your branding? In this article, I want to take a deep dive into brand colours and give you a step-by-step guide to choosing an effective brand colour palette.
Before we get into it, let’s understand what brand colours are and why they are so important for your business.
What Are Brand Colours?
Brand colours are a set of colours chosen to reflect your unique brand identity.
In a typical brand colour palette, you’ll find one or two primary colours. These colours are often seen in your logo and other core brand elements, making the brand recognisable. Alongside the primary colours, you’ll have a set of complementary secondary colours, perfect for adding accents, creating backgrounds, or setting text in.
When selecting your brand colours, be sure to align them with your overall brand strategy to make sure they convey the intended message and personality.
Why Are Brand Colours So Important?
You shouldn’t choose your brand colours purely on aesthetics and personal taste. Use colour as a strategic tool for your brand-building. Here’s how your brand can benefit from colours:
- Shaping Brand Identity: Brand colours help shape your brand identity and ensure a consistent brand image across all platforms and touchpoints.
- Brand Recognition: They make it easier for people to remember and identify your brand. Many say brand colours increase brand recognition by up to 80%. I wish I could put a number to it, but there seems to be no original source for this statement.
- Differentiation: Colours help people tell your brand apart from its competitors.
- Influencing Brand Perception: Colours communicate your brand personality and a certain vibe. Is your brand trustworthy or luxurious, calm or exciting?
- Building Trust: By applying the same colour palette over and over again, you can strengthen people’s loyalty and trust towards your brand.
10 Steps to Creating Your Unique Brand Colour Palette
1. Define Your Brand
Before looking at colour swatches, take a moment to truly understand your brand—its internal drivers, audience, and market. Ask yourself questions such as:
- What is your brand’s mission? Why does your brand exist?
- What core values does your brand stand for?
- Who is your target audience? What are their needs, behaviours, and problems?
- Who are your competitors, and how do they communicate?
Once you’ve laid the foundation with a solid brand strategy, it’s time to craft your unique brand identity. Consider these elements:
- How do you want your brand to be perceived? How do you want it to feel?
- What is its unique brand personality?
- What voice do you want your brand to use?
- What visual style do you want your brand to have?
When selecting your brand colours, think about:
- Which colours can help your brand stand out?
- Which colours will resonate best with your audience?
- How can your brand colours effectively communicate your unique personality and evoke the right feelings?
2. Strike a Balance Between Standing Out and Representing Your Industry
Find the right balance between standing out while fitting into your industry.
It’s a fine line. You want to make sure, customers find and consider your brand when shopping in a certain category. But you also want to be distinctive enough to stand out.
Take a wellness brand, for example. A calming green might work well to convey a sense of nature and tranquillity. But when all competitors are also using green, it’s time to think outside the box. Maybe a natural sand tone could set the brand apart while still fitting in.
Nevertheless, some brands aren’t afraid to stand out completely—and that can work, too. Just be mindful of your industry and audience. For example, it might work better for a tech startup than for a pharmaceutical brand.
3. Consider the Effects of Colour Psychology
Different colours can trigger a range of emotions and associations, influencing how your brand is perceived.
While you may not have much influence on people’s personal associations with colours, understanding colour psychology can help you make better decisions.
Just remember that rules can be broken from time to time.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Yellow is generally associated with optimism and happiness. Brands such as McDonald’s, Snapchat and Best Buy use yellow in their branding to convey a sense of joy.
Red can evoke feelings of excitement and passion. Brands like Netflix, Lululemon and Nintendo recognise this strength and incorporate red in their branding.
Blue is associated with trust and reliability. Brands like Facebook, IBM and American Express know this and use blue to convey a sense of security.
Green is a symbol of growth and nature. Brands like Starbucks, Whole Foods and Animal Planet use green to embody the concepts of freshness and connection to the natural world.
Although these associations are often universal, people’s cultural backgrounds can influence them, too. This brings us to the next topic.
4. Consider the Cultural Context of Colours
The meaning of a colour can vary depending on the culture. Be mindful of these differences to avoid unintended associations or misunderstandings.
For example, in Western cultures, red is often associated with danger. But in China, it’s a lucky colour used during New Year celebrations. In Indian culture, red gets associated with purity, typically used in wedding ceremonies.
Similarly, white gets commonly used for weddings in Western cultures, but in Japan, it’s traditionally worn at funerals and associated with mourning and death. In African cultures, white can represent spirituality and purity, while red can symbolise power and vitality.
David McCandless’s infographic provides a great visual representation of these cultural differences.
5. Choose Your Primary Brand Colour(s)
When choosing your primary brand colour(s), consider all the factors discussed so far:
- Your brand’s unique identity
- Your target audience
- Your competition
- The norms of your industry
- The psychological impact of colour
- Colour perception in different cultures
Identify one or two primary colours that strike the right balance.
Remember, these colours form the core of your brand’s visual identity, seen in your logo, website, and other marketing materials. Take your time to choose colours that accurately represent your brand and are appealing and memorable.
6. Choose Your Secondary Brand Colours
Your secondary brand colours should complement your primary colour(s) and add depth and dimension to your visual identity.
When combined, all these colours should create a harmonious brand colour palette.
Let’s explore some helpful tips to achieve that.
How Many Colours Does a Brand Need?
A brand colour palette rarely has only one colour. The secret to creating a harmonious palette is by combining different hues.
There are no strict rules for how many colours you should use. Using too few colours may limit your creative options, while too many can create visual clutter.
As a rough guide, your brand needs at least one or a few of the following colours:
- One or more neutral light colours (e.g., for backgrounds)
- One or more neutral dark colours (e.g., for text)
- Primary colour(s) for brand recognition
- Accent colour(s) to attract attention (e.g., for buttons on your website)
What Is a Good Ratio?
One common question I get is about balancing the proportions of brand colours in branding.
A great colour palette alone is not enough. When you use all colours in equal proportions, you risk making your branding look like a kids’ birthday party. If that’s not intended, use your colours in uneven proportions.
Illustrator Greg Gunn once gave a good rule of thumb:
- 60 % primary colour
- 30 % secondary colour
- 10% accent colour
I know, most brands have more than three colours but this is a good starting point.
Use Colour Harmonies
To create harmonious colour combinations, use colours that complement each other on the colour wheel.
Let’s take a look at some common colour harmonies:
Complementary colour scheme: Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel
Split complementary colour scheme: A colour and the two colours adjacent to its complementary colour on the colour wheel.
Triadic colour scheme: Three colours that equally spaced on the colour wheel
Tetradic colour scheme: Two complementary pairs of colours
Analogous colour scheme: a combination of three to five colours adjacent to each other on the colour wheel
Experiment With Tints, Tones, and Shades of Colours
By adding white, grey or black to your colours, you can create more depth and sophistication.
- Tints are created when white is added to a hue, resulting in a lighter version of the original colour.
- Tones are created by adding grey to a hue, resulting in a muted and softened version of the original colour.
- Shades are created by adding black to a hue, resulting in a darker version of the original colour.
Specify Some Neutral Colours
Don’t neglect neutral colours. They may not seem important, but your brand communication needs them, too—for text, backgrounds …
Typical neutral colours are close to white or black and may have a hint of colour to match your brand identity.
When used well, neutral colours can add a sense of balance and elegance to your branding, giving your designs some room to “breath.”
Specify Your Functional Colours
As we talked about earlier, brand colours are functional per se. But you can consider assigning specific functions to individual brand colours, too.
For example, a news website could use a colour-coded system to distinguish between topics. This not only adds visual interest but also helps readers navigate to the content that interests them.
Think about the main functions of your brand and whether colours could support these. Perhaps you could colour-code different price levels for a product or use a colour to highlight call-to-actions on your website.
Sometimes it helps to just play around with different colour combinations and get inspired.
Luckily, there are lots of online tools that can help you with the creative process:
- Pinterest: Get inspired by the colours used in illustrations, photography, …
- Adobe Color: Provides ready-made colour palettes and allows you to create your own using the colour wheel. You can also upload reference images to extract colours and export the results in various formats.
- Coolors: A playful and interactive tool to generate random colour combinations.
- Colour Hunt: A curated collection of beautiful colour palettes shared by designers worldwide.
- Dribbble or Behance: Browse through other designers’ work and let it inspire you.
- Canva Color Palette Generator: Generate colour palettes from uploaded images or get inspired by pre-made palettes.
- Material palette generator: It allows you to create and customise colour schemes according to the Material Design guidelines.
- Pantone Color Finder: Extensive colour library from Pantone for inspiration and precise colour matching.
- Chat GPT (OpenAI): Get some suggestions from Chat GPT, it works surprisingly well, sometimes.
7. Test your colours
Make sure your colours are accessible to all users, including people with visual impairments.
Consider using colour contrast checkers to make sure the colour combinations have sufficient contrast and text is easy to read on backgrounds.
Test Your Colours in Different Applications
Make sure the colours work in different applications, such as print and digital formats.
This way you can be sure your colours look good and represent your brand effectively wherever they appear.
Remember, consistent use of brand colours is key to building recognition and creating a cohesive brand experience.
Create Mock-Ups and Prototypes
To get a feel for how your brand colours will appear in the real world, you can use mock-ups.
But don’t forget to try out different printing techniques to see how your colours will come across when printed.
8. Consider Future Growth
Are your chosen colours scalable as your business expands?
Will the colours still fit when the brand enters new markets or launches new products and services?
It’s okay not to know everything upfront, but taking the time to consider these details can pay off in the long run.
It also helps to have some variation in your secondary colours so your communications don’t become boring.
9. Use Your Brand Colours Consistently
I have mentioned this before: Consistency is key to creating a recognisable brand.
So, use your colour palette consistently across all brand touchpoints. This will forge a connection between your brand and its audience, strengthen brand recognition and build trust and loyalty over time.
It’s worth noting that colours can vary on different mediums, such as on a computer screen versus in print.
To ensure consistency across all mediums, create a brand style guide and specify different colour codes such as Hex, RGB, CMYK, and Pantone there. Then, stick to your specifications.
10. Review and Refine
Finally, you should regularly review your brand colours and refine them if necessary.
As your business grows and evolves, you may need to adjust your colours a little to reflect these changes.
But it’s important to do this carefully. Always consider the impact on your existing brand identity and recognition.
Example: Mailchimp’s Brand Colours
The Mailchimp Yellow is the primary colour, communicating Mailchimp’s sunny, friendly, and approachable personality. You’ll see this vibrant colour featured in its logo and throughout its branding materials.
Mailchimp also uses a dark shade of turquoise as a call-to-action colour—to indicate to users where to click and interact with its website.
On top, Mailchimp uses a range of greys as neutrals to balance its bold colours. These greys are used in backgrounds, text, and other elements, helping to create a cohesive and uncluttered look.
In addition, Mailchimp strategically incorporates other colours, such as pops of orange or purple, as accents and highlights.
Despite using such a wide range of colours, Mailchimp’s brand identity never looks overloaded. It’s because they pay attention to colour proportions.
Overall, Mailchimp’s use of colours creates an appealing and recognisable brand identity for the brand.
Colours are a powerful communication tool in branding. They shape the identity and people’s perception of your brand and help recognise and identify your business easily. Consider the ten steps outlined in this article to create an effective brand colour palette:
- Define your brand: Lay a solid foundation by defining your brand’s mission, values, target audience and positioning.
- Strike a balance between standing out and representing your industry: Find the right balance that distinguishes your brand while fitting into your industry context.
- Consider the effects of colour psychology: Understand which emotions certain colours commonly trigger in people.
- Consider the cultural context of colours: Be mindful of cultural differences in colour perception.
- Choose your primary brand colour(s): Select one or two primary colours to represent your brand.
- Choose your secondary brand colours: Complement your primary colours with secondary hues to create a harmonious brand colour palette.
- Test your colours: Ensure your colours work effectively across various contexts and mediums.
- Consider future growth: Think ahead and choose colours that can scale as your business expands or diversifies.
- Use your brand colours consistently: Maintain brand consistency with the help of a brand style guide.
- Review and refine: Regularly reassess your brand colours and refine them when needed to stay relevant and aligned with your brand’s evolution.