We’ve all seen it. That image or infographic that shows an example of an A/B test where some enterprising marketer made a single change to a call-to-action button which made all the difference. They changed the color. Size, placement, text, function – everything else about the button remained the same. But the color went from green… to red. And conversions increased by more than 20%.
Case closed. Class dismissed. What are we all doing just sitting here? We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to change all of the buttons on the internet to red.
(Okay, I’m being facetious, sit back down.)
While this particular example, or something like it, probably did happen to someone, somewhere at some point, there is clearly something else at work here other than the color red having some kind of mystical, hypnotic buying/converting power with consumers. (If not, we really would have turned all the buttons on the internet red. For real.)
A lot of people have written a lot of words about color theory and the psychology of color as it relates to businesses and consumers. Much of what you see on this topic is either taken out of context, oversimplified, inaccurate, or just not that useful. But that’s not to say there aren’t important and useful takeaways that we CAN find in color theory and psychology for branding and marketing. You just have to be thoughtful (if not a little skeptical), remember that much is dictated by context, and know that there are no magic color bullets. (Except for silver. But that really only applies to werewolves.)
The Isolation Effect
So what’s going on with these color-swapping A/B tests that get crazy results? In most cases, the results are likely coming not from the specific color that the button is changed to, but instead have more to do with the color that the button ISN’T. In psychology, there is principle called “The Isolation Effect,” which basically states that when an object clearly stands out from its surroundings, people are more likely to recognize it, remember it, and interact with it. In other words, if you have a blue ball floating in a sea of blue water, you might not pay much attention to it. But change that ball to a contrasting color, like… red… and bang – that sucker is going to stick out like a sore thumb, and you’ll probably start wondering, “what’s going on with that ball?”
Most designers understand this principle well. And you can use it to direct peoples’ attention around a page. That’s why headers are frequently both a different size and color font than body text, and a logo or company name is frequently one of the biggest things on the home page.
Does Color Even Matter?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: All of this information (and misinformation) about color theory didn’t come from nowhere. Research has shown that color can be a very important factor in visual recognition of products and brands, and that color can play a significant role in consumers’ decisions when making a purchase.
A study by the Institute for Color Research found that people make subconscious judgements about people, environments, and products within 90 seconds of initial viewing, and that somewhere between 60% and 90% of that judgement is based on color alone.
The University of Loyola, Maryland found that color increases brand recognition by up to 80%.
Color increases likelihood that people will read an ad by up to 42%, can improve people’s ability to remember content, and can improve comprehension of a message.
Color and Emotion
You may have seen articles or graphics which claim that various colors can influence people’s emotions. Red makes people feel excited, blue makes people feel tranquil, yellow is happy, and so on.
This is a nice, simple idea. But the reality (as it so often is) is a bit more complex. In truth, the way people feel about colors is far more related to their own personal experiences than to any sort of general, universal guideline of emotions.
That’s not to say that colors don’t relate at all to emotions. But it’s far more useful to try and predict how consumers will react to certain colors than it is to attempt to influence their thinking by way of a specific color.
For instance, if you are selling a rugged hiking backpack, you probably wouldn’t expect it to by a shimmery gold color. That doesn’t align with a consumers assumptions, and probably wouldn’t sell very well.
Far more important than trying to influence your target audience’s thinking is the context of your own brand’s personality. Because colors will mean different things to different people in different contexts, choosing color in your branding has to be more about what you can actually control, which is the image that your company projects. If you are a financial company, it would be fine to use green in your logo because green is associated with money, and that aligns with people’s expectations. But you may also want to consider blue because people want to feel “calm.”
However you decide to use color in your branding and marketing, keep in mind that there is no single correct answer or bulletproof guideline for what feelings certain colors will evoke. The most important thing is context, and the image and personality that you want you brand to project.
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