Color Choices to Stimulate Emotion

Over the years, I’ve left color choices for direct mail packages, websites, and other printed pieces to art directors and designers.

But maybe we need to be more mindful of the colors we choose. There is growing scientific evidence of how the brain processes color and how color impacts our feelings and how we respond. This is the topic of my column at Target Marketing Magazine.

Over the years, I’ve speculated about color’s contribution to the overall success of direct mail. But color testing hasn’t been high on my list of test priorities.

So if testing isn’t practical, considering what recent research from university studies, along with The Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1810, suggests about color use.

Goethe published one of the first color wheels and shared psychological impact. His theories are still widely used:

  • Red conveys gravity and dignity
  • Yellow connotes brightness and soft excitement, yet noble
  • Blue is at odds with itself, being both exciting and retreating
  • Green is reassuring

So how do these 200-year-old conclusions stack up against recent research that expands into more colors? A 2014 study of logos by the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests additional consideration:

  • Blue logos invoked feelings of confidence, success and reliability
  • Green logos invoked perceptions of environmental friendliness, toughness, durability, masculinity and sustainability
  • Purple logos invoked femininity, glamor and charm
  • Pink logos gave the perception of youth, imagination and fashion
  • Yellow logos invoked perceptions of fun and modernity
  • Red logos brought feelings of expertise and self-assurance

Other recent studies from the University of British Columbia in 2009, and Dartmouth College in 2011 make these observations:

  • People have emotional responses to color, a linking color responses to our brain’s neural processes. The brain is most triggered by red, then green, then blue.
  • Red can make people’s work more accurate. Blue can make people more creative.
  • People tested with red, blue, or neutral backgrounds on computer screens found red to be more effective for recall and attention to detail. Blue was better for creating imagination.
  • If you seek “avoidance” action (for example, toothpaste for cavity prevention), studies show red to have greater appeal. Conversely, if you seek “positive” action (for example, “tooth whitening”) then blue holds more appeal.
  • Across cultures, red represents “no.” It’s a common emotional association that is innate. A study involving monkeys (who don’t process the meaning of a red stop sign) found that the animals avoided humans who wore red.
  • Red is also credited with helping people focus and make a person’s work more accurate.
  • Red is a color of stimulation.
  • Blue is more relaxing and calming

Remember, though, when considering colors: you must consider context. The visual impact of words or images in isolated environments can be different than when you are trying to connect a user to a brand, website, or direct mail package.

Bottom line: as you prepare your next direct mail package, print ad, website, landing pages, or video backgrounds, consider your environment and desired reaction from your prospective customers, and use colors that can stimulate, then calm, your prospective customer’s minds.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.