How to choose your brand colors

Color can play a major role in consumer decision-making. Without even knowing what your product is about, customers initially rely on brand colors to decide whether or not they want to engage and learn more about your brand.

Whether you lead a team undergoing a rebrand or plan to launch a game-changing new startup, understanding the impact of color on consumer behavior will help you choose the right colors to improve your brand image and recognition. To generate a positive customer response that leads to brand loyalty, use both the psychology of color and marketing design expertise to your advantage.

Below you’ll find six steps to guide you as you make color choices that reflect both your brand personality and your business goals.

Table of contents

STEP 1: Understand how different colors impact mood and perception

Color psychology is the study of how colors affect perceptions and behaviors. From color meanings and symbolism to their impact on consumers, the research behind color theory allows us to understand color and use it to our advantage in branding and marketing. In a way, there’s a story behind every color, and that story is what can shape the mood and perception of your customers.

The popular brand examples below have done an incredible job building a brand that can be recognized by color alone. With a better understanding of color and research into the brand image you want to convey, you can also develop a color palette that is easily recognizable and loved.

Red is associated with danger, excitement, and energy, which can lead to impulsive behavior. Coke’s recognizable red came about for practical reasons. At that time, alcohol was taxed, but soft drinks were not. It turned out to be a good move, though, since we now know red can be a trigger for impulse buys.

A hand holding a classic glass bottle of Coca-Cola on a bridge in front of a lake and trees.

Coca-Cola’s signature red color instantly grabs the attention of consumers and entices them to make a purchase. Image source: Canva’s Photo Library.

Pink evokes a feminine energy that is sentimental and romantic. Different shades, like hot pink, can be youthful and bold. For example, the Barbie toy brand uses a saturated pink color that has been described as “Candy pink,” a color and item often associated with kids. When the brand and Barbie doll product were first created, the target audience was more or less exclusively young girls. Although the brand has evolved in its product line by introducing more diversity, it still maintains its signature hot pink color throughout its branding.

A screenshot from Barbie’s website depicting images of kids of all different backgrounds playing with Barbie dolls and playsets. Beside the images, a pink box includes text that reads: “A doll can help change the world,” with a button to learn more about the brand.

Mattel’s Barbie website features diverse images of kids and the dolls the company now makes but keeps the signature pink color in its marketing.

Orange, like its namesake, is fresh and full of vitality. It’s also creative, adventurous, and associated with being cost effective. The children’s TV station Nickelodeon (or Nick) is also known for its very childlike, bold, and bright brand color. The company’s logo, website, and social media marketing materials all incorporate a signature orange color. The color represents the many TV shows the station produces, full of youthful adventure and creativity.

The nickelodeon logo is the name written in a bright, bold orange color.

Nickelodeon’s signature orange sparks a sense of adventure in kids and adults alike.

Yellow conveys optimism. The color is associated with playfulness and happiness. Moreover, it is a color that is easiest to spot from a distance at night. It’s no surprise that McDonald’s made a strategic choice with its yellow arches. McDonald’s also uses red, a stimulating color that increases the heart rate, and as a result, the consumer’s appetite.

A photo of a McDonald’s sign high up on a pole, with a partly cloudy, blue sky and an American flag in the background.

The famous McDonald’s “M” arches are seen from many highways across the United States and around the world. Image source: Canva’s Photo Library.

Blue and green are both trustworthy and reliable colors. Blue has a calming effect and is often used to comfort those in distress. Green provides an association with nature and is often used to demonstrate sustainability. But it can also align with prestige and wealth.

For example, Google’s brand colors consist of primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, as well as green. This simple and “back to basics” palette has a calming effect that makes its technology seem less intimidating and more trustworthy—appropriate for a company that prides itself on making things really easy to use.

An image of a man drinking coffee at his desk with his laptop; the browser is open to the Google search engine page.

Google’s distinct brand colors convey a welcoming brand with user-friendly technology. Image source: Canva’s Photo Library.

Brown is another color that conveys a down-to-earth and honest appeal. It is often used for organic, wholesome products or services. For example, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)’s brand colors are brown, orange, and green. Since the color brown represents an organic, earthy aesthetic, it helps to strengthen WWOOF’s mission of building “a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices.”

A screenshot from WWOOF’s “About” page on its website describing its mission: “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a worldwide movement to link visitors with organic farmers, promote a cultural and educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices.”

WWOOF uses the colors brown, orange, and green to represent organic sustainability and vitality.

Purple represents royalty and majesty. It is often associated with spirituality and mystery. For example, rumor has it Cadbury’s regal purple, aka Pantone 2865c, was chosen as a tribute to Queen Victoria. More than 100 years old, Cadbury first trademarked the color back in 1995; however, this started a chocolate war with Nestle, which argued it wasn’t distinctive enough to own. Today, although Cadbury no longer owns the color trademark, the company continues to protect and covet its distinct royal purple.

An image of a Cadbury chocolate bar with the wrapping pulled back and a large bite taken out of the chocolate.

Cadbury’s regal purple brand color elicits a sense of upscale, distinguished chocolate. Image source: Canva’s Photo Library.

White is associated with pureness, simplicity, and innocence, often with a minimalistic feel. Black conveys a sophisticated and elegant style, which can be formal and luxurious. Apple is a famous brand that comes to mind when you think of both white and black branding. Passionate about design, Steve Jobs knew white is the color of purity, and it was in line with his vision of beautifully designed and flawless products. The crisp, minimalist feel of the white also stood out against the gray color used by competitors.

A silhouette of two shoppers at an Apple store with a giant Apple logo hanging above them.

Apple’s use of black and white for its brand colors conveys a pure, luxurious, and flawless brand image.

Multicolored branding represents a united company that is open to all. Using a multicolor approach is great for capturing the spirit of diversity. For example, Instagram’s logo and color scheme include a mix of 10 different colors. Its colors range from different shades of blue and purple to shades of red, orange, and yellow. Altogether, these colors symbolize Instagram’s passion for trust, ambition, creativity, and sociability.

A close-up view of an iPhone homepage focused on the Instagram app icon.

Instagram’s multicolored brand palette conveys its mission to drive creativity and diversity. Image source: Canva’s Photo Library.

Of course, within this spectrum, there are many additional colors and color combinations. Different hues, such as baby blue or navy, also contribute to the color story.

STEP 2: Learn color-related terminology

As a brand manager or leader, it’s important to be able to communicate well with your design team. If you don’t already know all the language related to color, do some research and learn the basics.

Using the proper terminology will help you increase efficiency and accuracy throughout the color selection process. Educate your team so that they can also articulate any thoughts or suggestions as you develop your color palette.

Here’s a quick breakdown of color terms you should know:

  • Color Hues: This refers to variations of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. As you’ll probably recall, these three colors can create any other color, depending on how they’re mixed.
  • Color Shade: This is when black is added to a color, and the amount of shade refers to the amount of black added.
  • Color Tint: This is the white version of shade, adding white to make the color lighter.
  • Color Saturation or Tone: This is when you change a color’s appearance by adding both black and white.
  • HSL Color Codes: HSL stands for hue, saturation, and lightness. These three color codes are used most often for web design to describe the levels and percentages of each.
  • CMYK and PMS: CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black), while PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. These are used for printing, either offset or digital.
  • RGB and HEX: RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue, while HEX stands for Hexadecimal Numeral System. These are predominantly found on screens for things like websites and emails.
A screenshot of the Canva platform showing the color options tab with the HEX code field and the eyedropper tool.

In Canva, use the HEX code field or color picker/eyedropper tool to add your unique brand colors to Canva.

Once you know the language of color descriptors and design terms, you can make more specific requests and adjustments with your design team. Experiment with different color combinations and color settings to produce the exact brand colors you and your team need to boost your brand image.

STEP 3: Research your competitor brand colors

Once you have an understanding of color theory and terminology, research and audit your competitors’ brand colors. To increase brand recognition and a preference for your brand, look for ways you can differentiate yourself with color.

Since your product often appears among competitors—either online or on the shelf—understanding why your competitors chose the colors they did can help your team make branding decisions that help you stand out. As you’re researching your competitors, use the following questions to delve into the why behind brand color choices:

  • Understand how color affects brand identity: What brand colors do your direct and indirect competitors use? How do they reflect their brand identities?
  • Investigate brand reputations: Investigate audience perceptions of each competitor’s visual design and branding choices. You can do this by searching through forums and brand review pages and releasing a survey to both your audiences.
  • Find patterns in their content: What color palette choices do your competitors tend to use with specific content types? Which colors seem to align best with marketing vs. sales vs. HR content?
  • Determine your differentiators: What makes your brand unique from each competitor? From the type of content they publish to the tone of voice and messaging they present, note the differences and consider how those differences can be represented with color.
  • Interview brand managers: Reach out to your network of brand managers who have gone through the color-choosing process before. They can often offer valuable insight on how they narrowed down their color choices, what tools or templates they used, and what type of research they conducted (e.g., target audience research, focus groups, or surveys).

Use Canva’s competitor analysis templates to get started on your competitor research with your team. Team members can add information in real time, update analysis thoughts, and add comments to make suggestions.

If your product is sunscreen, you might find that many sunscreen brands choose to use lighter colors like yellow, white, pink, and blue. These colors symbolize the fact that sunscreen is often worn in bright, sunny places, near or in a body of water.

However, if your sunscreen product looks the same as everyone else’s, it’s easy for it to be overlooked. Instead, consider ways your product is different from other sunscreens. Is your sunscreen made sustainably? Is it environmentally friendly? If so, green is a great color option to use as your primary color or as part of your complementary colors.

STEP 4: Pinpoint the colors that reflect your brand identity

Pinpoint colors that reflect your brand identity so that your audience immediately recognizes your brand when they see your colors.

One way to brainstorm your brand color scheme is to create a mind map of all the significant aspects of your brand identity. Using your competitive analysis data, brand identity, and core values, brainstorm color ideas with your brand marketing team. Consider which characteristics best represent your brand personality and attract your target audience.

Whether you are undergoing a rebrand or developing a color scheme for the first time, maintain a shared list of keywords and characteristics that describe your brand. This list can help your team spark relevant color ideas and ensure you maintain an objective perspective. It’s easy to perceive a color scheme as subjectively attractive to you rather than to consider whether it objectively represents your brand in the eyes of the consumer.

Consider what colors best mirror your business. Outline a clear description of your brand goals and how you want your target audience to feel. Work backward by focusing on the impact you want to make as a brand and the customer perception of your brand.

Prompts to help you work backward in your brainstorming session:

  • Overall brand and product/service impact: Do you want your brand to make customers happy, rich, or more informed?
  • How your brand marketing makes your target audience feel: Do you want them to feel positive, confident, or intelligent?
  • Brand personality traits to convey: Is your brand fun, serious, or inspirational?

Let’s say your product is certified organic. A color typically associated with organic foods is brown. However, your brand identity and core values might focus more on celebrating innovation and sustainability. In this case, green or orange might be a better-suited primary color. Your secondary colors could be brown and/or yellow. When you combine all of these, you develop a color scheme to use in your branding materials as part of your brand color palette.

Use a color wheel or color palette generator

A color wheel or color palette generator helps brands find a swatch of colors that match their brand aesthetic or a style they are trying to emulate. Whether you have design experience or not, these tools are an efficient way to discover the exact colors that can make up your brand color palette.

Use Canva’s color palette generatoror color wheel to help you define the colors you like and ensure they work well together. The generator also provides the color codes you’ll need in your designs.

A screenshot of Canva’s palette generator in which the uploaded image of a field beside a road generates a palette of four colors and their corresponding hex codes.

Use Canva’s color palette generator by uploading a brand image and letting Canva’s generator find the exact colors for your brand palette.

STEP 5: Decide where each brand color should appear

Once you’ve finalized your brand color palette, create guidelines around which colors to use for various branding needs. These guidelines will help you maintain a consistent brand image. This is especially crucial if you work with a big team, freelance designers, or influencers. Your audience expects to see a certain color palette on social media.

To reduce audience confusion, make sure your guidelines are accessible to all content creators and stakeholders. Consult with other departments and team members to create a checklist of the most common types of marketing and branding content. Then choose the colors that match each of these touchpoints.

Here are some places where your brand colors can appear:

  • Logo
  • Website
  • Emails
  • Social media
  • Advertising
  • In store
  • Stationery
  • Staff uniforms
  • Events

Create a mood board for each content type where your brand colors will appear. As you build your mood boards and brainstorm which colors to use where, consider the impact you want to make on your potential customer. Do you want them to feel excited and curious, leading them to contact you for information? Do you want them to feel emotional and moved to take action?

Test out your colors in various formats, like social media, printed business cards, or your website. For example, if your brand palette consists of both a soft, pastel blue color and a dark, bold red color, you may want to use the blue color more often on your website. In web design, blue is a popular coloramong consumers, and lighter, pastel colors elicit a more open and welcoming tone.

Once you’ve decided where your brand colors should appear, you can create folders to keep your branding elements and designs organized. When you create a folder for logos, a website, social media, and more, your team can refer to previous designs to ensure they are using the right combination of colors.

Conclusion: Create brand color guidelines for your team

In addition to relying on past design examples for future branding designs, your team should have a single source of truth for all aspects related to brand colors. Create guidelines for your brand colors that are updated and refined regularly. These guidelines are key for consistency, collaboration, and efficiency.

Safeguard your brand using Brand Kit.

Add your brand color codes and downloadable assets to your brand kit. For print or fabrics, be sure to include CMYK and PMS colors, as well as digital colors in both RGB and HEX. Your brand kit can also include relevant templates, designs, and images that give your team examples of how and when to use certain brand colors.

There are also various ways you can connect your other brand guidelines to your brand color guidelines. This includes:

Your brand overview. Decide which colors should be associated with any content about the history, mission statement, or personality of your brand.

Tone of Voice. The way you speak to customers or the messages you want to communicate may vary slightly depending on the circumstances. But the tone should remain consistent and be represented with a consistent font color.

Typography or font. Designate specific colors for each font style and its corresponding location (e.g., email, print, or website).

Image, illustration, and other design styles. Provide guidelines on the brand colors that can appear as subject matter or design elements in the photos you use on social media or your website.

When you have clear guidance on how your brand colors align with your brand’s tone of voice, typography, and other design styles, your brand management capabilities and efforts will pay off. Choosing the right brand colors will help you develop a positive brand image and reputation. By following the steps outlined above and developing a clear and purposeful color palette, you can turn your audience from casual onlookers to loyal fans.

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