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Colour Physocology In Marketing: The Complete Guide

Posted by 4 MEDIA on

Colour is a cue that gets your audience to see what you want them to see, feel what you want them to feel, and to do what you want them to do. How you use color also affects the usability–whether they can read it or not–of your content.

Colour can change your message. Choose poor colour choices, and your great content and your amazing call to action (CTA) are ignored. Even NASA is concerned about colour, enough so that they’ve made online tools to help us pick optimal color combinations!

brand color

Understanding Colour Theory

The Psychology Of Colour In Marketing

The Basics Of Colour Theory

Understanding how color works isn’t just for artists dipping their hands into paint and pigments all day long. Anyone using content marketing needs to understand the basics of Color Theory, because you are using color in your content.

Primary Colour

Primary colours are the three colors we need to make all other colors. They are red, blue, and yellow. These three colours can be used to create the next level of colours, called the secondary colours.

primary colors

Exceptions, of course, abound when it comes to talking about primary colours. If you’re talking colour theory in regards to light, your primary colours would be cyan, magenta, and yellow. Let’s not forget CMYK for print and RGB for screens/monitors. And, when mixing paint, it matters what particular pigment you’re using to get that red in order to come up with the proper new colour. But let’s keep this simple and stick with red, blue, and yellow.

Secondary Colour

Secondary colours are purple, green, and orange. They are created using the primary colours. If you look on the colour wheel, you’ll find the secondary colours in between two primary colours.

  • red + blue = purple
  • blue + yellow = green
  • red + yellow = orange

secondary colors

Tertiary Colour

Tertiary colours are taking secondary colours one step further. They are the “two-name” colours, such as red-purple, red-orange, yellow-green, etc. They are created by adding more of one primary colour than the other, creating not a true secondary colour but instead, one that is found closer to the primary colour.


Pure Colour

Primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, without the addition of white, black, or a third colour, are pure (or saturated) colours. They are intense, bright, cheery, and untainted colours. These are the colours of children’s toys, daycare decor, and summer clothes.



When white is added to a pure colour, you create a tint. Some people refer to these as pastel colours. They are lighter and paler than a pure colour, and not so intense. Tints range from slightly whiter to almost-white.

color tints


When black is added to a pure colour, you create a shade. These darken and dull the brightness of pure colours, and range from slightly darker to almost black.



When gray (black + white) is added to a pure colour, you create a tone. You often hear people saying that a colour needs to be “toned down”, meaning it’s too intense and they want to drop the level of intensity. Adding black and white in different amounts to a colour subdues the intensity quickly.

color tones

The Completed Colour Wheel

Whew! So there we have it: a complete colour wheel with primary, secondary, and tertiary colours, plus their tints, shades, and tones. You can see how it all fits together on the color wheel below.

color wheel

On the left side of the wheel, in the blues and greens, you have cool colours. On the right side of the wheel, in the yellows and reds, you have warm colours.

Using Contrast And Colour

When it comes to colour techniques, the use of contrast is particularly important, and it is probably the one that will lead you to Yellow is bright, for example, while blue is darker. Red and orange have little contrast with each other, despite being different colours. When different colours have the same tone (level of gray), they will not have much, either. It isn’t enough to simply pick two different colours when making decisions about contrast.

Using High And Low Contrast

Generally, high contrast is the best choice for important content, because it is most easily seen. Dark on light or light on dark–it’s the easiest to read. It might not be exciting, but it is readable. One word of caution, though: if everything is high contrast, nothing stands out and it’s tiring on the eye after a while. (e.g. think of black computer screens with bright green text)

Designers often prefer low contrast techniques. They like to make things look beautiful, but beautiful isn’t always the best for readability. Tone-on-tone similar-colour combinations are very popular and while their subtlety is quite attractive, they are also difficult for people to read.

If you decide to use low contrast, be sure it is for content that isn’t important. Chances are it won’t get read, or get read first. Low contrast is a fine way to push the less important content back, while high contrast is how you can draw attention.

Choosing Colour Combinations

The colour wheel can help you choose great colour combinations for your your call to action button, your infographics, or your lead collection pop-up.

Keeping your colour combinations simple will help you in the long run. A University of Toronto study on how people usedAdobe Kuler revealed that most people preferred simple colour combinations that relied on only 2 to 3 favorite colours.

People like simplicity; it makes your content easier to understand if they don’t have to interpret it through many colours. Remember, colour has meaning, too. It adds to your message. Too many colours make for a confusing message. So how do you choose those 2 or 3 colours? The colour wheel can help.

Using Complementary (Opposite) Colours

Complementary colour combinations make things stand out.

Complementary colours are “opposite” colours. They are opposite of each other on the colour wheel, meaning the one colour they lack is that one opposite of them. They are geographically and colour-wise the opposite. They provide a kind of visual tension because they are so opposed to each other.

Blue is the opposite of orange.

complementary colors

Red is the opposite of green.

complementary colors

Yellow is the opposite of purple.

complementary colors

Opposites attract! When the human eye sees a painting full of different kinds of greens, any bit of red is going to stand out amazingly well. Why?

Red is the opposite colour of green. When the eye has been looking at a lot of the same colour, it wants to see the opposite. Using complementary colours is the easiest way to get something to stand out, but you have to use them carefully to keep your content from being visually jarring. You don’t want 50% orange and 50% blue, for example, because neither color wins and it makes eyes hurt.

If you want to use three colours instead of just two, using split complementary colour schemes is a way to capitalise on the power of complementary colours but add a third colour to your palette. To use it, you’ll choose one colour as your base colour, and then the two colours adjacent to its opposite.

split complementary

A split complementary colour scheme doesn’t have quite the same level of tension that a complementary colour scheme does, but it’s still visually exciting for your eye.

A word of caution about accessibility: red and green, two complementary colours, present a sticky problem. Some people are colour-blind and cannot distinguish between certain colours, and red and green are a common problematic combination. Colours with heavy amounts of red and green in them get bungled up, too. Did you know that Facebook is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colourblind? He sees blues the best.

Designing for color blindness, from the "Understanding Graphics" Blog.

If you use complementary colours in text or important information, there must be high contrast. Try to never use a colour solely as the information source. Include text in graphs and infographics when possible. Your designer may love the aesthetics of subtle and low contrast and want to argue about colour combinations and too much text, but remember that the main thing is that your content be readable by everyone.

Using Analogous Colours

Analogous colours sit next to each other on the colour wheel. They are “related”, a kind of family of colours that creates pleasing and relaxed visuals. They aren’t jarring, opposite, or clashing. They also don’t stand out from one another. Analogous colours can create subtle and beautiful content, but you may need to use a complementary colour to get any particular item to stand out.

analogous colors

Using Monochromatic Colours

Monochromatic colours are a single colour, and its tints, shades, and tones. They are even more soft and subtle than analogous, being a colour palette based on one single colour. Monochromatic colours work great when paired with a single complementary colour.

Most designers, when using complementary colours, pair a rich collection of monochromatic colours with a single complementary colour.

monochromatic colors

Using Triangle, Rectangle And Square Colours

Creating colour combinations that stretch the boundaries of the easy power of complementary opposites and the related analogous and monochromatic palettes isn’t difficult. All you need is a triangle, rectangle, and a square.

color combinations

A triangle (triad) is a colour combination made of three colours that are evenly spaced around the color wheel.

A rectangle (tetradic) is a colour combination made of four colours that are made up of two complementary pairs.

A square is similar to a rectangle palette, but the two sets of complementary pairs are colours evenly spaced around the circle.

These three combinations can be visually noisy if you’re not careful. The best application is to use one colour as the dominant colour, and the others for highlighting content. The triangle combination is particularly vibrant; three is a “stable” number and using three colours is visually stabilizing.

The Psychology Of Colour In Marketing

Colour has an impact on how we think and behave. Colour directs our eye where to look, what to do, and how to interpret something. It puts content into context. It helps us decide what is important and what is not. That’s precisely why, as a marketer, you need to understand what colours do to people.

The psychological impact of colour is subjective. We don’t all react the same way to colours. There are a few generalities about how people respond to colour and that’s what we’re going to look at.

Colour Has Emotional And Cultural Meanings

In a survey, people were asked to choose the colour they associated with particular words.

  • Trust: Most chose the colour blue (34%), followed by white (21%) and green (11%)
  • Security: Blue came out on top (28%), followed by black (16%) and green (12%)
  • Speed: Red was overwhelmingly the favorite (76%)
  • Cheapness: Orange came first (26%), followed by yellow (22%) and brown (13%)
  • High Quality: Black was the clear winner (43%), then blue (20%)
  • High Tech: This was almost evenly split, with black the top choice (26%) and blue and gray second (both 23%)
  • Reliability: Blue was the top choice (43%), followed by black (24%)
  • Courage: Most chose purple (29%), then red (28%), and finally blue (22%)
  • Fear/Terror: Red came in first (41%) followed by black (38%)
  • Fun: Orange was the top choice (28%), followed closely by yellow (26%) and then purple (17%)

Blue is clearly a colour people are positively drawn to, but beyond that, little else can be said.

Depending upon the context of the rest of your content, black can mean high quality and trust, or it can mean fear and terror. It can’t do it on its own, but surrounded by your content, a colour choice can bump up your intended meaning a notch.


Faber Birren, a 20th century colour researcher and author of Colour Psychology And Colour Therapy, discovered something interesting about general colour groups.

He found that bright light and bright colours promoted “big muscle” activity, while softer and deeper colours promoted mental and visual tasks better. He also discovered that red stimulates our nervous system while blue relaxes it. Red and related colours also caused people to overestimate the passage of time, while cooler colours like green and blue were the reverse. In other words:

  • Bright colours promote physical activity, but make the passage of time seem slower.
  • Cooler and softer colours are better for mental activity, and make the time seem to fly by.


Colour also means different things in different cultures. According to researcher Joe Hallock “Eskimos use 17 words for white as applied to different snow conditions, where in the Northwest United States there are only 4 or 5.”

Every culture understands a colour differently. It has a role to play in religion, politics, ceremony, and art. The culture your audience is in affects how they understand deeper meanings of colour. Even the context you use the colour in affects the meaning of colour. For example, in India, red means purity, while in the U.S. it denotes passion and specific holidays.

Men And Women Experience Colour Differently

Compiling the results of many studies, the Kissmetrics blog came up with Hallock:

  • Blue is the favored colour by both men (57%) and women (35%), though it is more heavily favored by men.
  • Men dislike brown the most, while women dislike orange the most.
  • Colours that were disliked were also seen as “cheap.”
  • Men tolerate achromatic colours (i.e. shades of gray) better.
  • Women preferred tints while men preferred pure or shaded colours.
  • A majority of men (56%) and women (76%) preferred cool colours in general.
  • Orange and yellow grow increasingly disliked as both genders get older.

Women see more colours than men, generally. They are more aware of slight colour differences within a colour range.

This may explain why men simply call the color blue…blue. Women, on the other hand, see cerulean, pthalo, sky, teal, turquoise, and all sorts of varieties of blue. Perhaps it is a combination of being able to visually see more differentiation and considering it worthy of a more specific name. Perhaps men are better able to tolerate both colourless and bright colour palettes because they aren’t as sensitive to the nature and nuances of the colour as women seem to be.

What does this mean for you?

Well, is your audience mostly men or is it women? What age are they? Do the colours you’re using in your content marketing attract or repel that audience? If your audience is women, in particular, you must carefully choose colors that are not too raucous. If you are selling a luxury product, you want to avoid colors that are seen as cheap.

Colour Affects Conversions

How people behave when they see colour has a direct effect on your conversions. Will they click the button on your CTA? Will they read your pop-up graphic? Will they notice your email subscription box?

According to the gives further proof of how colours affect your conversion rate, revealing that 85% of consumers base buying decisions on color, and that full-colour ads in magazines get recognized 26% more often than plain old black and white ads.

In fact, color helps people recognize your brand by up to 80%. It’s important to choose your colour carefully, and stick with it.

brand color

When it comes to getting people to click a button or sign up, it’s not a question of which colour is magic and makes it happen all the time. It’s a question of passive and active colours, of high and low contrasts, and of opposites.