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Do You Speak the Language of Color?

The language of color is vast, with deep meanings that speak to the subconscious of consumers. Understanding its meanings can help your sales.

By Jennifer LeClaire

You can either help your customers choose colors that meet their needs, or you can let the customer choose colors that won’t yield results. Ultimately, the customer’s success is your success because if his business is booming, he may need more signage.

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  • Can you imagine a world of signs without color? Color is vital to signs ­ but not just any color will do. The language of color is vast, with deep meanings that speak to the subconscious of consumers.

    You have two options: you can either help your customers choose colors that meet their needs, or you can let the customer choose colors that won’t yield results. Ultimately, the customer’s success is your success because if his business is booming, he may need more signage. So it is in your best interest as a sign maker and customer consultant to suggest appropriate colors.

    “The color needs to connect the product’s usage to its audience,” says Barry Ridge, CMG, Creative Director at Barry Ridge Graphic Design in Camarillo, Calif. “If you are marketing power tools to an adult male audience, and you produce them in lavenders and pinks, you probably won’t sell many.”

    Colors and Branding
    Ridge continues the power tool analogy by pointing to major name brands. If you go to Home Depot today and walk down the power tools aisle, you will discover that all the major companies have claimed their own branding color. Milwaukee Tool is red. DeWalt is yellow. Black & Decker is deep blue-green. Any new entrant that tried to claim one of those colors would have a hard time because it is connected with a brand.

    This doesn’t translate to every industry, however. Take fast food, for example. Most of the fast food operators ­ McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, and Burger King ­ use some combination of red, yellow and orange. That’s because red stimulates your appetite, and yellow tells you to keep moving, so it jives with the quick-in and quick-out restaurant style.

    Colors are key in signage because they have psychological impact on customers. Once again, color is actually an entire language in and of itself that speaks volumes to the consumer’s subconscious. Indeed, experts say certain colors can be used to communicate the theme of what your customers are promoting, be it the lowest price in town or higher quality or greater value.

    Colors Have Deeper Meanings
    “The consumer has 1/16 of a second to get a glimpse of a product as they walk by a store shelf,” says Mike Doyle, vice president of strategic sales for Creative Retail Services, Inc., a merchandising firm in Alpharetta, Ga. with clients like Home Depot. He notes that Home Depot chose orange because it demands the customer’s attention. “If you can make the sign pop out by using color, then it draws the customer to look more closely.”

    So our eyes are drawn to color, but what do the colors communicate? Understanding the deeper meanings of colors can help you choose the most appropriate combinations for your customers’ signage. Let’s take a look at the common color gamut.

    Black ­ Black typically communicates authority and power. Black is a good choice for typefaces because it contrasts nicely against most light backgrounds and therefore can be read from long distances.

    Red ­ Red is a color of high emotion. Studies show it stimulates shoppers and appetite. That’s why red cars are known for their sex appeal. Red is a “hot” color that signifies low price.

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    Blue ­ The opposite of red, blue is a “cool” color that communicates elegance and quality. Doyle says Lowe’s decision to go with blue was a competitive move against Home Depot’s bright orange. And Ridge says blue is the most popular color in the world. It crosses cultures and nationality.

    “In the United States blue can communicate freedom. It is also a calming color,” Ridge says. “Whether you live in the U.S. or in Africa, there are certain colors that play the same role in nature. Then there are cultural applications. In the U.S. we all go to funerals wearing black. In China, they wear white because it is the color of death and mourning.”

    Green ­ This color is rarely used in retail settings except lawn and garden or food establishments. Green symbolizes health and nature.

    “Green is eternally associated with the environment, nature, and things that are good for you,” Ridge says. “Of course, in different cultures it may mean something different. In Europe, it has political ties to the Green Party and the Green Movement. In America it often means recycled and environmentally-friendly.”

    Ridge’s point is that some colors have been marketed in certain ways and have become engrained in the customer’s mind to mean certain things. The key to color marketing is to tap into what human beings are already pre-wired to accept.

    Yellow ­ Yellow is another attention-grabber, but experts say this color should only be used as a background. Yellow typefaces are difficult to read.

    Purple ­ This color signifies royalty, luxury and wealth and therefore isn’t appropriate for self-storage uses that promote value and savings.

    Brown ­ Brown, on the other hand, is a good choice for industrial applications because it is earthy and signifies reliability and genuineness. UPS has done well with its drab brown brand.

    Shades and Color Combinations
    Different shades of these colors can produce varied meanings, experts say, so sticking with basics and keeping color combinations simple is advised until you master the language.

    “There are no hard and fast rules as to color combinations. The way the culture is now you could put about any color combination together and make it look good if you do it right and in the right proportions,” Ridge says. “It has to connect with the audience, so you need to have some knowledge of how the audience will perceive the color.”

    As with typefaces, color consistency is important, so choose your colors wisely and advise your customers to use them on all signage. Experts say consistent signage reinforces the brand and the message.

    Ultimately, unless your customer has a well-recognized brand, color could make or break his signage. There are many competitors attempting to use signage to get attention on the commercial battleground. Color can be a weapon.

    “Just as you would use a good headline or a catch phrase, you need to use colors that connect in people’s minds in a positive way,” Ridge says. “There is a bit of a mystery to it. Color is an endless subject. But you can use it to beat your competition.”

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