The Power of Colour In Your Brand Story

Ever wondered if there is  a colour associated with success in business?

Could use of colour really influence the fortunes of companies, and might it be true that companies of similar size, industry sector or even geography tend to use the same colours in their corporate identity and branding? The answer is yes, yes, and yes.

The evidence comes in a beautiful and elegant piece of graphic design work I stumbled across at the degree show of students from the Central St Martins School of Art in London.  I was blown away by a beatifully-produced display from  Kwang-Hyun (Sean) Ahn from Korea.  The work of his   one-man band called Akha is visible  on


This work builds on some  old ideas. The artist Wassily Kandinsky, during his time as a teacher at the Bauhaus art school, experimented with  associations between pure colours and shapes back in the late 1920s. Since then, creating systems has become a bit of a graphic designers’ holy grail.

The idea is startlingly simple: take the InterBrand top 100 list of the world’s most valuable companies. Then take a PanTone colour chart and map each logo against the businesses. Above is a list of the top 20 brands and their choice of colour. It also shows how colours vary little across the geographic regions where the world’s largest businesses cluster.  Says Sean: “the  aim of my project was not to look for the power of brands. I was just  looking at the most-used colours.” He points out that  colours have different significance in different cultures. Also, fashions change. Once upon a time the apparel industry avoided green, due to some long-forgotten episode in France. Now “green is good.”

You’ll already notice that blue, red and black predominate in the colour palette of success (as defined by InterBrand). But by how much? The analysis shows that blue gets a full 30% of all top logos. Closely followed by red and then black. OK. So we know that’s a generic choice of colour favourites. But how do, say financial service companies choose their colours? You guessed, it: they’re just as conservative as you would expect. More than half of all financial services companies use blue in their logos!

As we might expect, other industries are a bit less colour-conservative than  finance.  How about  the world of fashion, for instance? You’ve guessed it: the world of fashion, sport and luxury goods goes for  much more red — in fact the same amount  of red as blue (while in finance, blue outranked red  almost two-to-one). But the real winner is black. Black is  cool, whether you are Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Armani or Burberry.
Then what about the word of tech? We all know Apple has made a hit out of  its unbearably pure whiteness. But what about others? The categories get a bit catch-all here,  because  it’s hard to put Shell,  Apple and EBay in the same category for just about anything. But the basic rule of thumb still holds — red, blue and black  take the winner’s podium once again. The only significant outlier here is Yahoo, which has broken loose with a purple logo.  This, Sean says is courageous: if Yahoo had wanted to  play safe it should have chosen blue.
The  colour-wheel below frustrates our expectations a little in the world of food  sales and food marketing. Perhaps  you’d expect to see a lot of green?  Well, despite the fact that  there  is no black or blue food, and red suggests meat,  it’s the same old combo that wins out. Use of red may stand to reason in fast-moving consumer goods, where it’s vital to catch the shopper’s eye and engage his/her emotions quickly.
In fact, red is the dominant colour, with  Coca-Cola, Kelloggs and McDonalds logos  helping make the food section  predominantly red. Hold that thought… McDonalds? Red? What happened to the Golden Arches? In fact… let’s unpick this methodology a bit. Citi is red AND blue. Nike is red AND black.  Ferrari is yellow, green, red and black. Google’s rainbow logo is everything!
So does this mean anything …..or are we just looking at a clever  graphic design student and his work which needs to be tested in the real world of business? How did the researcher come to his conclusions? Here’s an explanation of the weighting that Sean (Kwang-Hyun Ahn)  used. This is where it gets conjectural — he’s awarding extra points to logos that are predominantly of a single colour.  (A single colour logo gets 3 points,  while  a logo with  2 primary colours and a  secondary colour gets 2 points. That of course creates a slant towards strong, simple  colour patterns — and leaves the chameleon-coloured folk like  Google or EBay out on a limb.) How come, then,  Google is  such a valued and trusted brand?
Sean’s work didn’t stop at  a simple analysis of colour. He is researching two other  important trends: how do we react to certain colours? And how do we react to certain combination of shapes and colour?
To answer the first question, he conducted a small experiment on himself, and then on 10 other volunteers. Each person’s  heart rate was recorded while resting. Then  the heart rate was recorded while  different colours were shown on a screen for 30 seconds.  In Sean’s case, his  resting heart rate of  82 beats/minute went to 86 with red, but  dropped back to 83 beats/minute with green. “Warm colours increase our heart rate and  blues/green cool  colours slow down our heartbeats,” says Sean. Of course, such a tiny sample and the absence of weighting for age etc, limits the value of the  experiment. Somebody should  fund him to do more.
His other experiment — which I’ll explore in a separate post  for reasons of space, shows that people do associate  blue with finance, red with fast moving consumer goods, and black with fashion. They also associate logos  having straight edges and rectilinear design with finance,  while  linking  curved shaped logos to  the food and living industries. Meanwhile  fashion industry  is readily associated with typeface type logos. In fact, people tend to believe unknown logos are associated with finance if they’re blue, and likewise for the food industry if they’re red.
It  turns out, of course that this young man  isn’t the only one drinking from this particular cup. It’s a billion dollar industry.  And seems like a billion bloggers are at it too. Colorizing your brand is the name of the game. Every entrepreneur should know the significance of colours to his or her brand. At the whackier end, there are even people who believe that logos  with power (regardless of their colour) all  incorporate  Masonic secret symbols. Here’s one example of a subjective  “colour matches mood” type  table.
Whatever their colour, symbols have power — and the modern logo merchants who serve  big capitalism know that very well.  I don’t have any “skin” in this particular poker game — I’m not a designer and  I don’t  sell colour advice. But it seems to me an interesting approach, and one that  can be combined with the more symbolic power of brand storytelling that I’ve been talking about for a while, and have approached through the avenue of  myth, classical archetypes, fable, fairy story and legend.  After  examining the role of  pure colour in influencing people’s preferences, the logical next step is to analyse the significance of shapes. One of these days I’ll take a look at brands from the perspective of the power of visual symbols as identified by G.I. Gurdjieff and his disciple Ouspensky and outlined in the book In Search of the Miraculous.
All this is just one more aspect of the power of story and the influence of narratives on brand storytelling that we’ve been exploring over recent months.

By the way: All credit to goes to the new graduate Kwang-Hyun Ahn, (Sean) and  his Akha studio at the Cargo Collective. If I was Landor Associates or even InterBrand, I would hire him tomorrow, before he eats their lunch! This work is, in my view, as good as what the big boys do.

Richard House


Rio+20 Campaigners to Big Business: Take Your Brazilian Rainforest Steak and Shove It …

Confused by all the position-taking at RIO+20 and the reports that NGOs are angry and disappointed with the involvement of big business in the final document signed by leaders at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development?

I know this sounds contrarian and maybe ingenuous too, but the fact is that business tends to be better at doing what it does than governments, policymakers and UN professional hand-wringers. So if business seriously set about saving the environment, mightn’t that be a good thing? After all, pollution is just wastage or misuse of resources – and business hates wastage. Dangle a juicy enough carrot before business and it might just clean up.

Your confusion – like mine – might stem from the fact that campaigning NGOs have spent the last 20 years trying to get business more interested in the environment. In the process they have made more and more concessions to the corporate world.

Greenpeace, notably, had for years been tacking away from its campaigning origins to become, well, pretty much like another UN agency. Greenpeace itself has cozied up to Coca-Cola and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Pragmatic WWF, reflecting its Swiss cuckoo-clock origins, has never been scared of flaunting its penchant for corporate sponsorship.

Now, just when business has finally got the message and has sniffed the financial opportunities in sustainability, NGOs are angrily throwing their toys out of the baby-buggy. NGOs appear to be losing their patience with the slow pace set by policymakers and the UN hierarchy. “Epic failure” boomed Greenpeace. “Less than satisfactory,” sniffed  WWF in separate statements.

In a remarkable outburst, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International Kumi Naidoo, announced that it was time for society to put relations with business and international bureaucracy on a “war footing.” Such is the frustration that Greenpeace is preaching “civil disobedience” and it wants people to get radical in defence of the planet.

This is ironic:  for two decades, Greenpeace has bitterly criticized the antics of a too-radical offshoot, the Sea Shepherds, formed by the one of the original founders of Greenpeace who broke away in order to be free to adopt precisely the same “war footing” with society that the young Greenpeace director is now preaching.

Sea Shepherd founder and “skipper” Paul Watson must be laughing bitterly: he originally split from Greenpeace because he felt it was getting too cozy with corporates and because his followers believed it was legitimate to endanger human life in order to save the lives of cetaceans. Canadian Watson, who has been charged with attempted murder in Costa Rica for his role in a daring attempt to stop commercial shark-finning, was arrested in Germany in May and awaits extradition to face trial. That surely qualifies as a “war footing.”

So, is it time for NGOs to tear up any charter of cooperation with the business-suited hand that’s been feeding them and to reverse their decade-long rapprochement with corporates and finance? Just when an estimated 25,000 business people are gathering in Rio for a conference that’s supposed to be saving the planet, seems an odd time.

I was once declared persona non grata in perpetuity by Greenpeace because they didn’t like some newspaper articles I had written 25 years ago as a correspondent while on board the MV Greenpeace for a two month long voyage to Antarctica. So I’ll just go right ahead and say what I think anyway.

This is a bizarre time for Greenpeace and Co to get all righteous because, at long last, they have convinced business that the greatest capitalist opportunities in the history of the world all lie in cleaning up the mess that business made in the first place.  Forget the triple bottom line… think bottom line. The fact is that sustainability and global climate change are now mega money-spinners.

The fact that corporates have invaded the beach where Greenpeace &Co once sunbathed alone should be grounds for celebration, not tantrums. Here I’ll quote from the blog of my friend Mac Margolis, Rio-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, lest we forget what progress has been made by sectors such as the energy industry (the original bad guys):

“Green initiatives in individual countries and communities and among corporations are prospering. Energy is one example. While clean-technology sources such as wind and solar account for about 4 percent of global power supply, renewable-electricity generation increased by 17.7 percent in 2011, with wind power jumping 25.8 percent, according to the U.K. energy giant BP. Natural gas, which spews out a third less carbon dioxide than oil and only half carbon of coal, is soaring. Not least in the U.S., where the surge in extracting gas from ultra-hard shale, or fracking, has ignited a new energy rush and helped slash greenhouse emissions at a record pace. With Americans cutting back on expensive gasoline and dirty coal, U.S. carbon emissions have dropped by 7.7 percent since 2006, “the largest reduction of all countries or regions,” concludes the IEA.”

And Greenpeace itself has been hugely successful in changing corporate behaviour and pointing out laggards. So today, when it comes to the Green Economy, it’s actually not that hard for business to understand what it means to put your money where your mouth is. Greenpeace has managed to put a stake in the ground – or should thatbe a steak?

For those Summit visitors in Rio tucking into a tasty churrasco, I’ll cite a very topical case study of how Brazilian steaks have become the bête noire of Britain’s largest supermarket chain – and how corporate behaviour (at least in the UK) turned on a dime when Greenpeace got angry.

Shortly before the Rio+20 conference, Greenpeace poked a stick at leading Brazilian meat suppliers JBS with a damning report on its alleged connivance at Amazon deforestation. The media was quick to take up the subject in the UK, where  Britain’s largest supermarket Tesco was a JBS  customer. Both the Financial Times  and the Guardian picked up on JBS’s alleged eco-misdeeds.  The charge is that JBS is sourcing and selling meat from farms that have not followed Brazilian government guidelines about deforestation in Amazonia.

JBS (the word’s largest meat company with some US$30 billion in global sales) has gone on the offensive, with a direct repudiation of the claims in paid-for articles in the specialist press. And the result was that Tesco promptly dropped JBS as a supplier.  The Tesco statement said: “We have discussed our approach with Greenpeace. They have confirmed they are satisfied that we are not sourcing beef from JBS. We will continue our dialogue with Greenpeace about sourcing from Brazil and other areas that suffer from deforestation in order that we make progress on this important issue.”

The angry Brazilian company fired back at Greenpeace, threatening to drag the international NGO through the commercial courts.  Score at half-time: Greenpeace 2: JBS:0.  And the JBS CEO Wesley Batista is looking increasingly out of touch with what’s going on in Rio. June 17th, his company secured an injunction against Greenpeace in the Brazilian courts.

But the damage has been done. Nobody in Rio wants to touch a JBS steak with a 10 foot pole. The truth goes a little deeper, because highly-leveraged JBS is equity financed by Brazil’s state-owned BNDES national bank, making it not just a national champion but a virtual state corporation, because it is more than 30% owned by the government.

JBS, which over-reached itself with the acquisition of the bankrupted Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest battery chicken operations in the United States, has experienced huge financial volatility and needs the Brazilian government’s chequebook. Not least because it’s trying to buy the huge US meat business of multinational Sara Lee.

In other words, while Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff does the honours at the Rio+20 conference and seeks to build “The Future We Want” by reconciling warring delegations over the role of business in the Green Economy, one of the very companies in which her government has a commanding stake (excuse the pun), is in the spotlight for just the things that Rio+20 is trying to put an end to.

While, (in the cause of a journalistic payoff line) I’m ready to applaud Greenpeace for angrily saying: “Big Business: Take Your Steak and Shove It,” I think on balance I’d rather have business engaged with sustainability and making money out of it, than sulking on the sidelines. Turning big business around and turning it on —  not turning it away, should be the legacy for Rio+20.

Perhaps even the bankers could do something that’s of unambiguous social utility for a change. Carbon trading was a very modest start, but perhaps they can take the same idea of crystallising the financial cost of unsustainable behaviour, and spread it across the whole economic waterfront.

This is important because the next summits — Rio+30 or even Rio+40 — won’t be about cleaning up the relatively modest mess left behind by yesterday’s business or even today’s  seven billion people. It will be all about the far, far greater chaos and environmental havoc to be caused by the future population of nine billion people — three billion of them slum dwellers. Our children are going to need every single  bright idea that business, bankers, NGOs and  UN policy mavens have put together, in order got to fix this bleak future.

So as Mao Zedong might have said: “Let a hundred sustainable flowers blossom and a hundred business plans contend.”

Richard House

How to Tell a Scarier Banking Crisis Story

So now it’s Spain’s turn to get those virtual euro printing presses turning in order to rescue its banks.  Another EUR 100 billion vanishes into somebody else’s black hole and Madrid’s rescue plan  makes us all feel happier. Who’s next?

One of the reasons why the Eurozone’s continuing, oh-so-slow-motion carcrash fails to motivate us or to force us to take stock of the gravity of events, is that this story seems technical and remote from our daily lives.

There’s something  faulty with the storytelling. It has no terror, no shock and awe.  Krapp’s Last Tape has more going on in terms of plotline.

This Beckettian bureaucratic drama is played out (or mimed out) in summits, as news photographers’ flashes pop outside official buildings in Brussels, where EU flags hang limply behind the podiums where leaders give press conferences about the next in a cancer-like spread of national bailouts. Big things happen in weekends, when the markets are closed and we’re supposed to be worrying about somewhere  or something else. It’s like watching TV with the sound off.

Yes, there is suffering involved. But unlike the 1929 Wall Street Crash you don’t see bank employees hurling themselves from rooftops – or even tearful young execs struggling out of the revolving doors of City offices with cardboard storage boxes as they did after the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse.

Oliver Stone would never dream of making a movie like Wall Street out of the Eurozone crisis. You won’t find many Shia LaBeouf lookalikes in Frankfurt – or even London. Even the TV news anchors nightly go through the motions of trying to make it interesting. The whole point of the euro, when it was created, was that it would put the cap on a century of European strife and uncertainty with a thousand-year Reich of euro-dullness, euro-prosperity and euro-reliability. Now it’s just plain dull and mighty unreliable.

In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling story attached to European banking. Yes, we all we want to hear about pride, hubris, megalomania, wilful destructiveness – but who is to impute this from a string of empty golfing resorts in Spain put up by faceless property developers, or a fleet of tower cranes standing idle on the Dublin skyline?

The bankers who built those empty reports in Murcia are just as dull as the rows of empty apartments beside the now-browning grass of the untended fairways. The Greeks and Irish speculators who burst their nations’ balloons are quietly buying up luxury rental properties in London, while the Portuguese who once drove around in rented Porsches, are trying to make a new start in Angola. Nobody is jumping off the rooftops.

Well actually, there is a story. A horror story, in fact. It’s a morality play that drives the behaviour of Central Bankers, twisting their arms to cave in to the special pleadings of men in limousines. This story is the ultimate “get out of jail free” card for Europe’s banking titans, distorting the game of moral hazard that financiers play with regulators.

Deep within the race memory of Europe’s administrative elite lies the fear of a repetition of the chaos triggered by the 1931 collapse of Austria’s Credit-Anstalt Bank. It’s arguable that just about all the ills that eventually coalesced into World War Two, can be traced back to this seminal event in economic history. Like the mythical “patient zero” responsible for starting the global AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, Credit-Anstalt is the starting point for all the evils that the euro was finally supposed to make unrepeatable.

The collapse of a “too big to fail” financial institution in Vienna was at least in part the event that led to the extreme polarisation of Austrian politics and the installation of a far-left municipal administration in the capital in 1934. That in turn led to the rise of right wing agitation and, eventually, to the emergence of Hitler.

Credit-Anstalt was part of “old Europe.” It was a Rothschild-owned institution that had served the Austro-Hungarian empire before World War One, and lingered on into another age. The Credit-Anstalt default began in a small, peripheral country, just as today’s worst problems are concentrated so far in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, which combined make up just 5 percent of the 27-nation European Union’s gross domestic product.

Worldwide, the Credit-Anstalt collapse cause Britain to abandon the gold standard and this created a 25 % devaluation of sterling. Likewise, the Austrian bank collapse had a catastrophic effect on the US dollar.

It’s been argued be economic historian Charles Kindleberger the event — more so even that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – actually stimulated the Great Depression. Plenty of bloggers and grander commentators  have been telling the “it’s 1931 all over again” story. But somehow it hasn’t made its way into our broader European consciousness.

All the same players are gathered, although some of the names have changed. For Austria, read Greece, or Ireland … or Spain. For the Bank for International Settlements that botched the Credit-Anstalt rescue, read the “troika” of IMF, EU and European Central Bank.

For America’s Great Depression, read the rising tide of criticism from President Barack Obama that Europe’s woes are dragging down the US economy. Wall Streeters are now blaming Greece for their skimpy bonus packages. And of course, for the gold standard that prevailed in 1931, read the single European currency.

OK, so the parallels are scary, and we should learn from history, and so on. But what are we to do with this awareness? Should Europe’s politicians be threatening us with a new apocalypse of the type: “You want fascism back again? Just keep ignoring this one.” It wouldn’t work.

Unfortunately, it mingles with a perception that’s back on the table again: Germany is somehow to blame for all this. Not this time for starting a war, but for showing too little largesse and for selling too many efficiently made BMWs to spendthrift southern Europeans. Just because Germany has been prudent, why should its taxpayers be forced to pay up?

“Start the Engines, Angela” shouted the Economist, in a headline matching an illustration of ship entitled “world economy” sinking below the waves, unless the German Chancellor fosters new growth.  Let’s not forget that Germany wasn’t supposed to have stopped paying war reparations to the Allies until 1989, under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Something is hardwired into the European mind that the Germans must always pay up.

So yes, European banking is dull, the euro is dull, central bankers are dull. But behind all this lies the memory of terror that led to the deaths of 70 million people worldwide. Somebody should be able to make a decent scare story out of that.

©Richard House