Psychology of Colour in Branding: RED

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What is it about the colour red? Almost as rare and expensive as purple, red symbolizes life, as well as the potential loss of said life. This tone has duality; red can represent both cupid and the devil. Using this colour can alter the character of your branding dramatically, in both positive and powerful ways. 

Generally, red is a very common colour worldwide and is commonly listed as people’s favourite colour, behind blue. Red appears on 77% of flags and is internationally known as the colour for “STOP!” However, red doesn’t always have a universal meaning. Japanese students draw the sun like a giant red circle, while Westerners associate the colour with extreme debt. 

If you look into the history of languages, red is the first colour to exist after black and white. Originally, red represented primal life force, physical energy and intuitive thinking. Emotional and financial needs of survival and self-preservation are also linked to the colour red, which is why the western world uses it as a signifier of economic status. Red is a hot, intense colour that can even have physical effects on the body, like higher blood pressure and increased respiratory rates. Of course, red has positive physical effects as well and has been linked to an increase in confidence, enthusiasm, energy and even enhanced libido.

Red communicates the euphoria of sexual pleasure and love (being the colour for cupid). It prompts the release of adrenaline. However, many cultures and religions associate pre-marital sex with lust and sin. Its meaning will depend on which shade of red you choose and how it's applied to the environment.

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Red Carpet Treatment

Red’s association with cupid represents passion and seduction, erring more towards sexuality than love. Love is a softer emotion. When red combines with white, it becomes pink. White softens the intensity of its hue and passion. In Greece, red connotes human heroism and finding personal motivation to excel at anything. In China, red is a symbol of good luck and success. In Nepal, India and Japan, brides are encouraged to wear red, as it signals happiness and celebration. Committed relationships require joy, strength, courage and leadership, and red offers the energy and motivation to keep them alive. 

Red’s perceived magical and adventurous qualities allow us to explore our intuitive feelings. It encourages us to be daring and impulsive with our decisions, letting passion and emotion guide our choices. Red is all about doing things that “feel right,” not because they make the most logical sense. 

Paint the Town Red

We use red because it brings joy and satisfaction to our everyday. There is a common saying, “paint the town red,” which refers to having fun, partying and living your best life. Red also signifies luxury in a similar way that purple does—there’s a reason why celebrities walk on a red carpet, after all. It stands out and illuminates the celebrities' attire. The red carpet creates a platform, understood internationally as a symbol of wealth or popular status in society. Only the best of the best get to walk the red carpet. Ironically, red is seen (especially in western cultures where red carpets are most common) as being financially bankrupt or “in the red.” The duality of red is not only applied to love and lust but also status and wealth. 

Red is the colour of danger. Many emergency vehicles (like firetrucks) take on a red hue. When cars see a large red vehicle coming their way with flashing lights and sirens, it’s evident there’s urgency. Flashing red lights often create a sense of danger and emergency, which is why they are commonly used for sirens. Same goes for stoplights and red signs warning of a potential hazard when entering an intersection. 

Another interesting effect of red is its ability to increase appetite. If you look closely, most brands in the restaurant or fast food industry have red in their primary colour palette. McDonalds, Dennys, Burger King and Wendy’s all have two things in common: red and in-and-out service. Red grabs our attention, enticing us to come in and order food. But red can become too overbearing if used in the customer's physical environment. The colour then becomes agitating, anxiety-inducing and may even subconsciously trigger customers to leave. (This may be perfect for some fast-food restaurants, who don’t want customers to linger). McDonalds makes a wise choice of using a darker palette for their website and physical locations, instead of their traditional bright red and gold colours. The darker colours balance out the red and create a more comfortable environment.

As a highly visible colour, red commands attention. It’s commonly seen in retail spaces indicating a sale. Normally the signage is large and bright, creating a sense of urgency for customers to “buy now!” The hue aligns with the psychology of the sale: buy this item now or else it will be gone, reset to the original price, discontinued, etc. You rarely hear people brag excitedly about spending $120 on a blazer. Instead, you might hear, “I scored this $40 blazer on sale—it was originally $200, and it was the last one in my size!” Applying these limitations and a sense of urgency are key for influencing consumers. In this instance, red's primary purpose is to encourage everyone’s inner impulse buyer. The health care industry tends to avoid red. Unless used in emergency situations (paramedic trucks, for example), the negative associations of red relating to blood and risk outweigh the positive. Instead, the medical industry uses shades of blue and green to create a calming environment and encourage healing. 

Overall, red embraces its duality. After all, every rose has its thorns. We see red appear during special holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day, which can represent peaceful, loving families or trigger those who have a more interesting dynamic with their loved ones. Notably, the red ruby gemstone is seen as a traditional gift for someone's 40th anniversary, the year of embracing one's marriage in both sickness and health. Ultimately the red ruby increases the enthusiasm and interest of the marriage. It boosts energy and creates confidence between the partnership. And most importantly, it offers protection from the fear and anxiety of spending another 40 years being married!

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