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April 18, 2008

The Magenta Lessons, Part 1: The Role of Design and Colors in Branding

Posted in: Brands, Design

The Magenta Lessons on Nubloo.comThe Magenta Lessons were born from the current trademark battle between the tech blog Engadget Mobile and the telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom on behalf of their brand T-Mobile. Click here to read up on this truly exciting clash that may or may not have been an elaborate April fools joke - or a cooperative PR gag by the involved parties.

The Magenta Lessons consist of four installments: Design and Colors, Marketing, Trademarks and Public Relations. Today, we will use these real-life happenings to discuss the role of design - more precisely: color - in branding:

Welcome to the first part of the Magenta Lessons.

Imagine life without color. What would it be like to live in such a world? What if the sky wasn’t blue, but white? Imagine the grass not being green - picture it grey! And now, imagine T-Mobile being black.

Hard to visualize, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to imagine the world being monochrome, even with black and white movies and the grey of our cities. Color surrounds us in every aspect of our lives.

In the above scenario with the sky and the grass, did you actually close your eyes and try to picture the sky and grass as white and grey? Granted, it’s harder to do that than picturing T-Mobile being black instead of magenta. What about the colorful candy bar parade at your favorite gas station merely containing shades of grey? McDonalds not being yellow (they are yellow, folks, even if their marketing says they’re golden), Coca-Cola not being red, Mellow Yellow being… er… well, you know where I’m getting at here.

Colors in branding

For us designers, it’s important to know the relevance of color for a brand. Derived from its status in our existence, it’s easy to conclude that color serves an explicit purpose in branding. The design of a brand distinguishes it from its competition and places it in its market. Color is a very basic element of design, hence one of the most important factors in identity design is - and will always be - the use of color.

What do we know about color?

Before we take a look at some popular brands and their use of color, we have to understand what color actually does to us. It’s really quite interesting to know about the effects of different colors on the human consciousness and, more importantly, our subconscious:

  • Black - the color of authority and power, sophistication and elegance, formality and wealth, but also evil and threat.
  • White - purity and simplicity, innocence and honesty, summer and lightness, but also sterility.
  • Red - extreme and hot-blooded, accentual and loud, powerful and emotionally intense. Red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing and might not be the best choice to wear in a negotiation, unless you’re the president.
  • Blue - peaceful and calm, hi-tech and modern, reliable and loyal, but also cold and depressing, and the color of money. Banks and insurance companies like to use blue. Blue causes the opposite reaction as red, as it causes the body to produce calming chemicals.
  • Green - natural and refreshing, calming and relaxing, youthful and healing. Used for traffic lights, in hospitals and in “green rooms” of TV networks - that’s where you wait to appear on the show. Dark green symbolizes masculinity, conservativeness and wealth.
  • Yellow - cheerful and sunny, optimistic and boosting. Yellow enhances concentration and speeds metabolism, but can be overpowering if overused - it can cause people to lose their temper more.
  • Purple - royal and luxurious, sophisticated and wealthy, authority and rank, feminine and romantic.
  • Brown - solid and gounded, natural and smooth, but also sad and melancholic. Light brown connotates genuineness, dark brown is more grounded due to its appearing in wood and leather.

Note I left out style as an attribute. The connotation of style with a color depends on its current trendiness in a culture. At the moment, white is considered trendy and stylish in many western cultures - thanks to Apple.

Color as a company engine

Apple iPod - creating a trend with an MP3 player

All of a sudden, white was “in”. Why? Because a company like Apple managed to market the color as stylish. They connected their products to it - iMac, iPod & Co. They heived the simplest thing into marketing heaven by branding their products in a new and exciting way. And it looked good. It looked absolutely terriffic!

Having white earphones in your ear became trendy and stylish. There were the people with white earphones, proudly showing off their affiliation to an exclusive group of trendsetters, and there were the others, still using black earphones and a bit afraid to wear them in public.

By simply changing the color of their earphones from black to white, the brand with the apple, Apple, created a trend. Is it far fetched to say that the whole Web 2.0 design trend - gloss, shine and reflections - has been initiated by these products?

Color as an industry engine

Look at the fashion business. Season after season, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan & Co. announce sensational news like pink being the new red, azur the new blue, or something like “don’t leave the house without at least a brown scarf next winter”. They start, others follow, consumers buy - a trend is created. It’s intriguing what a color can do, if it’s used by the right minds, hands, and mouths, isn’t it?

So what’s in it for us?

Knowing about the impact and meaning of a color is imperative for designers. Depending on what we want a design to communicate, we should always take the above into consideration. On a side note - you can also use this knowledge to back up your choice of color in front of a client.

Color models - additive and subtractive colorsLooking at magenta, the color that set the ball rolling for the Magenta Lessons - what can we say about it as a color?

  • In the additive model, you get magenta when you mix red and blue (the additive model is used by screen displays and mixes color with light, in contrast to the subtractive model used by print media, where colors are mixed with ink).
  • Due to its relation to both red and blue, values of these two colors can be found in magenta: emotionally intense meets hi-tech.
  • Due to its lack of representation in nature, it’s being perceived as artificial and modern.

So magenta seems to be a good choice for a brand like Deutsche Telekom. Of course, more factors come into play besides the connotations of the color itself, such as differentiation and uniqueness, existing brand awareness, diversity and usablility.

Take a look at the following collection of brands. Are they still the same with changed colors? Like this, some of them could even be mistaken for their competitors:

brand collection: original and fake

Companies spend a lot of marketing money trying to simply connect their brand to a color. It’s all part of the brand image and placement, which we will dicuss in the following part of the Magenta Lessons: The role of brands in marketing. In the meantime, click here to subscribe to Nubloo’s Blog and never miss another post.


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