The Psychology of Branding: How colours (and more) affect how we think

Do you recognise the brands in the images below?

Branding snippet

They’re just snippets of the logos, but you probably identified them instantly.

That’s no accident, and not necessarily anything to do with your love of fizzy drinks, mid-market cars and fast food. 

The world’s biggest companies - like the three above - spend millions on branding and advertising to make sure that, when you see certain colours, fonts or images, you immediately recognise the products behind them.

But branding isn’t just about recognition. It’s also about making us feel something, and there’s a lot of psychological tricks that go into that.

What is branding?

So is branding just a company’s logo?

No. In fact, branding includes everything from practical elements like names, terms, designs, symbols and colours, to emotional responses. For example, luxury brands aren’t just distinguishable from mid-market brands by price, but also by the feeling those products give to the consumer, such as exclusivity or social status.

Branding also builds loyalty. Blind taste-testing of similar food and drinks products often demonstrate how, once the branding is removed, people struggle to identify their favourite products. Take Pepsi and Coca-Cola as an example. They taste very similar, but people often feel an affinity with one more than the other. Branding has a huge part to play in that consumer loyalty and, as a result, it’s an incredibly important part of your marketing.

The four principles of branding psychology

There are four core principles to the psychology of branding:

  • Colour
  • Pattern recognition
  • Sense of belonging
  • The five brand personalities

Let’s take a look at each one:


The Coca-Cola and McDonalds’ logos are both red, but they’re not the same red. Part of the reason you were able to identify them so easily is because you know their particular shade of red.

Colours have the power to make us instantly recognise brands, but we also associate them with certain emotions and feelings. Red makes us think of heat and anger; green evokes the natural world and blue is associated with cold, water and reliability. 

Search for ‘best known water brands’ and you’ll see this in action, with the vast majority using blue colours in their branding. 

Do your brand colours convey the emotions you want them to?

Colour Associated emotions/feelings Brand example
Red Urgency, excitement, movement, passion Coca-Cola
Yellow Optimism, anxiety, impulsivity IKEA
Green Health, nature, balance Starbucks
Blue Peace, tranquility, reliability Intel
Purple Royalty, wisdom, respect Hallmark
Black Stability, power, strength Adidas
White Cleanliness, purity, simplicity Apple

Pattern recognition

There’s a reason Brand Managers are so particular about the use of brand assets: consistency matters, and that’s down to the importance of pattern recognition.

We’re programmed to see patterns in everything - it’s one of the reasons we see faces and shapes in random cloud formations - but does this translate to branding? A consistent brand, with the same tone of voice, logo, imagery, fonts and colour palette, is a strong brand.

When brands are inconsistent it’s much less likely consumers will become attached to that brand, because it doesn’t trigger that part of their brains that is drawn to patterns.

Sense of belonging

The most successful consumer brands provide their customers with a sense of belonging - and it’s incredibly powerful.

Humans need to be part of a community to survive, but in the modern world this goes beyond our family or social group. Our identities and common interests also define the groups we’re a part of, and brands that are clear about what they stand for, or how they provide us with a certain level of social status, can leverage this innate desire to be a part of the in-crowd.

Think about the queues that form ahead of the launch of the next iPhone. Those Apple enthusiasts don’t just want the latest model because of any specific functionality, or because their previous device isn’t working anymore, but because they want to be a part of that community.

The five brand personalities

There are millions of distinct brands all working hard to stand out from the competition, but they can all be categorised within one of the five brand personalities:

  • Sincerity - brands with ‘Sincere’ personalities are often family-orientated, or identifiable as kind or thoughtful. Charities and not-for-profits would be considered as Sincerity brands.
  • Excitement - carefree, youthful and exuberant are some of the words you could use to describe Excitement brands. Sports and soft drinks brands are good examples of brands looking to generate feelings of energy, vitality and excitement.
  • Ruggedness - most brands whose products are aimed at men fall into the ‘Ruggedness’ category. These brands look to convey feelings of toughness, strength and athleticism with their marketing, such as Gilette, The North Face and Guinness.
  • Competence - the Competence persona is employed by brands who need to convey a sense of trust in their quality or expertise. Financial services organisations, solicitors and construction companies will typically utiilise this brand personality.
  • Sophistication - brands that embody the Sophistication personality wear their prestige on their sleeves. For these brands high quality and luxury are key. The likes of Rolex, high fashion brands and sports car manufacturers all fit into this category.

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