Fifty shades of blue

Posted in Reporting, Brand on 2 March 2015 By David Hunt, Creative Director

Though it’s not as likely to get your pulse racing like the works of E. L James, the subject of colour is a vital, powerful and often underrated component of any brand identity.

It can allow businesses to stand out from the competition in the same way as opposing sports teams do. The battleground of the UK mobile telecoms market would look very different if Vodafone red, O2 blue and EE teal weren’t so distinct from one another.

Colour also provides us with opportunities to communicate aspects of our character instantly that would require many words without it. We can convey complex meaning and ideas with colour.

Seeing red

In the Western world we are culturally programmed to respond to red, for example, with ideas relating to passion, action, danger, sex and speed to name a few. It’s no surprise therefore that it is the colour most used by sports team (like Manchester United, Scuderia Ferrari and The Chicago Bulls). Corporates, if our annual reporting clients are anything to go by, are often happy to use it in their identity but would prefer to keep it out of their figures - even when it is the main colour in their brand palette.

Interestingly, we’ve seen from our growing list of clients in Russia and CIS, that they have none of these reservations around the colour red, where it is almost seen almost exclusively as conveying strength and beauty. This cultural perception is almost to the detriment of other colours where there are potentially complex negative associations with white, orange and even blue.

In North Africa and many Eastern cultures there are positive associations of good luck, purity, happiness and prosperity. In China it is red, not white, that colours a bridal dress.

So far, it’s almost all good news for red. But, if you’re a ‘red brand’ heading to South Africa, you should be aware that in that country, it is the colour of mourning. Similarly, even though red is largely seen positively in the Middle East, there are some documented tiny associations with evil that would be worth bearing in mind.

What we learn from this is that in a multi-cultural, connected world we have to be ever mindful of the specific connotations of individual colours in different markets and societies.

Any colour as long as it’s blue

When creating a brand identity, colour can be a great opportunity and cultural minefield in equal measure. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that blue has such prevalence in brand identities. Its positive connotations of calm, trust, cleanliness and intelligence are virtually universal and therefore it allows brands to nicely sidestep the aforementioned mine-field.

But has the safety that blue affords us led to it being the default, unchallenging and boring choice? Is it now so overused it has no stand-out?

There has been, amongst many brand designers, a little weariness of a perceived “any colour as long as it’s blue” approach by corporate clients. But does reality match this perception? Let’s see.

Is the world really as blue we think?

What better way than to have a look at the UK’s 100 most successful listed companies (below).

A quick scan of the 100 identities will tell you there is a lot of blue. However, at least to my eye, there isn’t quite as much as I expected.

So, armed with a notepad, Microsoft Excel and a little patience, I thought I’d have a closer look.

First things first: how many blue identities are there?

As the pie chart shows, a little under half (49%) of the identities were blue, featured blue strongly or have blue in some way.

Everything goes with blue

Of those 49 identities, 29 of them pair blue with another colour in varying proportions. Look at that group and you’ll see most stick with familiar cyan, red, yellow and green, while only a handful (3) delve into the relatively uncharted territory of pink, teal and purple.

That leaves 20 (and 20% of the whole FTSE100 group) that are purely and singularly blue.

A proportion view

Looking back at the full FTSE100 I wanted to get a more detailed idea of colour use. So each identity was analysed with a percentage of 100 points attributed to the relevant colours in each.

The results show that, perhaps unsurprisingly, blue is the single most used colour. The FTSE while not dominated by blue, is dominated by the staples of corporate identity colour palettes – blue, black, grey and red.

So what does this tell us?

Some of these figures reiterate what we already know: that in the high-pressure, risk-averse world of shareholder businesses the connection to familiar colours and their perceived positive meanings provide a suitably safe haven for these brands.

They also highlight a massive opportunity for corporate brands. For those who want to stand apart, attract new audiences and investors or communicate in a different way, colour is part of the mix that will help them do so.

Protection insurance provider Bright Grey put this thinking into action. In a sector awash with grey, blue and red, they used colour in their brand styling to stand out as a new exciting player in what was a fairly reserved marketplace. Love it or hate it, their brave use of pink highlighted a genuinely different approach in a way that a ‘standard’ blue never could - living up to their proposition as a “bright spot in a grey market”.

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