Whether we run a business or a blog, one of the questions on our concerns list is how to make it stand out, be unique, instantly recognizable, build a fan base? One of the answers to that is building a successful brand. However achieving that success is not such an easy task.

Why some brands thrive while others fail? The key to building a successful brand is the understanding what brand is. Brand is not just about having a great logo, or a trademarked colour, or the right typeface, nor is it about investing a fortune into advertisement. Sometimes none of those matter, on the contrary – a flourishing brand is the one that turns a simple logo into an immediately recognizable classic, or getting a ubiquitous colour instantly associated with the branded product/company.

Brands often depend on colour as a “shortcut to their customers’ hearts“. However, we can’t just choose a colour and expect it to become an instant part of our brand. It takes a long time to develop a signature colour, that colour has to be used a lot by the company, every time and everywhere.

I remember watching one of those Hollywood action movies back when I was a teenager, and arguing with my brother (who’s a walking encyclopedia on car brands and models) that the main character’s yellow car in the movie is not Ferrari. How could it be? In my mind Ferrari left a burning imprint that all its cars are “race red” (Rosso Corsa). But when we finally saw the close-up of the car and its “prancing horse” I realized that I was wrong this time, and later discovered that there are actually yellow Ferraris. Nevertheless, when I hear the word Ferrari, the colour red still pops up in my mind first.

Some companies take it as far as trademarking their signature colours and taking other companies to court for using what is considered to be their brand’s critical feature. Whether or not one should be allowed to trademark a colour, is a different question, but just the mere fact of companies “owning” a colour says a lot about its importance and power in building an instantly recognizable brand.

How dare you to use my colour?


pink panther The first company to trademark a colour – pink – was Owens-Corning, back in 1987, for its fiberglass insulation that’s been dyed pink since 1956. In 1993 Owens-Corning has even enlisted the help of The Pink Panther to promote the company’s pink image, and even registered the term “PINK” (in all caps) to refer to its insulation. So if you run a fiberglass business, don’t consider dying your insulation pink and promoting it as your signature colour unless you can’t wait to go to court against Owens-Corning.


purple In 2003 Cadbury took Darrell Lea, an Australian company that makes chocolate, to court, claiming that Darrell Lea’s use of a shade of purple in connection with its chocolate as misleading, constituting passing off. Cadbury adopted the colour purple, Pantone 2685C, way back in 1905, for its royal associations to send a message that “eating its chocolate was a rich and indulgent experience”.


orange In this case, the colour orange is not only the trademarked colour for the company, but also its actual name. In 2005 mobile company Orange has filed a suit against a newcomer easyMobile for infringing the rights regarding the use of the colour orange.


t-mobile But I guess the most outrageous case of trademarking a colour belongs to The Deutsche Telekom and its subsidiary T-Mobile for claiming the rights to colour Magenta. Even Engadget Mobile received a warning from T-Mobile for confusing readers with their use of the colour magenta. Graphic designers in the Netherlands have launched a campaign Free Magenta against the veto to use magenta in advertisement.

Iconic Colours

Aside from claiming they own the world of colour, some companies have indeed managed to build a strong brand recognition with their iconic colours. Which drink comes to your mind when you see a red can of pop in a store? Right, Coca Cola red. Can you guess which store is advertised on the poster below? Unless you’ve never heard of this place before, your answer was most probably correct – Target. The company is so sure about its famed red circles that it didn’t even have to identify what is being advertised on that poster.

coca cola   target

Some companies manage to get your immediate attention just because of their use of striking colours. I’ve never heard of the retail chain Holt Renfrew (even though they’ve been in business since 1837) until last year when they opened a high-end store in Downtown Vancouver, and I started noticing people carrying the store’s shopping bags in hot fuchsia. The very first time I saw that bright pink bag, I remembered the store’s name whom it belonged.

holt renfrew

Certain companies are tightly associated with their trademarked colours: IBM Blue, Brown UPS (with their trademarked offer – “What Can Brown Do For You?”), just to name a few. Tiffany & Co.’s gentle blue box became a symbol of fine jewelery and exquisite taste – just think of Audrey Hepburn. Tiffany Blue colour bears the same number 1837 on the Pantone Matching System (PMS) as the year Tiffany & Co. was founded. Another high end fashion house that’s closely associated with its signature colour is Hermès. The company cleverly chose colour orange to cater both to male and female clientèle.

Tiffany & Co.   Hermes

Bold Move

So how do you choose a colour that would represent your brand, besides picking a Pantone colour with the number that represents your or your company’s birth year, like Tiffany & Co. did? First of all, study the colour psychology and decide which hue has a closer connection with what your business is all about by listing all colour associations that you can come up with and comparing them with your company’s image and purpose.

Despite the fact that there are millions of colours available to us, certain colours prove to be more popular than others. Red is the most used colour in the world of brand. It’s the colour that cannot be ignored, just as the sight of blood. Blue is probably the safest colour for branding because of the sense of trust that it instills in us. It is the all time favourite of many corporate brands.

However, it doesn’t mean that all companies should follow the familiar path. The more willing you are to step outside the comfort zone, to be the black sheep in the family of similar businesses, the better chances you have to establish your colour quicker and more effectively. Don’t be afraid of making the bold move and breaking the traditional associations.

ing direct Take for instance ING Direct, the financial institution that came out of nowhere over a decade ago, with no physical offices attached to it, and now look at it – new ING Direct banks are opening all over the world, and we’re getting cleverly brainwashed by the power of orange. Orange colour for a bank?! What’s wrong with the traditional blue and green, or red? But the colour orange is precisely what makes ING Direct to stand out in the crowded world of banks, urging us to see that they are indeed different from all other banks, and that they will actually save our money. ING Direct is a perfect example of a case study on how company promotes and establishes its signature colour. Starting from the subliminal messages that are being sent to us from their commercials, when the company’s speaker casually plays with an orange or twirls an orange umbrella, to the special terms they introduced to their business, like “orange savings account”. Its interesting to note that ING still uses colour blue as part of its brand, but the heavy accent has been placed on bold colour orange.

starbucks Avoiding obvious colour associations is another step in the right direction. Despite representing the coffee business Starbucks’s signature colour is not brown nor black but green. That’s why a cup of Starbucks coffee stands out among other drinks served in brown or burgundy containers. It doesn’t necessarily make their coffee taste better than the one from their competitors, but the colour green definitely contributes to the success of their brand.

What are your most memorable signature colours? What is your favourite colour? Would you use it for your web site or business? How much attention do you pay to colour in branding anyhow?

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11 Insightful Bits in response to “Signature Colours”

  1. Another thought-provoking article, Vivien.

    It’s funny, if you ask me to name a bank associated with the colour orange, I’d say Alliance and Leicester, but then it is a UK-based company.

    Loving the ‘free magenta’ campaign. I hadn’t seen that before.

    I’m not sure I have a favourite colour, although I have a certain liking for purple (quite odd that there isn’t any on my website).

  2. Excellent idea of posts.

  3. Thanks, David. That Alliance bank is definitely very orange ;-) It’s interesting that they too used blue colour a lot on their site. I guess blue and orange just really go well together.
    Yes, that Free Magenta campaign is very neat, lots of clever pictures there.

    Thanks, Fubiz. I love your blog with its daily dose of inspiration. Where do you find all that stuff on a daily basis? I especially liked the DropClock screensaver – amazing.

  4. As usual, very interesting. Another ingredient to the successful brand is a big pinch of luck; and even potentially great brands can go belly-up without the right promotion or owing to too little investment.

    I like what you wrote about colour. Colour has always been one of my weak points (that’s why I often stick to red, black and white). There are also fashions in colour choice: we’ve had teals and lots of pastels with Web 2.0. I didn’t know that ING was established so recently−guess I was fooled by the authoritative looking Lion :)

  5. I wonder if I should trade mark my pink / magenta mix of JCD. I am sure Pink Panther and T Mobile will like that one. In my opinion I don’t believe you should be able to trademark a colour.

    My most memorable colour association would have to be the coke brand. You can’t get away from their advertising (as well as the yellow big M).

    Anyway my favourite colours are black and white :P However my fav combo is black white and pink and the shades in between :P

    Thanks for outlining these colours and brand associations.

  6. Thanks, John. ING is an interesting case – at first I couldn’t understand what is it all about, and how can I trust a bank with no physical office… Not sure what ING ads you have seen, but here their spokesman has quite an interesting accent that nobody can figure out – not quite Dutch, nor Australian, definitely not British…
    Yes, you’re absolutely right about the fashion colours. I was planning on writing about them, but this post was already getting too long. It’s quite a big topic and deserves a separate post ;-)
    Luck definitely contributes a lot to the success of the brand, but then luck helps in every endeavour, including the blogging.

    Jacob, perhaps you should take our Magenta from your banner and submit it to Free Magenta campaign ;-) You could also contact T-mobile and dare them to go after you, then enlist the help of your father-magician to turn T-Mobile into a transparent logo ;-)

    Black and pink looks really well together.

    I also forgot to comment that like David, I too like colour purple for some quite time now. I find it very empowering and magical. It’s not appropriate for many things but as a colour, it’s something different. Whenever I’m buying violets I always choose the ones with dark purple colour, it looks really well with the velvety green leaves… It reminded me one of my favourite combos I was wearing often back when I was a student – a purple sweater with a green skirt ;-)

  7. Yep, Alliance and Leicester make the most of those complimentary colours. Reminds me of the Twirl chocolate wrappers (also using complimentary colours).

    Do you have any photos of you wearing the purple sweater and green skirt? Would love to see. ;)

  8. oh, yes – that Cadbury purple is sure gorgeous, and it goes really well with the yellow on that Twirl wrapper.

    I wish I had that photo, David. Then I could’ve you used it to claim that I still look like that today ;-)

  9. VH

    This is a very interesting article.

    I also read somewhere that Starbucks is changing its logo to its orignal one when it was first created. The new logo will be black, and has already been implemented in some places in the US. Have you heard anything about this? How do you think this will affect their brand?

  10. Hi VH. I think that there is some truth in those Starbux rumours. I just checked out their site and indeed they feature old logo on their cups, not in black though, but brown (just like hundreds of other coffee places). However, they still have the new (old) green logo on the site. So who knows what is it all about.

    Will the changes affect their brand – I doubt, they’re too big now and can afford to do anything they desire and millions of people will still be drinking it all over the world. However, I think that they might lose some more conservative fans by going back to the full-frontal-mermaid on the cup. Looks like the warning “careful, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot” got a new meaning ;-)

  11. I think it is a very dangerous development that colours can be monopolized by one company. I understand that a logo or a design that has a creative value can be copyrighted. But colors are not invented, they are just used and there should be no copyright on colors.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on