The color of culture

Companies use a variety of visual cues to firmly establish their brands in their target customer’s minds, including symbols (Nike’s swoosh, McDonald’s arches or Target’s bullseye), text designs (MTV’s graphically enhanced text), and mascots (the Trix rabbit or the Lucky Charms leprechaun).

Undoubtedly, however, the most powerful of all visual cues is the use of color. Color is used in logos, such as the vivid orange employed by ING. Color is also frequently used to differentiate products, such as the dark grass green used on John Deere products or the distinctive red on Coca Cola cans. In addition, color can also be used to establish a brand’s mood, such as the pastels prevalent in all Snuggle fabric softener ads. Finally, color can even be used to define an entire organization, such as blue (IBM) or brown (UPS). As Madden, Hewett, and Roth (2000) note, since color has such strong potential to convey meanings and establish brand preferences in a customer’s mind, there is even trademark protection for product/logo colors in the US (Lanham Act).

While color is a potent tool, the significance of individual colors varies across different cultures. For example, the color black signifies “masculine” or “sophisticated” in the US and Austria – a useful connotation in two cultures that score highly on Hofstede’s masculinity scale; however, in Brazil the same color is considered “stale” or “sad”. In Asian countries, purple is often associated with expensive items, while US consumers often link purple with inexpensive and lower quality products.

In addition, color combinations also vary across different cultures. For example, most cultures associate red with love. However, while China and Japan view color combinations including red as signifying joy or happiness, each country uses a different combination: China (black on red – used on wedding invitations) and Japan (red on white – celebration announcements).

From an international marketing perspective, the cultural differences in how people view colors and color combinations presents significant challenges in developing global brand imagery. Madden et al (2000) strongly caution that colors shouldn’t be moved from one market to another without thoroughly evaluating cultural color perceptions in the new market. In addition, they highly recommend localized strategies when the corporate color or color combination is perceived differently in the target country and globalized strategies when the color meanings are the same (or at least similar) across multiple markets.


Madden, T., Hewett, K., Roth, M. (2000), “Managing Images in Different Cultures: A Cross-National Study of Color Meanings and Preferences,” Journal of International Marketing, 8 (4), pp. 90-107


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