Color psychology is awesome and it matters

Since my last post was a bit dark, let’s brighten things up (pun intended) with a fun topic that happens to be one of my not-so-secret passions – color psychology! It may sound fluffy but there’s a lot of hard data out there that proves color use in marketing matters and when used in the right context, colors can (and should) be manipulated to achieve particular outcomes.

I’m just going to hit on some basics:

The Color Wheel

This maps primary, secondary and tertiary colors across the color spectrum. The ‘wheel’ layout is important because it shows how these colors correlate to one another, such as complimentary, split complimentary, and analogous colors. Here’s a super helpful overview of the basic 12 point color wheel principles:


You would do yourself well to learn how to master the use of this color wheel. It’s not hard and lucky for you other folks already did the hard work to determine how to use colors for maximum effectiveness. For example, Paul Olyslager does a nice job in this blog concisely explaining how to use complimentary (think opposite) colors to draw the eye to the desired call-to-action (CTA).


The idea here is that the contrast of the complimentary color (red) jumps out against the blue background and draws the eye to the preferred CTA, which is of course to sign up. Cool, huh? If you like this and want to learn more about how colors impact conversion check out this post from ConversionXL.

Color Meanings and Associations

Believe it or not we all associate colors with tangible things and concepts. Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game:

Below is a list of colors, which I would like you to read one at a time and after each one, say the first thing that pops into your mind. This works better if you do it out loud. If you’re reading this on a plane or in the office, invite others to play along. Don’t be shy.

Here we go…

  • Green
  • Pink
  • Brown
  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Here are some common answers I get when I do this with others:

  • Green – Eco friendly, clean, luck, money
  • Pink – Barbie, cancer, babies, pepto-bismol, breasts
  • Brown – Earth, wilderness, government, safety
  • Red – power, winning, urgency, aggression
  • Yellow – fun, happy, caution, energy
  • Blue – technology, authority, peace, order

What’s really interesting about this game is everyone is going to have different answers depending on their current mindset, age, gender, social background and of course, geography. A 20-year-old guy might initially think of “breasts” for the color pink (yep, I said “breasts,” not “breast cancer” – it seems the cancer awareness part gets dropped quite a bit). Whereas a 30-year-old woman with children probably thinks of little girls’ toys and clothing. Similarly, red is a color of power and aggression in America, but in some Asian countries it symbolizes good fortune and wealth.

Colors also come into play when considering brand association. You’d probably find it pretty strange and perhaps even off-putting if you got an email from Target with a blue color scheme because we all have learned to associate Target with the color red.

When developing marketing materials and selecting colors, you need to consider your intended audience, how they perceive you and the message you’re trying to convey.


Using colors in the right context matters. Just because you prefer a specific color doesn’t mean that it’s best to use when considering the context. Here’s what I mean…

Which color do you prefer?

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.17.48 PM   Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 9.18.12 PM

Most people will choose blue. You might think I chose intentionally gender-polarizing colors, so the preferences would be split, but in fact studies show that in general, women are more averse to pink than men are (there are of course specific contextual exceptions to this, such as when making purchases for female children and donating to charity).

Now, which image do you prefer?

guy pink   blue nerd

Most women, and probably many men, will choose image #1 in pink. I mean, the guy in blue is fetching but the guy in pink in downright distracting. You can’t help but look. In all seriousness, though, both images have a quality that draws your attention.

What if I now told you the purpose of this ad is to sell custom t-shirts.

Which makes you want to buy a T-Shirt?

guy pink   blue nerd

I mean, maybe the shirtless guy is just waiting for his custom t-shirt to be made…

My point is, you need to consider not only sentiment about colors but how they’re viewed in context and what they’re intended to do. Oh yeah…and who they’re for (that all-important audience thing again).

Testing Matters

These principles above are good guidelines to live your marketing life by, but even equipped with these nuggets of brilliance I will encourage you to keep testing your color options. The things that do and do not work may surprise you.

A story about the color purple:  Not long ago I ran a pretty extensive marketing campaign which was targeted toward an IT audience. The primary imagery and CTAs for the campaign were in purple. Generally, purple and brown are the least successful colors for CTAs, but we had recently used purple very successfully in a campaign targeted at law firms and decided to use it again. It flopped. Badly. We knew the color was the culprit because we saw an increase in click rates when we ran an A/B split test with different button colors: orange and blue were both much more effective. We continue to see good click rates with purple CTAs for the legal industry audience, which just goes to show sometimes you don’t know what works for which audience unless you test.

In summary: Colors matter. Context matters. Colors in context can have a material impact on how people perceive and interact (or don’t) with your marketing programs. And never stop testing.

There is so much great info about this topic out there and I can’t cover it all here because ya’ll would be sick of me, but if you want to learn more, here are some great resources to dive into:

An open letter to Oracle: You conquered Eloqua and broke it, and I don’t forgive you

Dear Oracle,

I think everyone will agree that when England plopped their flag on American soil people suffered. They expected the natives who were already there to be grateful to the English for bringing them ‘civilized society’ and pretty bells and whistles. In reality, what they did was impose rules that belittled the natives and took away their voice, and gave them a bunch of shit they didn’t need (including diseases like chicken pox, cholera, whooping-cough and syphilis, by the way).

In the last few years you’ve been plopping your flag all over marketing tech soil and acting like we should be thankful, but some of us are suffering. You probably think we should appreciate that we have easy access to a broader ‘civilized’ society of options to fill our marketing tech stack. And you probably expect us to be excited about the investments you’re making to bring us new bells and whistles. In theory, we also benefit from the protection and cost savings that comes with giving our allegiance to a single large entity.

All these things could be great, except they’re not. I don’t care about a one-stop shop for my tech stack. I want the best and I’ll get it from 10 different vendors if that’s what it takes. Your civilized rules belittle your customers, eliminate transparency and take away our voice. I was one of thousands, now I’m one of hundreds of thousands and it’s clear you don’t care about me. My husband knows more about Eloqua from listening to me talk about it over dinner for the last 8 years than your ‘help desk’ knows about it. Your huge society is riddled with diseases, which you’ve passed around to IT departments, HR departments, and now you’ve passed them on to marketing departments.

Your colonization of marketing technology has benefited you more than your people. Do the laws of the land protect the poor people who suffer? No! We pay our dues to the governing body and hope they put it toward good use. The new immigrants to your marketing tech environment might think you’re great, but as a native, I know better. You broke Eloqua physically and spiritually.

Eloqua used to be a partner. They were committed to the success of their customers. Now I feel like we’re just a number – one more insignificant customer you’re amassing in your pursuit of world domination. When Eloqua doesn’t work properly (which happens a LOT nowadays), you have three ways of handling it:

  1. act like the customer doesn’t know what they’re talking about (which probably works with 80% of them, because they don’t know what they’re talking about);
  2. make them jump through hoops of internal troubleshooting and documentation until they either give up or do all the work for you (lucky for me I have a team of in-house experts, but those who don’t must default to #1);
  3. categorically deny there is a problem (until it’s fixed and then act like you proactively identified a problem and solved it before anyone suffered…well done, you).

Eloqua used to be transparent. When something went wrong, which happened a lot less but did happen, they told us about it. We got updates and were told the cause once resolved. Oracle’s policy seems to be: ignore, deny, deny, fix it (maybe), deny, ignore.  

Eloqua used to work. I may have subtly alluded to this already, but as a SaaS application, Eloqua is going down hill. I don’t think a week goes by where we’re not impacted by some minor bug. And we have had 5 significant system function failures in the last 18 months. Prior to your conquering of Eloqua I can only think of 2 major issues in 6 years. What happened? Did you grow your empire too fast and now you don’t have enough food to go around, so you’re allowing some of us to starve? I’m a highly advanced high-tech marketer and I WANT the best and newest bells and whistles. But more than that, I want the most fundamental of marketing automation functions to WORK. And it’s a god-damned shame that I have to spend my time fighting fires for the most basic functionality rather than trying out new automation tech features.

Eloqua used to be the best. It wasn’t for everyone – it was for those who wanted to be the best. Anyone who has attended an Oracle marketing event in the last couple of years will probably agree that Eloqua is no longer focused on those that want to be the best – it’s about those who want to pay the most. I used to learn something and be inspired at Eloqua conferences. I would get the chance to learn from people who were doing things I hadn’t thought of, yet. Yes, there were newbie-level sessions as well, but where Eloqua really shined was in its ability to bring in thought leaders who were on the cutting edge of marketing tech and methodologies. Now, it’s all about the novice users and getting people to go broader rather than deeper into the Oracle tech. I could have given every presentation I saw at the last MME conference on-the-spot, with my eyes closed, while standing in a yoga tree-pose.

In summary: Eloqua used to be great. Obviously you recognized this fact, because you bought it. But then you broke it and its greatness is deteriorating. I cannot forgive the shortcomings that now exist in the application and the customer service experience. The policies, attitude, and technical shortcomings you’ve imposed upon Eloqua and its customers are ruining Eloqua for me and I’d encourage you to have a look back on what Eloqua used to be and take steps to fix it.

The Sassy Marketer

P.S. Some comedic relief:


I think it’s worth sharing that Eloqua/Oracle has reached out to understand and address these concerns, and while I think they have a lot of work to do to bring back the old Eloqua pizzaz I believe they’re committed to refocusing on the customer. I give credit where it’s due. Shoutout to @joe_kilduff