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When marketing common sense has reached its limits, call a Semiotician! | What colour do you choose?

‘Whenever you see colour, think of us’ was a tagline popularly adopted by paint brand Jenson & Nicholson. But strong colour associations haven’t just benefitted paint brands. Numerous others have boosted recognizability by using distinctive colours; think of the red Coca-Cola can, or how Google’s name is written in multiple colours but in a specific order.

When trying to define brand identity through colours, marketing managers often wonder what makes one variant sell more. ‘Is there something about the colour?’ the team speculates and wonders.

Often they will be forced to pick colours for a redesign within a short period of time. That leads them to think about what a certain colour stands for. The next step taken, both by the marketing team and the agency design team, is to quickly google for the meanings of colours.

And the internet is rife with charts of the pseudo-science of colour psychology. According to these, psychological processes, such as neural pathways getting lit up in the brain, help fix meanings to colours.

A Semiotician will point out that the idea that a colour stands for a fixed and singular meaning is false. Common sense verification can prove that colour meanings are flexible and multiple; they are governed significantly by the context in which the colour is used, as well as by the objects that come to mind as reference when thinking of the colour.

To provide an example of colour meanings being defined by context: consider the Delhi metro map that uses different colour codes for different metro lines.

When we see the yellow line on it, we don’t think of the various meanings of yellow we already know and remember; we recognise the yellow line in relation to the magenta line, the pink line, and the violet line. And therefore, we use the colour yellow to recognise the metro line we need to take, and the stations covered on that route.

To understand how colour meanings are defined by objects, and can thus birth completely different interpretations, consider the colour black.

When it manifests as a tuxedo, or the little black dress (LBD), it connotes sophistication, glamour and the upper class. But when it comes in the form of a burqa, it connotes quite the opposite of glamour and sophistication. Instead, a black umbrella and a black burqa have more in common, in terms of meaning, than a black burqa, a tuxedo and the LBD do.

Similarly, yellow connotes sunshine, brightness and happiness when we think of it in relation to the sun. However, it can also connote disease, illness and trouble when thought of in relation to jaundice.

When we think of colour meanings as abstract concepts, we find it tough to believe that a single colour can mean contradictory things (like how yellow can connote both happiness and illness). However, if we understand colour meanings in context, they don’t appear logical oppositions of each other.

Semiotics can help ensure that choices are not made out of misguided reasoning. So, the next time debates on brand or package colour grow heated, and the answers seem elusive, just call a Semiotician to shed light on the issue.