Coloring Outside the Lines: How Brands Use Color to Stand Out

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

So said Ferris Bueller in 1986, an era that feels relatively sedate when compared to today’s ADHD whirlwind of media and marketing. If you’re old enough to remember Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (or caught it on reruns) you may recall the pivotal scene where his buddy Cameron accidentally sends his father’s vintage Ferrari crashing through a garage window. The color of that car? Red, of course.

In the early 90’s, 80% of all Ferraris built were painted red. Enzo Ferrari is famously reputed to have said, “ask a child to draw a car, he will surely draw it red.” Such are our associations with specific colors, from childhood onwards.

The Innate Power of Colors

From infancy, when babies begin to discern the world through colors and shapes, certain hues invoke innate responses. Color psychology explores the impact colors have on people, and how context can impact that. Blue may evoke trust, yet feel cold and impersonal, and appears less frequently in food marketing; green suggests health, but also envy. The implications are profound for marketers who wield color to capture our attention in a crowded digital landscape.

Brand Identity: More Than Just a Color Scheme

Iconic brands like Ferrari have leveraged color to build a memorable identity. This extends beyond cars to every facet of branding. Consider McDonald’s: is there an inherent link between the colors red and yellow and their famous Big Mac? Or have these colors been chosen for their high visibility and psychological impact—yellow for positivity, red for appetite stimulation?

Studies show that brand recognition can start young—about two-thirds of three-year-olds can identify the McDonald’s logo, suggesting the power of color is formidable. It’s also complex. When you’re driving, red can mean danger, or lure you to the nearest freeway exit for a burger.

Zigging When Others Zag: The Strategic Use of Color

In the financial sector, traditional companies often opt for conservative colors like blue or red, while disruptors such as fintech firms have often chosen purples and other stand-out hues to differentiate from the established norm. The message is clear: color can disrupt, delineate, and establish new associations in consumers’ minds.

The Debate: Distinctiveness vs. Differentiation

As a one-time challenger brand, T-Mobile’s choice of magenta illustrates the strategic role color plays in branding. By “zigging” when others “zag,” they’ve become not just a me-too mobile carrier but a distinctive presence in the market.

Differentiation, however, can be a moving target. One day your competitor copies your innovation. Next, perhaps you copy one of theirs. Your product or offering is different. Until perhaps, it isn’t. 

No matter, according to controversial marketing academic Byron Sharp. “Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts, differentiation doesn’t.”  While not universally accepted, Sharp’s worldview has become influential in marketing circles. 

Color in Competition: Standing Out in a Sea of Sameness

One can see bold distinctiveness in action in the insurance category, a traditionally low-interest product that people would ultimately rather not think about. From State Farm’s red to Progressive’s white, Allstate’s blue and Liberty Mutual’s yellow, each brand uses color (alongside jingles, characters and humor) to signify its identity to customers. It takes a lot of work to stay top of mind.

Green Marketing: When Traditional Colors Meet New Challenges

In emerging industries, like sustainability, there is an opportunity for brands on the rise to build affinity with consumers by being “carefully counterintuitive.” Kiosk’s EVP, Strategy, David Neugebauer states, “Color choices and imagery are hugely important factors in developing brand strategy, particularly in emerging industries. Should a company in the sustainability space feel compelled to adopt a green image? Would another green logo drown in a sea of sameness? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Being overtly green might not be the best strategy in the long run. Instead, the key is to be bold and think outside the box. Being different for the sake of being different may not resonate, but there’s only one chance to make a lasting first impression. Make it count.”

What Ferris Bueller Teaches Us About Branding

Ferris Bueller’s timeless advice to appreciate life’s rapid pace can extend to branding. It’s not making choices on autopilot; it’s about taking a moment to look around, then making bold choices that may defy conventions but make a lasting impact. In branding, as in life, the memorable choice often lies in the path less traveled.