The golden arches. The red-and-white bullseye.
These ultra-iconic logos wouldn’t be quite the same without a splash of color. And neither would yours. But the endless spectrum of options can be pretty overwhelming when it comes time to build your brand color palette.
And when you’re competing in a kaleidoscope of Technicolor marketing, it’s not easy to stand out. An Ipsos and Jones Knowles Ritchie survey of more than 26,000 consumers found that a measly 4% of the brand colors they looked at were “truly distinctive.”
Ready to learn how to choose brand colors that make an impact — and not in a bad, squint-to-focus sort of way? In this step-by-step guide, we’ll help you choose the perfect color combos with confidence.
What Are Brand Colors?
Brand colors are a limited selection of colors that visually represent an organization. Graphic designers use brand colors as their go-to hues when creating promotional marketing materials for a company. These colors show up across all digital and physical touchpoints — from the company’s logo design, website and social grid to its product packaging, event swag and brick-and-mortar environment.
Whether you’re launching a startup from scratch or reimagining an established identity, the color palette you choose today will underpin your entire visual brand for years to come. You need trusty colors that support brand recognition and help you execute a wide range of marketing and design needs.
The most successful brand colors are:
- Clear: Words and images displayed in your brand colors must be legible wherever they are — from a crisp business card to a blaze orange construction vest.
- Meaningful: Your chosen color scheme needs to get your brand message across at a glance.
- Versatile: When you’re whipping up a website or picking packaging, brand colors need to help rather than hinder you.
- Memorable: Your audience should be able to associate branded visual assets with your organization even if they don’t see your company name.
- Reproducible: There’s no point in curating a perfect color palette if the marketers and designers on your team don’t have the info they need to use those specific colors in their projects.
If your chosen colors meet the above criteria, you’re in good shape. However, selecting a successful scheme isn’t as simple as spinning the color wheel a few times and seeing where you land. It helps to know a thing or two about color theory and your brand identity before you start swatching.
Picking Powerful Brand Colors, Step by Step
Considering, choosing, testing, finalizing, and leveraging your brand colors can be an exciting journey if you give yourself a little structure. Allow our 6-step guide to be your yellow brick road to brand color bliss!
1. Articulate Your Brand Identity
You’ve probably heard about color psychology before. This field of study examines the relationship between color and human behavior. Blue is relaxing. Yellow is cheerful. Red is intense. But these associations aren’t all that useful if you don’t know what mood or feeling you’re aiming for.
That’s why it’s essential to first determine what you want to convey about your brand before thinking about how to convey it through color.
Maybe you already have a list of adjectives you want customers to associate with your business. Or maybe it’s time to draft a brand positioning statement. Either way, make sure you can define your brand identity in a few words. Choose words that express the mood, feeling, experience or impression you want your brand to make on your audience.
2. Learn the Basics of Communicating With Color
Once you know what you’re trying to say through color, you’re ready to explore color as a language. Speaking this language begins with having a baseline understanding of the different properties of color — including hue, saturation and value — and what they say based on how they’re used.
Hue refers to which color family a particular shade falls into on the color wheel. These include red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.
We’ve already touched on the fact that color psychology connects certain hues with certain feelings and behaviors. But if you compare two greens like lime and olive, you’ll see that different colors within the same family can have very different qualities. This is where saturation and value become valuable tools to help understand the nuances of those differences.
Saturation describes how vibrant or muted a color is. Vibrant, highly saturated colors like magenta come across as more youthful and energizing. Low-saturation colors like dusty rose or mauve usually feel calmer and more mature.
Value is a measure of how light or dark a color is. A darker color closer to black will usually have a stronger presence than a pale, airy color that’s closer to white. Pastels like baby blue are associated with sweetness and innocence, whereas deep hues like navy often look rich and sophisticated.
When you tinker with all three — hue, saturation and value — you can end up with some pretty interesting colors that will have a lot to say in your branded content.
You don’t need to land on the perfect logo color at this point, but consider how your brand identity aligns with the qualities associated with each end of these color spectra.
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3. Explore Color Variations and Combinations
At this point, you don’t have any specific colors picked out just yet, but you should have a narrower sense of where you’re aiming. For instance, you might be responding to bright, highly saturated pinks and oranges that strike a playful tone. Or perhaps you’re leaning toward deep, muted wine reds that feel classy and grown-up.
Take these rough ideas and run with them. Gather brand color palette inspiration to find specific shades and supporting colors that fit your brand identity.
This part can be a lot of fun if you approach it with an open mind and a sharp eye. There are lots of ways to do brand color research:
- Collect inspiring images, such as photos, graphics and branding examples on Pinterest. Can you spot any similar hues, values or saturation levels in the images you’re pinning?
- Look for striking color combos within social media posts, coffee table books and design magazines. What shades harmonize with each other? Are there any unexpected color combos that feel right for your brand?
- Use a color palette generator like Adobe Color to pull color combinations from images.
- Analyze brand colors used by your competitors and other organizations you admire. What color combinations are they using? What do these colors say about the brands?
However you gather your inspo, take time to assess how the colors coming through in your research stack up in terms of hue, saturation and value.
Also, look at how different hues in the color combinations you’re looking at relate to each other:
- Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel (like yellow and green).
- Complementary colors sit across from each other on the color wheel (like blue and orange).
- Triadic colors sit in a triangle across the color wheel (like purple, yellow and blue-green).
These types of color combinations tend to look balanced and feel harmonious. But they’re not the only pairings you can play with. Consider if the shades you prefer fall into any other general color categories, such as:
- Warm colors.
- Cool colors.
- Earth tones.
- Jewel tones.
- Seasonal colors.
- Rainbow brights.
These exercises will leave you with lots of inspiration and a better idea of what specific colors and color pairings could work for your brand. You should also have a sense of what colors don’t align with the message and identity you want for your organization.
4. Pick Your Brand’s Primary and Accent Colors
How many brand colors do you actually need? There’s no perfect number, but any more than 10 colors can feel excessive. Ideally, you should choose just enough colors to get the job done, with enough light, medium and dark options in the mix to support a wide range of design needs.
The important thing is to make sure you have enough colors across 3 different categories:
- 1 or 2 primary brand colors for your brand.
- 1 to 4 secondary brand colors that harmonize with the base color.
- 1 to 4 tertiary brand colors that function as neutrals.
Here at Brafton, we work with 8 colors in our brand palette:
- 1 main color — a bright green.
- 3 secondary colors — a dark blue and 2 aqua shades.
- 4 tertiary colors — a very dark gray, a medium gray and 2 light grays.
Depending on the visual brand you want to create, it may be more effective to start with one color or a general palette:
- One option is to choose your primary brand color first, then build a complete brand color palette around it.
- The other option is to hone in on a brand-aligned color combination first, then pull your primary and supporting colors from within that color palette.
Either way, you’ll draw on your understanding of the language of color to choose specific shades that fit your brand identity.
5. Test Out Your Brand Color Palette
Once you’ve settled on a brand color palette — including primary, secondary and tertiary colors — you need to make sure they’ll actually work for your design needs. Successful corporate branding includes colors that work well across any and all brand touchpoints, including your:
- Logo, everywhere it appears.
- Print materials like flyers and packaging.
- Digital assets like eBooks and email newsletters.
- Online properties like your website and social media feeds.
- In-person signage and spaces.
Put your selections to the test through design mockups, printed proofs and other samples. Then assess how the colors perform in real-world applications.
If the text in your tertiary brand color feels too faint to read, swap it out for a darker shade. If one of your secondary brand colors jumps out more than your primary one, tweak the value or saturation to restore balance.
Also, check how compliant your brand colors are with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You can use a brand color accessibility checker to see whether your choices provide sufficient contrast or if they’re too murky and hard to read.
Make as many adjustments as you need until your brand palette ticks all the boxes. It should be clear, meaningful, versatile, memorable and reproducible.
6. Add Your Colors to Your Brand Guidelines
Speaking of reproducibility, your marketing and design teams won’t be able to launch your brand colors into the world if they don’t know what they are. Be sure to include your color selections in your brand guide.
Include these details for each color:
- A color swatch to show what it looks like.
- The exact HEX, CMYK and RGB color codes.
- An indication of whether it’s a primary, secondary or tertiary color in your scheme.
- A nifty color name. (This one is totally optional, but it can be a great way to reinforce your brand identity.)
Within your brand guidelines, make note of important do’s and don’ts related to using your brand colors. For instance, you may add instructions to make sure creatives on your team don’t use the main brand color against a black background, don’t place the secondary colors next to each other, and so on.
Brand Color Palette Examples
All of the most recognizable brands have ROY G. BIV working in their favor. Let’s take a quick look at two colorful examples of how a brand’s color scheme can operate in different contexts:
A New Palette for Nickelodeon
High-saturation colors feel youthful and energetic. That’s why Nickelodeon’s key colors — bright orange and green — are a perfect fit for the children’s entertainment brand.
In 2023, the organization underwent its first rebrand in more than a dozen years with the support of agency partner Roger. The well-known orange and slime-green shades are now supported with gradients of yellow, pink and purple. These new secondary colors feature equally high saturation to reflect the high energy and creative spirit of Nickelodeon. Importantly, these colors provide eye-catching contrast on screen.
But brands within the Nickelodeon family have to perform equally well off-screen. Let’s look at one well-known character to see how it’s done.
Sophisticated Shades for SpongeBob
How can SpongeBob — the goofy, animated underwater character — be sophisticated? It all has to do with how his brand colors are deployed.
“[S]ince he’s a golden yellow color, his palette can easily adopt a metallic gold,” explains Gerald Yarborough, who oversees product development for Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products, in an interview with Pantone. “[D]esigns are instantly elevated to a more high-end status when gold is added. Some retailers are willing to spend more on products with that extra design aesthetic because it just feels more expensive.”
The cheerful character’s sunny yellow is well-supported by cool secondary colors. “Naturally, since he lives in a pineapple under the sea, we also tend to steer toward nautical palettes and those suitable for toddlers and kids. Turquoise and ultramarines are good bases to consider, especially since they’re more gender neutral,” says Yarborough.
The combination of yellow or gold with turquoise and blue makes sense on-screen for SpongeBob’s surroundings. But they also feel appropriate on products designed for families who want to invite the character into their homes without being visually overwhelmed.
Who would have thought a few color choices could mean the difference between alienating and attracting discerning retailers and consumers?
That’s the power of brand colors.
Putting the Steps Into Practice for Your Own Brand Color Adventure
It’s easy to look at an existing brand kit and see how the colors work together. But what if you’re getting stuck sifting through Pinterest boards?
Let’s dip our proverbial paintbrushes into an example to see what this process of discovery can look like.
Say you summed up your brand identity as “sophisticated, calm and tropical.” There’s no one right way to communicate that through color. So, where could you start?
Here are just a few jumping-off points to consider for your primary and secondary brand colors:
- A nature-inspired teal blue could evoke serene tropical seas.
- Soft greens and beiges reminiscent of palm-tree-lined beaches could be an earthy take on this concept.
- Rich, muted shades like plum or burnt orange could feel like elevated versions of the bright colors usually found in tropical flowers.
From there, you may have several ideas for additional secondary and tertiary colors:
- A hint of gold or silver could add a touch of luxury.
- Crisp navy and white could provide a clean, fresh foundation.
- Soft, earthy neutrals could be calming accent colors.
As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities, but allowing your brand identity to guide you means you can narrow down your color search. That way, it won’t feel like you’re pulling out random colors from a 200-count crayon box. Instead, as you play around with different shades and color combinations, you’ll see your brand personality come to life.
Let Your Brand Get Colorful
The perfect brand colors should function like an impeccable outfit for your brand. Your color scheme should help your organization make a statement, stand out from the crowd and give your audience an at-a-glance impression of what your organization is all about.
Just remember that there’s no one right way to build a brand palette. As long as you’re open to trying different shades and combinations, testing them out and enjoying the creative process, it can be a rewarding experience.
So, go and find that pot of gold (or honey, or mustard) at the end of your brand rainbow!