The power of color in direct marketing

Color is one of the most powerful elements of design for direct mail, ads, and other marketing materials.

color in direct mail and adsWhy? Because color is a form of nonverbal communication. Research has shown that color increases brand identity, assists in memory, increases a reader’s participation in ads, and improves readership, learning, and comprehension.

This is a complicated subject and is worthy of a dozen posts, but I’d like to cover just three important points about why color choice is so important.

Color carries meaning through association.

This meaning can be divided into two parts: natural associations and psychological or cultural associations.

By “natural association” I mean that colors bring to mind certain ideas that everyone understands. For example, green is associated with nature because that’s the primary color of plants everywhere in the world. Blue is associated with the sky. Yellow is associated with the sun. These associations are simple and universal.

Psychological or cultural associations are more tricky. In the U.S., orange is associated with Halloween because pumpkins are a big part of that holiday. But since many other cultures don’t celebrate this particular holiday, that association doesn’t exist. Likewise, while black is associated with death in the West, white is often the death color in other cultures.

There is a “vocabulary of color.”

Colors are not as clear cut as words, but there is a loose meaning for most colors. What follows is a quick definition of some common colors for those who live in a Western culture.

Practical considerations should guide color choice.

Color associations and vocabulary are something you should know. But when it comes to designing marketing items, don’t get carried away. Copy is more important than color, and the whole point of design is to make sure people READ the copy.

So keep a few things in mind:

There you have it. That’s my quick reveiw of key points for using color in direct marketing. This barely scratches the surface, but there should be plenty here to give you some ideas for improving your marketing materials.

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48 Responses to “The power of color in direct marketing”

  1. Jordan on August 27th, 2008 10:45 pm

    My blogs are Feng Shui’ed by color and bagua.

  2. Ted Grigg on August 28th, 2008 8:13 pm

    Dean, I studied this issue many years ago and had forgotten most of it. I wonder if designers get good grounding in how people react emotionally to different colors or color combinations?

    They probably have natural instincts for this even if they don’t have the formal exposure to this research. But I wonder based on some layouts I’ve seen lately.

    Most artists seem to use color to depict modern versus old or important versus less important rather than for emotional reactions from readers.

    Perhaps an art director could comment here on my questions.

    Thanks for this helpful, new information.

  3. Dean Rieck on August 29th, 2008 12:30 am

    Ted: That’s a good question. I think most formally trained designers study general color theory, which would include some of the basics I’ve outlined. But I don’t know how many study how color influences reading or buying.

    I think most designers are influenced by the sort of work they do early on. So if you start out doing “artsy” design, you’ll turn into a different type of designer than if you start out doing “selling” design.

    BTW, the same applies to copywriters.

  4. DragonOak on September 3rd, 2008 9:52 pm

    Very good info, thanks!

  5. Alan Underwood on September 5th, 2008 2:38 pm

    As an Art Director and a color “expert” I have to protest a little bit on your color descriptions. I know they’re intentionally simplified, but those associations are just bunk. There is plenty of good research available on the emotional and cultural reactions caused by colors and the effects on commerce… unfortunately, this isn’t it. Try “Color Image Scale” by Shigenobu Kobayashi. It’s a great starter text for this sort of thing.

  6. Doug C. on September 6th, 2008 7:43 pm

    Thanks for the insight as well as the confirmation in my choice as light blue for a background color within my website.

  7. Mark on September 13th, 2008 1:24 am

    Great info. Something to keep in mind.


  8. Color Psychology - Ecommerce Design | E-Commerce for All on September 14th, 2008 8:32 am

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  9. Craig on September 16th, 2008 3:12 pm

    I never really gave much thought to color in an ad but I supose I should. Now this is coming from someone that once I am dressed in the morning, my wife usually sends me back to the closet to change because my socks do not match my shirt, or pants, etc. This is something that I can never get right. I think it is because my wife and daughter hold the rule book on colors. I asked for a copy so I could memorize what colors goes well “Fuchsia”. But was told I could not have a copy. Funny, I always thought Fuchsia was a country.

    Being seriously, Being in the Promotional products business, I do preach to my customer to stay consistent with their brands and colors. I was really intrigued with this article about the significance of color. I always tell my clients this, The four most important things in a good effective ad are, (1) Who you are (2) What you do (3) One form of contact and (4) A compelling call to action. A well designed logo with the proper colors will go a long way in helping to build your brand and convey a good positive message.

    A big Red Bravo to this article

    Craig Watson

  10. Dean Rieck on September 16th, 2008 4:07 pm

    Craig: Fuchsia is not a country? I learn something every day. :)

  11. Craig on September 16th, 2008 4:21 pm

    Nooo, it’s not. Imagine how I felt when I found out. And FYI, Fuchsia, does not go with brown.

  12. Linkdump | on September 19th, 2008 8:15 am

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  13. Let’s Get Ready to Stumble! | PR Prowess on September 19th, 2008 8:26 am

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  14. Man Overboard on September 26th, 2008 12:49 am

    Nice post. I definately think green is overused these days and will quickly wear out. I never reaized how popular blue was.

    Any thought on what combinations might evoke from a reader?

    For example red text on a yellow background etc…?

  15. Julius Kuhn-Regnier on October 10th, 2008 6:08 am

    Great post. I’ve never looked at it that way ;) very interesting article!

  16. Better response for marketing campaigns! :: Personal URLs :: Tips for using colors in your marketing on October 14th, 2008 12:37 pm

    [...] Direct Creative Blog wrote a great post about “The power of color in direct marketing“. Check out their write-up on the “vocabulary of [...]

  17. Cynthia Maniglia on October 15th, 2008 3:41 pm

    I used to work for a direct marketing genius who always used to say, “Blue sells.”

    : )

  18. Dean Rieck on October 15th, 2008 4:55 pm

    Cynthia: I applied for an agency job out in Las Vegas years ago. During the interview, the agency owner told me, “No headline should be no longer than seven words.”

    He was serious. He even pulled out ads he had created and counted the words for me as proof.

  19. bruce colthart on October 17th, 2008 7:34 pm

    All this generalization is being turned on its ear as design evolves and the incoming generation breaks old rules on the way to creating new ones.

    Perhaps if we’re talking about typical hack design, so prevalent in the hands of smaller businesses and less sophisticated marketers (you know who you are) these guidelines make a bit more sense.

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    [...] A great post from Copyblogger contributor Dean Reick over at his blog – The Power of Color in Direct Marketing. [...]

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  22. Caleb Rogers on October 19th, 2008 11:34 pm

    As a copywriter with no real design skills to speak of, any information on the use of color is helpful. Since design isn’t my area, I typically stick with black text on a white background, and use blue for color. Sometimes I’ll use red to make something really stand out (like a web copy headline).

    Thanks for some great information.

  23. on October 20th, 2008 9:55 am

    The power of color in direct marketing…

    Color is one of the most powerful elements of design for direct mail, ads, and other marketing materials. Why? Because color is a form of nonverbal communication. Research has shown that color increases brand identity, assists in memory, increases a re…

  24. Brian Killian on October 20th, 2008 10:38 am

    This is a great subject. Another point about blue is that on the internet it is the standard color for links.

    Since headlines are usually also links, it works out well if you are using blue.

  25. Carin on October 22nd, 2008 4:58 am

    Great subject, I always use blue and green to calm me down, Love to wear black and red make me feel great, orange and yellow give me energy

  26. 10 Cool Links for Bloggers and Copywriters | IdealFusion Consulting on October 23rd, 2008 12:56 am

    [...] A great post from Copyblogger contributor Dean Reick over at his blog – The Power of Color in Direct Marketing. [...]

  27. TeasasTips on October 24th, 2008 6:50 pm

    I use purple a lot because it makes me think of royalty…I did not know that the feng shui of color had given it the same connotation.

  28. The power of color in direct marketing — :: Jace Daniel’s World Wide Web Site on October 25th, 2008 1:54 am

    [...] → The Direct Creative Blog discusses three key points regarding the importance of color choices… [...]

  29. Referáty on October 26th, 2008 5:01 am

    Wow! Incredibly useful article. Thanks a lot. But I think that blue is not only for business. It´s callm color…

  30. 5 Power Packaging tips for Blog Marketing Magic on October 26th, 2008 9:51 pm

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  32. » Halloween Linkswitch: Graphic Design And Small Business Treats on October 31st, 2008 7:05 pm

    [...] Yellow, green, red, blue… have you ever wondered what impact colors can have in direct marketing? [...]

  33. Halloween Linkswitch: Graphic Design And Small Business Treats | on November 3rd, 2008 3:18 pm

    [...] Yellow, green, red, blue… have you ever wondered what impact colors can have in direct marketing? [...]

  34. Marketing and Your CHoice Of Colors | ItCanHappen4U2.Com Small Business Ideas Blog on November 9th, 2008 6:51 am

    [...] ItCanHappen4U2.Com Small Business Ideas Blog Stay At Home Moms Business |Small Business Ideas|Legitimate Home Based Business Opportunity Wed 29 Oct Marketing and Your Choice Of Colors Stephen plugim_url = “”; plugim_title = “Marketing+and+Your+Choice+Of+Colors”; In the last couple weeks I have been looking into different colors for a new web page. While stumbling the Internet looking at different sites and how they are laid out I came accross the below information and wanted to post it. Color is very important and understanding can help in a big way when designing advertisements and web pages. The power of color in direct marketing [...]

  35. grl on November 24th, 2008 1:19 pm

    it is true but always well-implemented elements Web 2.0

  36. Zeeshan Ahmad on December 11th, 2008 7:09 am

    very interesting angle to view the importnace of colors in our lives..

  37. John on January 1st, 2009 11:51 pm

    black is not a color, neither is white

  38. Dean Rieck on January 2nd, 2009 1:13 am

    John: If you want to be pedantic, yes. In RGB at least, white is the combination of all colors and black is the absence of all colors. But here in the real world, white and black are considered colors. Besides, if Crayola sells white and black crayons, then they’re colors. :)

  39. Gareth on January 13th, 2009 12:43 pm

    Nicely written. I have to agree especially with this point “Black type on white paper is both practical and legible.” Many adverts and websites set to reverse just don’t work.

    Anyone interested in other marketing thoughts can visit

  40. LM on July 16th, 2009 9:13 am

    ok i need someone to back me up. i work with a lot of non DM people, and we are doing a piece of collateral (its an invite to an event) and they decided (against my better judgement) to have a full black cover (with yellow text). I was completely against using a black cover. thoughts on excessive use of black?

  41. Dean Rieck on July 16th, 2009 10:26 am


    Yellow on black? I’d have to see it to really judge it, but I’d think if they wanted an ultra high contrast, eye-catching combination that black on yellow would work better. Important road signs and warning signs use this combination for that very reason.

  42. Bruce Colthart (@bccreative) on July 16th, 2009 11:05 am

    LM: As Dean says, “it depends.” Assuming client’s branding isn’t reliant on yellow/black, my opinion is as follows:
    I generally agree with your instinct to avoid loud/harsh/alert color combinations. To me, that’s akin to TYPING IN ALL CAPS. The *client* thinks the message is “urgent” but the reader will be the judge. Client should ask themselves “is this worthy of alert status?”I doubt any reader will be swayed by how important you say – strictly through color use – the message is.
    I like to advise clients to first hone their message and/or their offering, and *then* package it.
    And yes, I understand the importance of the piece getting attention among clutter, but there’s other color and design approaches beside “alert,” with the worst outcome for the client being associated with crying wolf.

  43. F on January 7th, 2010 8:46 pm

    By the way in your diagram of colour wheel the “Red Orange” and “Orange” looks the same. Is that due to JPEG compression?

  44. Dean Rieck on January 7th, 2010 9:24 pm

    F: Have you calibrated your monitor? Those colors are close, but noticeably different on my screen.

  45. Sonny Landau on January 10th, 2010 6:58 pm

    If you are really interested in color…you need to find Louis Cheskin, Color Institute of Chicao’s book. It is years ago but it was a classic dedicated to my Uncle, Joseph Abrams who was many light years ahead of histime.

  46. Nicole on April 27th, 2010 10:22 pm

    in response to the discussion regarding designers having formal training in colour psychology – we actually dont have any at all – i am a qualified interior designer – i studied a bachelor or interior architecture and i never received any training for this – come to think of it i had very little training in a lot of key areas.

  47. Design a Sophisticated MS Word | Gears and Shifts on September 9th, 2010 9:12 am

    [...] keep in mind that colors send very clear emotional messages to your potential clients. Here is quick guide to consider when choosing your colors, courtesy of Dean Rieck on his blog about copywriting and direct [...]

  48. Ed on December 21st, 2010 12:22 am

    Been playing around with different colours for my site portfolio. What is your advice regarding product pages? Blue is traditionally held to be pretty solid in this aspect- what do you think?

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