Cross-cultural differences in colour meanings are sometimes the least of our worries when communicating internationally. I have just finished off an article which is to appear in the next edition of Winning EDGE magazine for the Insitute of Sales and Marketing. In it, I caution marketers to know their target audience as different cultures ascribe various meanings to colours. How easy is it to convey the wrong meaning by getting colour choice wrong?
White in the west symbolises brides, angels, good guys versus funerals and death in the East; black in the West symbolises death, funerals and bad guys versus a colour for young boys in China and restoring balance in Chakra energy (Indian medicine). Then I went on a hunt to find out more. This is what I found out…
I have given the most common meaning ascribed to colours by the Anglo-Saxon cultures: U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Australia, then listed other information that I have unearthed.
THE COLOUR RED
RED is the colour of LOVE and used profusely around 14th February for St. Valentine’s Day and at Christmas (Dec 25th). People who wear red or buy red cars are seen as wanting to stand out from the crowd. London buses are famously red.
Other meanings: energy, strength, passion, eroticism, cheerfulness, courage, element of fire, career goals, fast action, lust, desire, blood, vibrancy, driving forces, risk, fame, love, survival, war, revolution, danger, aggression, strength, power, determination, emotional intensity, sex, provoking, dynamic, stimulating, courage, bravery, good-tasting, force, leadership, drama, excitement, speed, heat, warmth, violence, attention, generosity, romance.
European : Danger (stop signs), love (hearts), excitement, bargains or cheap (for sale signs). China : Traditional bridal colour, good luck, celebration, happiness, joy, vitality, long life, summoning, the direction South. Chinese saying goes “when something is so red, it is purple” – red purple brings luck and fame. Japan : life. India : Purity and liveliness (brides where red). Eastern : Joy (with white). Hebrew : sacrifice, sin. Christian : sacrifice, passion, love. UK/USA : Christmas (with green), Valentine’s day (with white). South Africa : Mourning. Australian aboriginals : the land, earth, ceremonial ochre. Cherokees : success. Hopi : the direction South. Romans : Red flag signified the onset of battle. Celtic : Death, afterlife. Feng Shui : Yang, Fire, good luck, money, respect, recognition, protection, vitality.
THE COLOUR BLACK
BLACK is the colour of authority and power. Often worn by villains, such as Dracula, in films. Black outfits can also be overpowering, or make the wearer seem aloof or evil. Black also implies submission. Priests wear black to signify submission to God. Black cabs/taxis are a famous feature of London.
Other meanings: protection, repelling negativity, binding, shapeshifting, power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, classy, wealth, power, mystery, fear, evil, anonymity, unhappiness, depth, style, evil, sadness, remorse, anger, underground, modern music, space, high quality, bad luck, formality, reservedness, dignity, elegance, secretiveness, fear of the unknown, night, emptiness, dirtiness, sophistication, strength of character, dramatic, authority, prestige, grief, anger, reliability, strong, classic, strength, anti-establishment, modernism, serious.
European : Funerals, death, mourning, rebellion, cool, restfulness. China : Colour for young boys. Thailand : Bad luck, unhappiness, evil. India: restoring metabolic balance in Chakra energies. Judaism : Unhappiness, bad luck, evil. Australian Aboriginals : colour of the people, ceremonial ochre. Feng Shui : Yin, Water, money, income, career success, emotional protection, power, stability, bruises, evil.
THE COLOUR BLUE
BLUE: The colour of the sky and the ocean, blue is one of the most popular colours. It causes the opposite reaction as red. Peaceful, tranquil blue causes the body to produce calming chemicals, so it is often used in bedrooms. Blue can also be cold and depressing. Fashion consultants recommend wearing blue to job interviews because it symbolizes loyalty. People are more productive in blue rooms. Studies show weightlifters are able to handle heavier weights in blue gyms.
Other meanings: good fortune, communication, wisdom, protection, spiritual inspiration, calmness, reassurance, gentleness, fluidity, water, sea, creativity, peace, calming, higher thoughts, mystery, sky, formality, travel, devotion, progress, quiet wisdom, freedom. betterment of humanity, love, trust, loyalty, intelligence, reassurance, artistry, compassion, inner strength, devotion, depression, sadness, tranquility, stability, unity, truth, understanding, confidence, acceptance, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, comfort, cold, technology, devotion, harmony, depth, faith, heaven, piety, sincerity, precision, intellect, sadness, consciousness, speech, messages, ideas, sharing, cooperation, idealism, sincerity, empathy, relaxation, affection, inspiration, friendship, patience, contemplation, infinity, harmony, non-threatening, dependability
European : soothing, “something blue” is a bridal tradition – but usually pale blue. Cherokees : defeat, trouble. Iran : mourning. China : immortality. Colombia : soap. Hinduism : the colour of Krishna. Judaism : holiness. Christianity : Christ’s colour. Catholicism : colour of Mary’s robe. Middle East : protection. Worldwide : ‘safe’ colour. Feng Shui : Yin, Water, calm, love, healing, relaxation, peace, trust, adventure, exploration
THE COLOUR WHITE
WHITE: Brides wear white to symbolize innocence and purity. Babies are often bought white clothes, especially before they are born when the gender is unknown. White reflects light and is considered a summer colour. Doctors and nurses wear white to imply sterility.
Other meanings: spirituality, goddess, peace, higher self, purity, virginity, reverence, simplicity, cleanliness, humility, precision, innocence, youth, birth, winter, snow, good, sterility, cold, clinical, sterility, clarity, perfection, innocence, virginity, goodness, light, fairness, safety, positivity, faith, coolness, charity, successful innovations, union, self-sacrifice, holiness, feminine divinity, pristine, chastity, positivity.
European : Marriage, angels, hospitals, doctors, peace, milk. Japan : Mourning, white carnation means death. China : Death, mourning. India : signifies ‘balance’ in philosophical terms. It also means “absence of desires”, widows in medieval period used to wear white coloured clothes, thus some interpret white as ‘unhappiness’. Eastern : Funerals. Feng Shui : Yang, Metal, death, mourning, ancestal spirits, ghosts, poise, confidence.
THE COLOUR GREEN
GREEN symbolizes nature. Brides in the Middle Ages wore green to symbolize fertility. Dark green is masculine, conservative, and implies wealth. Dark green was also a favourite colour for early automobiles. Seamstresses often refuse to use green thread on the eve of a fashion show for fear it will bring bad luck. In English we talk about people being ‘green with envy’.
Other meanings: earth mother, physical healing, monetary success, abundance, fertility, tree & plant magic, growth, food, hope, personal goals, resurrection, renewal, youth, stability, endurance, freshness, nature, environment, tranquil, refreshing, quiet, hope, immortality, health, healing, good luck, renewal, youth, jealousy, inexperience, trees, grass, vigour, growth, harmony, responsiveness, generosity, safety, envy, misfortune, quietude, compassion, renewal, moderation, nurturing, diplomacy, calm, contemplation, joy, love, abundance, balance, self-control, inexperience, hope, good omens, soothing, sharing, dependability, friendliness.
European/USA : Spring, new birth, go, safe, environmental awareness – all safety signs in the European Unnion are green, Saint Patrick’s Day, Christmas (with red). China : Exorcism, green hats indicate a man’s wife is cheating on him. Japan : Life. Islam : Hope – the cloak of the prophet was thought to be green, virtue – only those of perfect faith can wear green. Ireland: Symbol of the entire country, Catholics. USA : Money. Feng Shui : Yin, Wood, growing energy, refreshing, nurturing, balancing, harmony normalising, healing, health, peaceful, calming.
THE COLOUR YELLOW
YELLOW signifies sunshine, the bach, holidays and cheerfulness. It is an attention getter. It is an optimistic colour. Yellow is often used as the colour for legal writing pads. Taxis/cabs in the US are often yeallow.
Other meanings: sun, intelligence, light, accelerated learning, memory, logical imagination, social energy, cooperation, organisation, breaking mental blocks, sunshine, joy, happiness, intellect, energy, cheerfulness, optimism, purity, enthusiasm, warmth, honour, loyalty, mental force, clarity, perception, understanding, wisdom, dishonesty, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, disease, weakness, caution, cowardice, follower, curiosity, mellowness, confidence, humour, dreams, creativity, desire to improve, action, idealism, optimism, imagination, hope, summer, philosophy, uncertainty, restlessness, glory, enlightenment.
European : Hope, joy, happiness, hazards, cowardice, weakness. Asia : sacred, imperial. China : Nourishing, royalty. Egypt : Mourning. Japan : Courage. India : Merchants. Buddhism : wisdom. Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, auspicious, sunbeams, warmth, motion .
THE COLOUR PURPLE
PURPLE is the colour of royalty, purple connotes luxury, wealth, and sophistication. It is also feminine and romantic.
Other meanings: influence, third eye, psychic ability, spiritual power, self assurance, hidden knowledge, dignity, high aspirations, royalty, spirituality, nobility, ceremony, mystery, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, sophistication, cruelty, arrogance, intuition, dreams, unconscious, invisible, telepathy, empathy, imagination, deja vu, universal spirit, spiritual connection, deeper truth, nobility, wealth, extravagance, dignity, independence, magic, creativity, energy, self-confidence, ego, ambition, fame, luxury, big profits, richness, sensuality, elegance, contemplation, meditation, majesty, lesbianism, Wicca, New Age spirituality, paganism, conceit, arrogance, nausea.
European : Royalty. Thailand : Mourning. Catholicism : Mourning, death, crucifixion. Feng Shui : Yin, spiritual awareness, physical and mental healing. Turkey: the colour violet is for mourning
THE COLOUR BROWN
BROWN: solid, reliable brown is the colour of earth and is abundant in nature. Light brown implies genuineness while dark brown is similar to wood or leather. Brown can also be sad and wistful. Men are more apt to say brown is one of their favourite colours.
Other meanings: friendships, special events, earth, materialistic thoughts, hearth, home, outdoors, inexpensive, reliability, credibility, comfort, endurance, stability, simplicity, comfort, longevity, intimacy, tranquility, masculine, nurturing, contentment, strength, sensuality, productivity, passivity, fertility, generosity, dirt, substance, practicality, hard work.
Colombia : discourages sales. Australian Aboriginals : colour of the land, ceremonial ochre. Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, industry, grounded.
THE COLOUR ORANGE
ORANGE in the USA depicts deceit and distrust. It is one of American’s least favourite colours, often signifying ‘cheap goods’. Orange is often used at Halloween time (with black) as it is the colour of a pumpkin (october 31st). In Europe, however, bright orange is often associated with health and well-being because of its link with citrus fruits.
Other meanings: warmth, energy, balance, enthusiasm, vibrancy, vitality, expansiveness, flamboyance, excitement, business goals, property deals, ambition, career, goals, general success, justice, legal matters, selling, action, attention-grabbing, the sun, friendly, inviting, intense, joy, strength, endurance, steadfastness, tropics, quick movement, wealth of the mind and knowledge, charity, growing things, fascination, friendliness, happiness, beginnings, heat, creativity, autumn, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, courage, earth, mental and appetite stimulatant, emotional lift, assurance, social force, health, warmth, attractiveness, cheerfulness, mood-lightening, uninhibited, independence, amiability, constructiveness, self-assuredness, cheap, low-budget, fun kids colour, youth.
European : Autumn, creativity, harvest. Netherlands : Favourite colour (House of Orange). Ireland : Protestants. USA : Halloween, cheap goods. Hinduism : Saffron (peachy orange) is a sacred colour. Feng Shui : Yang, Earth, strengthens concentration, purpose, organization
THE COLOUR PINK
PINK is a colour associated with little girls and all things feminine.
Other meanings: Romance, love, friendship, femininity, truth, passivity, good will, emotional healing, peace, calming, affection, emotional maturity, caring, nurturing, sweet tasting, sweet smelling, ethereal, delicacy. Pale pink : sweetness of youth, fragility. Vibrant pinks : high spirits, energy, youth
European : Feminine colour, baby girls. East India : Feminine colour. Japan : Popular with both sexes. Korea : trust. Feng Shui : Yin, love