International Business: Color meanings can be lost and found in translation

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

Orange shop on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

© Giancarlo Gorassini Abacapress.com for Orange

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We often consider only the connotations of colors in our own culture; however, colors carry various different – often strong – connotations in other cultures. What may be neutral in one country could carry sharp political connotations in another. What may be seen as positive in one culture may be negative in a neighboring country. For this reason, businesses will see greater success in international marketing when they research important color meanings and use those colors appropriately to reach their target markets.

Orange, the brand name of France Telecom's mobile and Internet subsidiaries, ran an amazingly successful ad campaign in the 1990s using the slogan “The Future’s Bright – the Future’s Orange.” However, the company reportedly had to alter its slogan for politically divided Northern Ireland, where people strongly associate the color orange with the Orange Order. Without a modification to the campaign, the unintended implication might have been “the Future’s Protestant Loyalist,” an assertion that would have unintentionally irked the Catholic half of the population. As interreligious violence continued, the mobile operator even considered changing its brand name entirely in the region.

Other global companies that lack the foresight of Orange have committed rather colorful blunders. In the 1950s, Pepsi reportedly lost its dominant share of the beverage market in at least one southeast Asian country after changing its vending machines and coolers from a deep regal blue to light ice blue. Light blue is associated with death in that region, and Pepsi’s subsequent loss was competitor Coca-Cola’s gain.

Similarly, when EuroDisney used large amounts of purple in its initial sign designs, some European Catholic visitors purportedly perceived the signs as slightly morbid because of the color’s close associations with the death and crucifixion of Christ. Using a purple palette was the CEO’s preference and was intended to stand out like Coca-Cola’s red, but the theme park eventually changed it.

Color meanings may contradict each other across borders. Black may symbolize death in western culture, but white is the color of death in parts of Asia. White is the bridal color in western culture, but red is the bridal color in China. Red symbolizes joy in parts of Asia, but it signifies mourning in parts of Africa.

Realistically, not every color will evoke strong emotion. If I wear a green shirt to give a presentation in the U.S., most people will think nothing of it and, at worst, others may think I dress oddly. However, green in another context or culture may cause embarrassment or hinder packaged product sales.

No color has consistent meanings across every culture. Nonetheless, many generally consider blue to be “the safest global color” because it has positive or at least neutral connotations in most countries and cultures. This is fortunate for the many global brands on the web that feature blue as the dominant color.

“For the savvy marketer, as for the artist, color holds a mysterious power to connect deeply with people,” said Donna Sturgess, president of Buyology Inc., in ShelfImpact. “Color is the first impression a package (or brand) makes. Color sets the tone for your thinly sliced expectations in the marketplace. And, as the saying goes, you don't have a second chance to make a first impression.”

Research can help you ensure the colors of your logo, website, product or package are received positively by your target market. To avoid unpleasant surprises, check various international color charts or wheels and perform direct customer research for more detailed input. Free online references include the following: International Color Guide by Surya Vanka, PhD, for Tectronix/Xerox; Psychology of Color by Mary Nicholson, PhD, of Bloomsburg University; Visual Color Symbolism Chart by Culture from About.com; Psychological Effects of Color from California State University of Stanislaus and the presentation “What Does Culture Have to Do with Color?” by Sherwin-Williams.

The best lessons learned about international color preferences come directly from real customers, not books. In 2004, IKEA proactively learned it needed to make some color changes to better target California’s Latino population. After designers visited the homes of Hispanic staff, the Swedish furniture retailer realized subdued Scandinavian color preferences were not bold enough for Latino tastes. The company consequently warmed up showroom colors to improve performance in the U.S. Latino market.

Some messages are conveyed to customers without words, through color and imagery. Companies like IKEA that actively research international customer color preferences will convey the right intended message, resulting in improved marketing and fewer international missteps.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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