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Hitting the “Red” Target
The Role of Color in Establishing Brand Identity
by Cheryl Swanson


Color and brand identity are inextricably linked. A brand’s identity is a symbolic representation of it’s reason for being in our lives; a visual distillation of its core marketing message. Consequently, the visual language used to communicate this message must be strategic not arbitrarily based on the personal preferences of marketers or designers. Since color tends toward the subjective, much of our energy has gone to educate marketers that color is a strategic tool ... not simply a decorative whim.

Color is the visual component people remember most about a brand (that yellow box of film, the copper-topped batteries, the red carton of milk), followed closely by shapes/symbols (i.e. CocaCola bottle), then numbers, and finally, words. For example, a brand whose core essence is serenity and calm could best communicate this personality with light, cool colors rather than with “heavy,” hot colors.

Target is Fun and Style

The Target brand personality is all about fun and style. Management has done an excellent job using design and designers (Michael Graves, Philippe Stark, Todd Oldham, etc.) to communicate this message. With respect to their identity, red is the color of a bulls-eye or target. And, they have done an excellent job of bringing this element to life and animating it in a compelling, tantalizing, fresh and forward (as a step and repeat pattern, as a dynamic background, as a fashion pattern etc) manner. It’s a challenge to make a traditional ‘bulls-eye’ symbol come to life but Target has managed it. In the same way, they have made “red” fresh and recast perceptions of this color.

We perceive color on three levels and it’s very difficult to separate these levels since the three work together concurrently. They are:

  1. Physiological/subliminal (how our bodies reflexively respond to color; our subliminal associations of color based on our first interactions with color in nature reside in our collective unconscious).

  2. Cultural (the conventions of color usage throughout time in specific cultures) and

  3. Marketing context (i.e., green in “warm beverages” means decaf ... in cold beverages, like sodas, it can signal caffeinated like Mountain Dew, or it can be a flavor cue for lemon-lime).

Red is associated with the life–force and physiologically our pulses quicken in it’s presence. People want to eat and drink more in the presence of red (a fact that companies such as Campbell’s Soup know well). It is the most extroverted color in the spectrum, representing vitality, life and energy. In American culture, and in an American marketing context, red represents strength and leadership. The perceptual set of “red brands” includes: Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Band-Aid, and Jell-O, market leaders all and “representatives” of classic, mainstream Americana.

The attributes associated with red (vitality, energy, leadership) are relevant for Target. The posterized, fun, tongue-in-cheek approach (“don’t stop living in the red”) have re-energized the color and evolved its meaning in a branding context beyond classic Americana to a “fun, hip, and stylish Americana.” When the message is “fun and style for the masses,” red is an excellent choice because it is THE defining color of the American mass-market. And, red can be representative of all color (because it is the most dominant), which is also important within a “style” message (allowing Target to use other colors in their messages if warranted).

Other Colors Hit the Target Too

In the past Target has used various colors (all green, all orange, all blue products for example) in it’s advertising, so many people perceived that Target owns “color” as opposed to a single color. This strategy may have changed recently, though red IS the color to “own” or to use as an umbrella ‘owning color’ strategy because of its status as the most dominant color of all. For example, Jell-O owns’ color with a RED identity.

A key factor in discussing color is how it’s used. When Target used a static red bulls-eye, and red typography, the brand image was fairly mundane. The posterized design approach and fashion imagery in its advertising and brand presence served to re-energize the brand transforming it into a destination that even jaded New Yorkers go out of their way to find.

It’s always a good idea for a brand to try to “own” a color in people’s minds (e.g. Immediate consumer associations of a color with the brand ... i.e., Kodak and yellow, Duracell and copper/black) since people remember color first in the hierarchy of visual memory. Owning a color affords instant recognition and distinction by consumers in our highly saturated, complex and competitive brand landscape.

In this “Survival of the Fastest” era, in which we process information hundreds of time faster than at any other time in human history, it’s important for brands to symbolically grab our attention, and to keep it by creating “symbolic bookmarks,” as it were.

About Toniq

Color tends toward the subjective and much of Toniq’s work has been to educate marketers that color is a strategic tool ... not a mere decorative whim. Cultural influences and trends must always be considered when designing brands. However, the personality of the brand must be the primary concern, not what is hot or faddish. If a brand is best served by an Eames or Nelson personality, then this combination of brand need and trend is relevant. If however, a post-modern visual personality is chosen to encapsulate a brand’s message ONLY because it’s cool now, it will do little to advance the brand in the marketplace.

Inspiration for color comes from nature, the periphery of culture where the future bubbles up, from architecture, interior design, fashion, automobiles, children’s books, spas, magazines from all over the world, travel, consumers and photos of their lives, museums, theater, movies, walking around the streets of big cities, prototypes, science fiction.

Toniq is a brand strategy firm that often works in the areas of visual positioning and color trends. For the relaunch of Diet Pepsi, whose old packaging was white and was not representing the way the brand was perceived by consumers, Toniq chose fresh new packaging that positioned the brand as an invigorating daytime pick-me-up beverage. When launching the Gillette Venus ladies’ shaving system, Toniq moved the brand away from a male orientation to appeal exclusively to women selecting a translucent blue that reflected the product’s watery origin and usage.


The Author

Cheryl Swanson is a Principal of Toniq LLC. Toniq is a brand strategy firm dedicated to reviving established brands and creating compelling new brands through our Brand Effervescence Process, an anthropological, cultural approach to brand building supported by study in art history, the psychology of symbolism, visual trend forecasting and design. Visit .

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