Have you ever noticed when you arrive at an airport how car rental counters employ different colours to catch your attention? There is red for Avis, yellow for Hertz, green for Eurocar and orange for Budget. Thanks to colour, you can rapidly identify your favourite brands and orientate yourself. It's the same in chemist shops: all aspirin brands, for example, use colour to catch your eye. Colour is amazing. Subliminally it rules our life and changes our moods. And it helps your name stand out from your competitors. There is a French shop called "fnac". Its brand colour is a muddy brown. It is aesthetically unpleasant but it is unique. Consumers admit it is ghastly but say they are nevertheless fond of it. Other examples include our national flags. Compare the flags of France, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and Romania or those of the UAE, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. They are very similar. Visually, the shapes and colours make the flags of the UK, South Africa, Japan, Lebanon and Brazil stand out. Croatia, which recently joined the EU, has a distinctive combination of forms and colours as its flag. Colour is so important some brands have registered ownership of particular shades. If you use the Milka purple pantone, the yellow Kodak pantone, the green Tiffany pantone or the UPS brown pantone without permission, you could be sued. Colour is a true equity for these brands. Could we imagine a blue Barbie or a green Coke, for instance? I'm not so sure. Brands try to own a colour but they change it when differentiation is deemed too low. That was the case at Pepsi Cola which changed its brand colour to blue to juxtapose the red of Coca-Cola. It created a lot of turmoil but, over the years, consumers have accepted the transformation. So why is colour such a powerful tool? A bit of theory first: perception of colour depends on three main parameters - a source of light, the object which reflects the colour and the person viewing the coloured object. How many times has your PowerPoint presentation appeared to be a different colour when viewed through a client's projector? And how many times have your colleagues said something looked pink, for instance, when you saw red? It is about light, reflection, refraction, specularity (brightness and shininess), translucency and how the human iris responds to those elements. More than 80 per cent of visual information is colour-related. For example, the human eye will recognise red first. Stop signs and traffic lights use red because your eye sees red quicker than any other colour. How many more accidents would there be if a red traffic light were blue or beige? In fact, colours influence our behaviour. It has been reported that fast-food chains use red in their retail environments. Why? Apparently because customers will leave more quickly and therefore space occupancy and profits will be maximised. Some researchers also noticed an orange-brown colour made people's mouths water more. The colour of bread, biscuits and pastries has a universal appeal to our palate. As children, our appetites are stimulated by certain foods and their coloured packaging. As we grow older our perception of colours change. People often have different colour tastes according to their nationality, age and social status. Children are attracted by vivid and bright colours. Rich people seem to favour pastel colours and subtle shades. The same colour can signify and evoke different meanings and emotions. Usually, green promotes a sense of life and renewal, blue of calm and cool, yellow of hope and happiness and purple of royalty and spirituality. But colours are ambivalent and contradictory. Green is the colour of life, of Islam, of luck (particularly in Ireland), of renewal. But green can also indicate alien, poison, envy, putrefaction or sickness. Red symbolises power, love, seduction, energy and excitement. But red can also mean danger, blood or shame. In China, all evocations of red are positive: good luck, happiness, long life, joy and celebration. When designers use red in China, they are never wrong. Meanwhile, although yellow represents sun, light, energy, it has some bad connotations, too. Yellow can mean cowardice and treachery. In 19th century France a "yellow" was a trade unionist who refused to go on strike and collaborated with employers. In the Middle East, gold and green are widely used. Gold traditionally symbolises richness and excess. No wonder gold is such a popular colour in this part of the world, a land of much prosperity and, sometimes, extravagance. But many of the best-known brands in the world wear red: Marlboro; Lego; Coca-Cola; Ferrari; Oracle; HSBC; even, dare I say it, Manchester United Football Club? all red. Tiger Woods wears red on the last day of a golf tournament because he thinks it will intimidate his opponents and because his mother, who is Thai, told him it would be lucky. Pantone, the US-based world-renowned authority on colour, selected Blue Iris (Pantone 18-3943) as the 2008 Colour of the Year. Why? According to the company it "combines the stable and calming aspects of blue with the mystical and spiritual qualities of purple. Blue Iris satisfies the need for reassurance in a complex world, while adding a hint of mystery and excitement". What will be the winner this year, a year of crisis, a year of doubts? Probably grey, "a conservative colour which seldom evokes strong emotion although it can be seen as a cloudy or moody colour". And what about 2010? Green, we hope. firstname.lastname@example.org Olivier Auroy is managing director of Fitch Dubai and Abu Dhabi
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