Branding would be a fantastically easy task if every Pantone color were genetically keyed to a specific emotional response from every consumer. But this is the real world, and building a successful brand takes a lot more than spinning a color wheel. With that said, there are some broad-strokes assertions we can make about the psychology of color in a marketing context.

We’ve published articles on the colors blue and red in branding. Here we’ll examine the color yellow and the way it affects branding, paying particular attention to the ways in which some of today’s largest and most successful brands with yellow logos have used the color to their advantage.

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What does yellow say about your brand?

Joe Hallock undertook an interesting study in 2003 to define, among other things, the effects of color on human psychology. One segment of the study looked at associations, i.e., the emotional and qualitative associations we make with various colors. Overall, yellow tended to rate among respondents’ least favorite colors—but the study also looked at qualifiers such as trust, security, speed, quality, frugality, reliability, courage, fear and fun. Yellow scored lowest on quality, reliability, and courage metrics; slightly higher on speed and trust; and highest on frugality and fun. Among age groups, yellow fared best among those between 36 and 60 years old, though it was not highest rated in any age category.

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Logo on left designed for co-working tech office, Launch Scene; logo on right designed for digital marketing company YO! Media

So with these less than glowing reviews, what does a yellow logo communicate about a brand? Overall the message is one of bargain prices and fun. Yellow seems to appeal to the kid in us, and is associated with feelings of cheerfulness, originality and warmth—suggesting that companies offering pleasurable, fast, accessible products or services may benefit from using yellow in their branding.

What successful brands use yellow effectively?

McDonald’s. Everyone recognizes the “golden arches” of Ray Crock’s ubiquitous fast-food chain, McDonald’s. Whether along a city street, suburban mallscape, or open highway, the big yellow “M” is universally recognized as a symbol for fast cheap eats. That symbol can be seen at over 35,000 locations worldwide and has helped the company boost 2013 revenues to over $28B. So they must be doing something right.

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Best Buy. Electronics and appliance retailer Best Buy has successfully used the big yellow price tag to identify itself to cost-conscious consumers since 1983. The yellow tag is clearly identifiable as a symbol of reduced cost (and special price cuts), helping Best Buy to garner sufficient customer loyalty to withstand even harsh economic times that closed competitors like Circuit City.

Ikea. The Swedish retailer of inexpensive, assemble-yourself furniture has made a big name for itself in the U.S. over the past 30 years (the first U.S. location opened in 1985). The familiar yellow and blue logo reflects the colors of the Swedish flag and the company’s heritage while creating a bright contrast and an easily recognized logo.

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Is yellow right for your brand?

Yellow is an attention grabber, especially when used as a contrast color (either as a yellow field or yellow lettering against a sharply contrasting field, like blue). If speed, fun, and low cost are important factors to your target audience, you may consider yellow as a principal color in your branding. Yellow is also effective as a secondary or highlight color and is associated with optimism, warmth and clarity. Your designer can experiment with different shades and tones, as well as with complementary and contrasting colors.

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Design by eAnkaStudio; check out the contest here

The fine print

Remember that color is only one element of your brand’s personality. Context matters. In fact, it’s essential. No one color is going to say everything you want it to say without the proper context. Determining your company’s mission, values and personality will help your designer choose a color that best sets up your brand for success.

As the series continues, we’ll look at other colors and the ways you can put them to work in your branding strategy.