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It’s a Colorful World: The Meaning of Color Across Borders
As children, we are often asked “what is your favorite color?” We believe that our choice of color says a lot about who we are, and that the questioner immediately understands its meaning.
But colors, like words, do not carry universal meaning. We all have different reactions to different tones and nuances depending on how and where we were raised, our past experience with it, and our set of preferences – which, like children, can change inexplicably.
The fact is that colors carry a lot of meaning – but that meaning varies drastically between languages, cultures and national borders. If you are aware of some of these differences, you will be able to avoid embarrassing cultural mistakes when referring to and using colors among colleagues, friends, and clients – and will help you to market your product effectively in global markets.
Below, a simple guide to five colors around the world.
WHITE AND BLACK
In Western cultures, black is associated with death, evil and eternity. In some Eastern cultures, however, it often carries the opposite meaning; in China, black is the signature color for young people, and is used in celebrations and joyful events.
White, on the other hand, symbolizes age, death and misfortune in China and in many Hindu cultures. Across the East and the West, however, white typically represents purity, holiness, and peace.
Red is one of the most powerful colors, and its meanings in most cultures are deep:
- China – Celebration, courage, loyalty, success and luck, among others. Often used in ceremonies, and when combined with white, it means joy.
- Japan – The traditional color for a heroic figure.
- Russia – Representatives of the communist era. Therefore, it is recommended to be very careful when using this in Eastern European countries.
- India – Purity, so wedding costumes are often red. Also the color for married women.
- United States – Danger (think “red light!”) and used in combination with other holiday colors, such as Christmas (green) and Valentine’s Day (pink).
- Central Africa – Red is a color of life and health. But in other parts of Africa, red is a color of mourning and death. To honor this, the Red Cross changed its colors to green and white in South Africa and other regions of the continent.
Blue is often considered the “safest” global color, as it can represent anything from immortality and freedom (heaven) to cleanliness (in Colombia, blue is equated to soap). In Western countries, blue is often seen as the conservative, “corporate” color.
However, be careful when using blue to address a very pious audience: the color has significance in almost every major religion in the world. For Hindus, it is the color of Krishna, and many gods are depicted with blue skin. For Christians, blue invokes images of Catholicism, especially the Virgin Mary. Jewish religious texts and rabbinical sages noted blue to be a holy color, while the Islamic Qur’an refers to evildoers whose eyes are glazed with fear as Ø²Ø±Ù,zurqwhich is the plural of azraqor blue
Until natural food companies started marketing green drinks as healthy and tasty, many Western people thought that green food was poisonous. Today, green is considered a more positive color. American marketers are leveraging the environmental movement to sell green products, often using green-themed packaging or advertising campaigns to indicate a product’s compliance with “green” standards. Not so in China and France, where studies have shown that green is not a good choice for packaging.
If the Dutch have anything to say about it, the World Cup will be flooded with a lot of orange this summer. (Orange is the national color of the Netherlands and the uniform color of the country’s famous soccer team.)
On the other side of the world, however, orange has a slightly more sober meaning: in Hinduism, orange carries a religious meaning as the color for Hindu swamis. Throughout Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhist monks also wear orange robes.
So, before your inner child enthusiastically talks about your color preference to foreign friends or colleagues, you might want to learn more about that color and its cultural significance. Also, be aware of color choices when it comes to your company’s campaign copy and graphics – whether it’s printed collateral, a website or an advertising campaign. Know your target market and their respective color conventions so you don’t inadvertently send the wrong message.
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