Color Series: Why We Can’t Ignore Red

An exploration of the meaning and connotations of the color red in culture and business.

Today, in the United States, red can represent anything from stop signs, fire trucks, blood, passion, danger and even Coca-Cola and Netflix. Color is deep-rooted in society, and meanings change over time, depending greatly on culture.

Consider the fact, for example, that in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and China, exit signs are actually marked in green (whereas in most of America, exit signs are red). Why green? In these countries, the color red indicates something forbidden, whereas green indicates safety.

Red is also the color of the cardinal’s robes in the Roman Catholic Church, since 1467 when the pope then declared the change in color from purple. The robes were dyed using the shell of a cochineal, a parasitic insect. It is still used as a dye today, including in various foods, which makes them unacceptable for vegetarians and vegans.

In the 1950s on the other hand, red was the enemy. Communism, the Red Scare… the color was generally avoided as a rule of thumb. And yet, Coca-Cola did not see a dip in sales. Quite the contrary, as during this time the company started expanding as a global brand. Americans internalized the color when it came to their favorite fizzy drink, even outselling Pepsi. Red was bad, but Coca-Cola was delicious.

Although red can sometimes symbolize revolution, we also find some nuances of neutrality. The Swiss have a history of neutrality, their flag being a white cross on a red background. The inversion of this flag is the emblem of the Red Cross, which we understand as an indication of a noncombatant zone.

Unfortunately, Little Red Riding Hood might have brought attention to herself just by wearing a red cape that day when she traipsed through the woods. One theory why humans today perceive red to be so bright and bold is that it helped primates distinguish ripe fruits from the inedible ones. Red stands out, and its vibrance makes you take notice.

The significance and meanings of color come and go, changing over time and across cultures. Colors can become trendy or they can become unpopular. But a strong brand with a solid foundation can surpass these shifts and swings in meaning. Don’t be afraid to choose what might be considered a strong or risky color, and build your own meaning around it.

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