Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Black or Blue? How Color Gives Position

Should we care about how firms use colors? That sounds like an unusual question, and I will soon give an even more unusual reason we now know something about the topic. Let me first suggest a reason to care, though: firms appear to be pretty conscious of color choices in logos. We may suspect that they rely on outside consultants and imitation quite a bit in selecting colors, of course. Notice how many web platforms and other IT firms seem to have a liking for various shades of blue (Microsoft Edge, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) or have remarkably similar “rainbow” logos (Microsoft, Google, old Apple). So, they seem to care, but it is not clear that they think very independently about their color choices.

How does that observation match our knowledge of color choices? Truth is, we know very little, but recent research by Stoyan V. Sgourev, Erik Aadland, and Giovanni Formilan published in Administrative Science Quarterly gives an interesting start. This research was not about Facebook, though, or any kind of firm: it was about the album covers of Norwegian black metal bands. This sounds somewhat unrelated to how firms choose colors, but if you stay with me a bit, we may be able to make a connection.

The researchers showed that indeed color matters a lot for positioning, and in two ways. The first is that color is chosen with respect to peers. To position themselves initially, the black metal bands’ album covers primarily featured black (obviously) and other very dark or muted colors, and these color choices were influenced by peers’ choices. The second is that color is chosen with respect to the environment. Black metal bands were for a while under attack societally because of non-music activities such as church arson. Interestingly, their album cover design choices became less black during this time period, which made sense given a wish to dissociate themselves from news stories about crime and associated stigmatization.

Although most firms are very different from black metal bands, we can suggest some connections. Colors do seem to indicate similarity with peers or competitors, so early choices of color by a group of similar firms or an industry probably matter a great deal. Color is also seen as symbolic, at least implicitly, and firms will pay attention to this symbolism. Exactly what symbolism is influencing the choice of blues by web platforms and other IT firms is not entirely clear to me, but blue does give an impression of cleanliness. (So does white, but white is not a practical color to use as a firm symbol on a computer screen.)

We should also keep in mind that firms can be more strategic in color choices than the copying of color that we see so often. I mentioned that Apple, in its early years, had a rainbow logo similar to the logos currently used by Microsoft and Google. Its current color choice is different: Apple has been black, and it is currently grey. What does that mean? Interestingly, grey is also a color that gives a clean image, though it is arguably cooler than blue. It is also distinctive from the logos used by other firms with similar products and services. For Apple, that could be exactly the point: they have found one more feature shared by firms in the industry that Apple can use to show how unique they are.

We still know little about colors. What we do know suggests that firms care about colors, but they tend to mimic each other. Mimicry does not indicate the most conscious of choices, but as Apple shows, it is possible to make independent choices that can be distinctive and smart. That is worth thinking about.

Sgourev, Stoyan V. , Erik Aadland, and Giovanni Formilan. 2022. Relations in Aesthetic Space: How Color Enables Market Positioning. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.