It’s a Colorful World: The Meaning of Color Across Borders

As children, we are often asked “what’s your favorite color?” We believed that our color choice says a lot about who we are, and that the questioner will immediately understand its meaning.

But colors, like words, do not carry universal meaning. We all have different reactions to various tones and shades depending on how and where we were raised, our past experiences with it, and our set of preferences – which, like children, can change inexplicably.

The fact is colors carry a lot of meaning – but that meaning varies drastically across 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 it will help you to market your product effectively in global markets.

Below, a simple guide to five colors around the world.

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 boys, and is used in celebrations and joyous events.

White, on the other hand, symbolizes age, death, and misfortune in China and in many Hindu cultures. Across both East and West, however, white typically represents purity, holiness, and peace.

Red is one of the most powerful colors, and its meanings in most cultures run deep:

  • China – Celebration, courage, loyalty, success, and luck, among others. Used often in ceremonies, and when combined with white, signifies joy.
  • Japan – The traditional color for a heroic figure.
  • Russia – Representative of the Communist era. For this reason, it is recommended to be extremely 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 colors for holidays, 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 to be the “safest” global color, as it can represent anything from immortality and freedom (the sky) to cleanliness (in Colombia, blue is equated with soap). In Western countries, blue is often seen as the conservative, “corporate” color.

However, be careful when using blue to address highly pious audiences: the color has significance in almost every major world religion. For Hindus, it is the color of Krishna, and many of the gods are depicted with blue-colored skin. For Christians, blue invokes images of Catholicism, particularly the Virgin Mary. Jewish religious texts and rabbinic sages have noted blue to be a holy color, while the Islamic Qur’an refers to evildoers whose eyes are glazed with fear as زرÙ,zurq, which is the plural of azraq, or blue.

Until natural foods companies started marketing green beverages as healthy and good-tasting, many Western people thought green food was poisonous. Today, green is considered a more positive color. American retailers are leveraging the environmental movement to sell eco-friendly goods, often using green-themed packaging or ad campaigns to indicate a product’s compliance with “green” standards. Not so in China and France, where studies have indicated 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 lots of orange this summer. (Orange is the national color of the Netherlands and the uniform color of the country’s famous football team.)

On the other side of the world, however, orange has a slightly more sober meaning: within Hinduism, orange carries religious significance 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 may want to find out more about that color and its cultural significance. Also, be aware of color choices as they relate to your company’s campaign copy and graphics – whether it be printed collateral, a website, or advertising campaign. Know your target market and their respective color conventions so you don’t inadvertently send the wrong message.

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