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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 colour?” We believed that our choice of color says a lot about who we are, and that the questioner will immediately understand its meaning.
But colours, like words, have no universal meaning. We all have different responses to various tones and shades depending on how and where we were raised, our past experiences with it, and our set of preferences – which, as children, can change inexplicably.
The fact is that colors have a lot of meaning – but that meaning varies significantly across languages, cultures, and national boundaries. 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.
GOD AND WHITE
In Western cultures, black is associated with death, evil and eternity. In some Eastern cultures, however, it often has 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 the East and West, however, white usually represents purity, holiness and peace.
Red is one of the most powerful colors, and its meaning in most cultures is deep:
- China – Celebration, courage, loyalty, success, and luck, among others. Often used in ceremonies, and when combined with white, is a sign of joy.
- Japan – The traditional color for a heroic figure.
- Russia – Representative from the Communist period. For this reason, extreme caution is recommended when using this in Eastern European countries.
- India – Purity, so wedding dresses 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 the color of life and health. But in other parts of Africa, red is the color of grief 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 (the sky) to cleanliness (in Colombia, blue equates to soap). In Western countries, blue is often seen as the conservative, “corporate” color.
However, be careful when using blue to address extremely pious congregations: the color has significance in almost all of the world’s major religions. For Hindus, it is the color of Krishna, and many of the gods are depicted with blue skin. For Christians, blue evokes images of Catholicism, especially the Virgin Mary. Jewish religious texts and rabbinic sages have identified blue as 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 foods companies started marketing green drinks as healthy and good tasting, many people in the West thought green food was poisonous. Today, green is considered a more positive color. American retailers are using the environmental movement to sell environmentally friendly goods, often using green themed packaging or advertising campaigns to show that a product conforms to “green” standards. Not so in China and France, where studies have indicated that green is not a good choice for packaging.
If the Netherlands 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 football team.)
On the other side of the world, however, orange has a slightly more sober meaning: within Hinduism, orange has religious significance as the color of Hindu swamis. Throughout Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhist monks also wear orange robes.
So before your inner child raves about your favorite color to friends or foreign colleagues, you might want to find out more about that color and its cultural significance. Also, be aware of color choices as they apply 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 appropriate color conventions so you don’t inadvertently send the wrong message.
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