Color Culture

Culture and color: Sacred green, lucky pink? Futurist, ISSN 0016-3317, Jul/Aug97, Vol. 31, Issue 4.

The Importance of Color in Culture

Colors do have an important place in cultures. They may be integral to the national identity of the culture – as an American what red, white, and blue means to them and they will quite likely say something about their country. Likewise, colors may be associated with certain festivals. Christmas colors, for example, are red and green. How far does this cultural color identity extend?

The importance of color is something that the marketing world knows very well. An article in the Futurist (1997) commented that “a product with the wrong color may not only fail in a particular country, it may even offend entire cultures.” The article talks about a US company who attempted to sell chewing gum in China in a green wrapper. Sales were poor at first, then the company changes the wrapper to pink. Sales increased, and the company learned the power of color in culture.  Why did the sales increase? According to the Futurist article (1997), green is a sacred color in China. This is something that may be important to keep in mind, as the same article goes on to describe several other differences – green is also a sacred color in some Islamic cultures, so a company selling green toilet seats might be seen as sacrilegious. Japanese consumers see black scooters as sleak and stylish, yet Indian consumers have an adverse reaction since India’s culture has a strong ‘death’ association with the color black. In Chinese culture, the color white is the color of mourning, so a Chinese woman would not be wearing white at a wedding, unlike an American wedding, where the bride is almost surely to be wearing white.

It is, today, generally accepted that when marketing to a target culture, a business should always keep in mind the meanings of colors to that culture.  However, there are still businesses out that either do not realize it, or ignore it… and in some cases, they may luck out and choose the right color scheme by accident.  In other cases, however, their product may do horribly, and they might never realize why.

So, as I believe I may have said once, and I’ll repeat it again – whenever a business designs something for a culture, do your research.  Figure out what works with that culture and what does not.  Else, that business may pay the price… literally.

About Andrew Allen
Computer Graphics Graduate Student at Purdue University

8 Responses to Color Culture

  1. msvanessab says:


    Back when I took CGT256, we had an entire class devoted to just understanding color theory and color across cultures. It’s an interesting concept, not just because you learn something, but because you also save a lot of face. Posting or creating content in yellow in Korea is HUGELY frowned upon, while red is a lucky color in China. It’s amazing how many designers don’t do their homework before big design projects… 😦

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  3. Mihaela says:

    I almost take it for granted that people are aware that there are these cultural differences… but maybe I shouldn’t?

  4. Andrew Allen says:

    You probably shouldn’t. I rather distinctly remember when I finally realized that people don’t think the same way I do. It was in Spanish class in high school, when I realized that people speaking Spanish aren’t thinking in English, and then translating it out to Spanish when they spoke. It seems like common sense now, but at the time the idea of someone thinking in another language blew my mind… pretty much because I realized that if they think in different languages, there’s enough differences between languages that that’d also apply to not only what they think, but how they think.

    I’d say that was the beginning of my curiosity about the differences between cultures.

    I’d also note that there is a good few people who are completely unaware of these differences. They think that everyone thinks the same way, should act the same way, should see the same way. After all, we’re all human! But the truth of the matter is that is anything but the case. Different values, different ways of seeing the world, translate to different ways of interacting with the world.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I always enjoy finding strange, odd quirks in another culture while laughing at and acknowledging our own foibles.

  5. Mihaela says:

    Good to know. Are you familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on linguistic relativity? It’s about how language influences thought.

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