What’s in a Color? Meanings Across Borders

Category: Culture, International Business

What’s your favorite color?

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 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 three colors around the world.

BLACK & WHITE

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.

BLUE

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 زرق zurq, which is the plural of azraq, or blue.

ORANGE

Thanks to the World Cup this summer, the world was reminded of the Dutch obsession with orange. (Orange is the national color of the Netherlands and the uniform color of the soccer 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 you starting talking 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.

For more colors (e.g., red, green) you can read our complete article: The Meaning of Colors Across Borders. We also recommend this useful visual representation by Information is Beautiful.