Pharma colors and marketing: Typically ‘awash in blue,’ newer brand updates adopt bold hues
Roses are red, violets are blue, and so are most pharma company brands. Pfizer, Roche, AbbVie and Amgen are among the many pharma companies with logos in hues of blue, while a smaller band including Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline reside in the red and orange zone.
More recently though, a handful of pharma companies jumped on the “not-blue” bandwagon – like Sanofi’s rebrand with purple and GSK’s Haleon spinoff with green – so we decided to talk to color experts about pharma and healthcare brands. What do different colors mean in the industry and why does it matter?
First, it does matter. Study after study explore the psychology of color and the fact that consumers, which includes physicians and patients, often make buying and judgment decisions based on color.
One often-quoted color and marketing research study found that between 60-90% of consumers’ product decisions are based on color. Another popular study from the Loyola University Maryland, found that color increases brand recognition by 80%. A more recent survey last year of digital and creative agencies found 39% say people care about color more than any other visual element when it comes to companies’ websites.
For pharma, color can lend authority or seriousness to the important, but also personal, subject of health. That’s one reason why blue – reliable, staid and trustworthy – is so popular.
“When you’re talking about pharmaceuticals, you’re talking about a very broad demographic,” said Jill Morton, the CEO of Colorcom and a longtime color consultant who helped come up with the red, white and blue colors of Tylenol extra strength gel caps. “Blues are going to be the safest colors. Color begins in nature and our reactions to it there are a hard-wired response. When we see blue, we think of the sky and the ocean, so it’s a very pleasant healing kind of color.”
And it’s not just the pharma industry that has a thing for blue. Some 70% of global brands incorporate blue into their brands, Morton said.
Pantone, the color authority that issues an annual color of the year – “Very Peri” purple for 2022 – works with brands across pharma and health, Laurie Pressman, VP at the Pantone Color Institute, said in an email interview.
She agreed that blue and red are “safe colors” with clear psychological meanings and ones that can cross cultural boundaries more easily than other tones.
Red, for instance, stands as the color of the heart and radiates positivity and energy, she said. Meanwhile, blue is “long linked to the serenity of the sky and sea. Light, medium and deep blues are embraced by the human mind as constant, trustworthy and dependable, so it makes sense that we would see a lot of pharma and biotech using the blues.”
Still, it’s not as simple as choosing blue for trust or red for energy when it comes to picking a pharma color. Sometimes brands are looking to stand out in a category and will choose uncharted colors versus ones with established emotional connections.
Non-biological colors, that is, colors that are not associated with the body, can work in cases where a health brand may be looking for a made-up color that doesn’t have associations – such as the proliferation of purples in the earlier 2000s, including allergy med Allegra and reflux med Nexium, said Haley Hiers, a copywriter at bfw Advertising who’s done research on color.
But if brands are going for unconventional, why not something like the color brown for a gastrointestinal specialist? Traditionally that would be a no-no, Hiers said, pointing out that “some colors are associated with sickliness and that’s part of why we don’t see a lot of brown and yellow in gastro,” she said.
Still the “rules” of color can be broken, and that’s especially true in today’s media-noisy world where getting noticed can be difficult.
“There is something really postmodern about the era we’re in right now, and I think some people might actually get a kick out of brown (in gastro). So I can definitely see somebody going for shock value, although I’m not sure anyone in pharma is brave enough to do that,” Hiers said.
Before Klick Health dives into color for a new product or company overhaul, it starts with a brand personality dive to find out the story or emotions the pharma or health brand wants to inspire. Still, the subject of color usually comes up quickly, said Jay Schacher, Klick’s design director. Klick’s goal is to find the right color that serves as a quick visual identifier and connects people to the story behind the brand. They also check out what the competition is doing.
“Sometimes we have what we call an area of opportunity to explore. Maybe it’s a company or a drug that isn’t in that space – not part of the blue or the red, for instance – and wanting to differentiate and stand out instead,” he said.
That thinking would likely ring true for Sanofi, which recently chose purple as its new corporate color – standing out was one of the several factors it considered. As Chris Williams, Sanofi’s head of corporate communications and brand, explained to Endpoints News last month, he and his team charted the logo colors of major pharma brands today and ended up with a chart showing two dominant color clusters. With a majority of brands on the shades of blue side of the map, and a smaller number of red and orange logos on the other side, Sanofi’s bright purple is a symbolic mix of the two, staking out the white space between the others.
Another recent pharma brand color choice that stands out from the blue-and-red pack is GlaxoSmithKline’s Haleon consumer spinoff with a bright green block in the middle of its logo as the middle line of the letter “E.” It was purposeful in choosing green as “a disruptive and dynamic differentiation” in the consumer health category, a spokesperson said when the brand debuted last month.
GSK’s also chose green because it “symbolizes many things around the world, including harmony and health. Green is a generous, relaxing color that revitalizes body and mind. It balances our emotions and leaves us feeling safe and secure. It is a positive color that gives us hope, with promises of growth. Alongside the symbolism of green, the associations with sustainability are strong,” he said.
The disruptor notion fits with Pantone’s health industry experience as well. Much of its work for pharma and healthcare brands centers on tried-and-true needs like color consistency. Pressman said some health brands do approach Pantone for color marketing help.
“The brands that are looking to us for color messaging and marketing support are targeting a younger audience and/or one that is looking to establish a stronger emotional connection,” she said.
Another consideration for pharma companies is history. J&J’s signature logo is James Wood Johnson’s actual handwritten signature penned 130 years ago when the company was founded, although the red color wasn’t standardized until the 1950s. Still, holding onto heritage can be a reason to stick with a color.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be updated though. Pfizer took its 70-year-old logo – a blue oval pill shape – and spun out a modern brand last year with two new blue tones. Pfizer’s new brand now uses a darker and a lighter shade of blue intertwined as a DNA helix spiraling up beside its name.
Why stay blue? Pfizer explains on its website: “We evolved the historic Pfizer blue to a vibrant, two-tone palette signifying Pfizer’s commitment to both science and patients. In an industry awash in blue, we’re doubling down. A choice that champions Pfizer’s history as a leader for the pioneers who have followed.”
Leslie Harrington, executive director at the Color Association of the US and founder of HueData color intelligence consultancy, said it can be important to consider legacy colors.
“When you’re making these decisions there’s also the color legacy or brand legacy. How much change do you want to signal to people is happening in your company?” she said. “Sometimes a company has a really bad rap so they need a really big change. But sometimes it’s just trying to look a bit more modern.”
Shading can make a difference in meaning too. Darker shades are more anchored and usually seen as trustworthy or timeless, while lighter shades can move a brand to a more creative and younger perception, she said.
Today most companies expect research and data behind why a particular color recommendation is right. While that’s a departure from the past when personal preference or intuition may have played a bigger role, Harrington has heard stories from colleagues who present extensive research on a color only to hear, “Orange? Oh no, we’re not doing orange, I hate orange,” from a C-suite executive.
So in the end it may not be about the exact color, whether bold or neutral, that a pharma company chooses, but rather the story it enables.
Klick’s Schacher said, “Color is all about the storyteller. What you’re looking to do is create relationships through people and color and using it as a way to communicate and story-tell.”