The Trial and Error Method of Cultural Color Choices

Navigating your online brand through the many design and color choices can be tough enough within your domestic market. The danger really escalates when you apply your brand’s corporate style to other cultures.

I know, style guides are sacred and can’t be violated. The bigger the company the more detailed and strict those guides become. But I have just one question: was your guide written and tested for a global market?

The real danger comes in either failing to consider cultural differences such as color’s impact on your target market, or jumping to the wrong conclusions based on insufficient information. How do you know you have it right? If you’ve asked that question, you’ve at least started down the right path.

There are all sorts of color wheels and tables you can find online that may help break the cultural color code for you.  Asking partners or studying people’s reactions from the right demographic in your target market can help. Ultimately testing and measuring results are the best answers to this complex question.

Hot or Cold: Do You Know What Your Colors Mean

How do you know if you’re choosing the right web colors for the Chinese market? For my first Chinese website, I was guided by the company’s Chinese business consultant. We had long discussions with the consultant about what colors mean in China and what features people look for in a website. Since this was a relatively small company, we had the flexibility to stray a bit from the company’s established English language website, as long as we didn’t violate the logo colors.

As a result our design team created a color palette sure to resonate with Chinese visitors. The core structure of the site remained the same, so that Chinese visitors who chose to go on to the company’s English language site would find the same navigation as on the Chinese site. It was a good idea, but I learned later it might not have been the best solution for an American company selling Western technology in China.

For another Chinese site, I worked with a recently acquired company within the same division. It sells a similar product line to a similar global industrial market. I flew to St. Louis to meet their newly hired Chinese sales manager, who was in town for training. We spent several days together and even attended a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.

I found a significant contrast in opinion between the two Chinese advisors. Our first advisor was native Chinese but had been living in the U.S. for many years. The second advisor lived in China and worked daily with the buyers we wanted to reach. His insights into our targeted Chinese Web visitors helped us build more complete personas. We profiled the engineers, managers and purchase agents who make the buying decisions, the companies and government organizations they work for, and the things that motivate them to buy from an American company.

From this Chinese engineer’s perspective the main thing an American company has to offer the Chinese market is western technology. In his experience, Chinese visitors will have a higher opinion of the products being sold if the site looks the same as the English language site and clearly belongs to a well-established western company.

When looking at the traffic and conversions on the two websites, we found the Western-look beat the Chinese look by a small but significant margin. In terms of branding message, the feedback we got from partners in China suggested the western-look was definitely the better choice. On the next update of the first site, we changed to match the look of the main English-language site.

Today there are many more tools available for cultural testing before committing to a site design. While it may seem cheaper to pick your colors by trial and error, you have to consider the lost opportunities. It’s easy to see what you save by not testing, and you may never know what you have lost. But once you see you’ve missed the target, it may be too late to recover.

Learn to see with your eyes, not your mind

Perhaps the first test you could try is a test of your own perception. If every marketing message you craft, every creative decision you make is shaped by your language and culture, how do you get beyond those limits? Quite by accident, one of the more valuable perceptual tools I have discovered came with an art lesson.

Several years ago my wife gave me a gift of oil painting lessons. It turned out my greatest challenge wasn’t learning to apply color to canvas but to see color as it really is. “See with your eyes, not your mind,” my art teacher told me over and over until I finally started to really see.

Before I was able to color inside the lines, I learned that grass and leaves are green, tree trunks are brown, and the sky is blue. Once I filed this information away in my mind, I never really looked closer again. But I learned that our eyes—if we let them—would show us there are many more colors in the grass and leaves, the trees and the sky. Only then could I paint what I really saw.

I saw how the greens of the grasses and leaves changed from spring to summer, that they had yellows and blues and dark greens that turned almost black, depending on the light. The hardest part for me was learning to perceive how the yellow sun casts its color across the blue sky. Who would have thought it takes yellow to make a blue sky look real?

Science tells us our minds want to take shortcuts. Thinking is hard work and takes lots of energy. So the brain has become adept at putting things into neat categories—like recalling color rather than really seeing color. It’s a great strategy to reduce the amount of new information the brain must process, but it’s a barrier to seeing things as others see them.

If you’re going to win web markets on a global scale, you need to train your eyes and all your senses to see and feel beyond your own culture.

Donald L. Dunnington, a member of the Advisory Board for the launch of Oban Digital in the United State, is an author, speaker and consultant specializing in online communication. A special edition of his new book, “HYPER LOCAL SEO & MARKETING: How U.S. Marketers Win Global by Going Local” is available at