A brand should use a color that is the opposite of its major competitor’s. Another way to make a brand distinctive is with color. But color is not an easy attribute to work with. There are thousands of words to choose from in order to create a unique name, but only a handful of colors. There are five basic colors (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue) plus the neutral colors (black, white, and gray). It’s best to stick to one of these five primary colors rather than an intermediate or mixed color. But which color? Keep in mind that all colors are not created equal in the eye of the beholder.

Colors on the red end of the spectrum are focused slightly behind the retinas in your eyes. Therefore, a red color appears to move toward your eyes while you’re looking at it. Colors on the blue end of the spectrum, on the other hand, are focused slightly in front of the retinas in your eyes. A blue color appears to move away from you. Because of these physical reasons, red is the color of energy and excitement. Red is an in-your-face color.

Which is why red is the dominant color in 45 percent of all national flags. (Blue is a distinct second. Blue dominates in less than 20 percent of all flags.) Blue is the opposite of red. Blue is peaceful and tranquil. Blue is a laid-back color. In the world of brands, red is a retail color used to attract attention. Blue is a corporate color used to communicate stability. For example, Coca-Cola red and IBM blue.

The other primary colors are in between. Orange is more like red than blue. Green is more like blue than red.

Yellow is the neutral color. But because it is in the middle of the range of wavelengths your eyes can detect, yellow is also the brightest color. (Its brightness is the reason yellow is often used to communicate “caution,” as in yellow lights, yellow lines, yellow signs, etc.)

Over the years, some colors have become identified with various attributes, occasions, and movements.

-White is the color of purity (as in a white wedding gown).
-Black is the color of luxury (as in Johnnie Walker Black Label).
-Blue is the color of leadership (as in the blue ribbon award to the winner of a horse show).
-Purple is the color of royalty (as in the expression “born to the purple”).
-Green is the color of the environment and health (as in Greenpeace, Healthy Choice, and SnackWell’s).

When selecting a color for a brand or a logo, managers usually focus on the mood they want to establish rather than the unique identity they want to create. And while mood or tone can be important, other factors should override a choice based on mood alone.

Leaders have first choice. Normally the best color to select is the one that is most symbolic of the category. John Deere is the leading brand of farm tractor. Does it surprise you that John Deere picked green, the color of grass, trees, and agriculture, as the brand’s signature color?

For a tractor company in Brazil, we were asked to develop a brand name and color. We picked the name Maxion as the brand name because it seemed to communicate “power,” a key attribute in a farm tractor. But what color should this new tractor brand use?

John Deere used green. The second brand in the market used red. So the color choice was obvious. Maxion became a blue tractor and a blue brand. Is blue a good color for a farm tractor? No, but it’s more important to create a separate brand identity than it is to use the right symbolic color.

Hertz, the first car-rental brand, picked yellow. So Avis, the second brand, picked red. National went with green. (For years, National gave out S&H Green Stamps to car-rental customers, a marketing move that helped associate the National name with the color green.)