Translating Color Across Culture

Our eyes can perceive over seven million colors. On a website, color directs the eye, conveys messages, invokes emotion, enhances meaning, impacts the visitor’s mood, and helps establish a company’s identity. However, the meanings attributed to colors vary from culture to culture, and a single color may have different, even contrasting meanings around the world.

Multicultural Marketing

As a company that offers website translation services, we work closely with clients of all shapes and sizes to help them develop their web marketing platforms. Through this work, we see firsthand how important it is for marketers to learn all they can about the locales they’re targeting in order to develop an effective online multicultural marketing strategy.

Color is just one piece of the puzzle, but one in which missteps can have a large impact. This post takes a look at how color is perceived by different cultures, to offer some insight into the unexpected ways a color scheme might impact your audience, and how this can vary greatly from culture to culture.

Color Across Culture

Here are a few examples of the ways color is perceived differently around the world.

  • White is associated with weddings, purity, and cleanliness in Western society, while it represents death, mourning, and humility in many Asian cultures.
  • Red, however, is associated with purity in India, (a country where brides traditionally wear red wedding dresses) but may represent danger, passion, and excitement to North American markets.
  • Green is often related to nature, progress, and luck in Western countries. However, green might not be the best color to use in web marketing campaign directed at Indonesia, where it is regarded as a forbidden color. Green also has strong associations with Islam, and is currently used in several national flags as a symbol of Islam. With such strong religious associations, consider carefully how you use the color green of you are marketing to Islamic audiences.
  • Blue is typically a relatively safe color choice. In Western cultures, the color is commonly associated with masculinity and projects authority, trust, and security. For this reason, it is used by many banks, and has become the standard for police uniforms. In Eastern cultures, Blue is tied to immortality, spirituality, and heaven. And in Hinduism, the color is associated with Krishna, who embodies love and divine joy.
  • Orange represents autumn, warmth, and harvest in Western cultures, but in the Middle East, it is associated with mourning and loss. In Eastern cultures, orange represents love, happiness, and good health.
  • Yellow is a bright, cheery color associated with happiness, optimism, and warmth in the U.S. Throughout many African countries, a golden yellow is associated with money and success. However, yellow also has an array of negative connotations. In Egypt and much of Latin America, the color is associated with death and mourning. And in Germany, yellow symbolizes envy and jealousy.

Cultural Sensitivity

One example of a company effectively utilizing color across its global websites is McDonald’s, whose sites are customized to reflect the color preferences of each country. The company’s signature red is used throughout its global sites, but McDonald’s adapts its usage of the color accordingly. For example, in India, where red is a very auspicious, favorable color, their site uses a very saturated red as a background color in comparison to other sites, where it is reduced to an accent color.

Compare, for example, the very different color palettes used for Southern India, Japan, Kuwait, among others: McDonalds Around the Globe.

Multicultural Advertising Fail

An example of a mistake in this area is EuroDisney’s multimillion dollar European ad campaign which featured the color purple. Western European Catholics view purple as a symbol of the crucifixion and death, contradictory to the image the company was aiming to portray. Disney ended up reworking its European campaign, which likely cost a great deal of time and money.

A quick look at some of the different meaning colors have across cultures:

Color Meanings

Check out this infographic for a detailed look at color associations across culture: Information is beautiful.

Your website, along with other elements of your global marketing campaign, will have greater impact if adapted for each locale you are targeting. When trying to reach a specific market, do the research. Consider working with a consultant who can help you understand the cultural implications of color, layout, and imagery so you can use this information to maximize your website’s impact. The company providing your website translation services can be a good resource for these issues.

History, emotions, and beliefs shape the way people will respond to your website, messaging, and all components of your global marketing approach. Your customers around the world expect unique, relevant, and targeted experience with your brand.

Related Insights

  • Writing for Global Audiences
    Writing for audiences across cultures has its challenges. How do you write in a way that is clear to people with diverse backgrounds and can be easily translated, so that your message is not diluted for those who are not native English speakers? When writing content that will eventually be translated for people in other cultures, write with a global audience in mind from the start. The quality of your source content directly impacts the quality of your translated content.
  • Numbers
    To really engage people, it’s not enough to just translate your website, product branding, or marketing collateral into another language. A well-crafted global marketing approach requires adapting messaging, images, graphics, colors, and even numbers so they are appropriate for each culture. And, in some countries, the numbers you use may have more impact than you think.
  • Transcreation
    Your global audiences won’t respond well to a campaign that sounds like a translation of your American campaign. Give them a message that is mindful of the cultural context and language differences, and feels as though it was created with their needs, wants, and desires in mind.