With China’s Spring Festival celebration in full swing, the country’s favorite color is everywhere. During this special holiday season, red paraphernalia is not limited to home and office décor; nearly every aspect of Chinese life takes on a crimson tinge.
From the red envelopes stuffed with cash and given as gifts, to the red gowns Chinese brides wear on their wedding day, the importance of this color in Chinese culture is indisputable.
But while red symbolizes luck, prosperity, and happiness, China’s favorite color carries different connotations in different cultural contexts.
In Aztec culture, red dye was associated with blood and red amulets worn by leaders were believed to prolong life. The dye was created by extracting pigment from the female cochineal beetle. About one million beetles were needed to create just one pound of dye, so it was considered more valuable than gold!
Sweden also reserved red for the privileged. “Falu red” was created with expensive, rare pigments extracted from the Falun mine and represented wealth. It was used on the side of wooden mansions to preserve the wood, while adding to its aesthetic value.
In some cultures, the color red has religious ties. In India, it represents purity, and is associated with Hindu beliefs in karma and reincarnation.
Japanese Shinto and Buddhist traditions often “clothe” their deities in red as a symbol of devotion. In Christian traditions, the color is one of extremes, symbolizing temptation, war, and sacrifice while also representing life, purification, and redemption. The Catholic Church reserves red for the feast days of the martyrs.
Bright red pigments have been shown to capture the peripheral attention faster than any other color. Psychologists believe red inspires passion and enthusiasm, raises heart rate and blood pressure, and may even increase appetite. For this reason, many food and beverage companies in the United States capitalize on red’s subconscious effects with their advertizing. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola all use red as their primary brand color.
Red’s subconscious effects and differing interpretations across cultures highlight color selection’s importantance when managing a global brand. If an advertisement or logo does not reflect the corporate identity, or if a product’s packaging is at odds with a culture’s perception of color, the disunity will create tension for international consumers. It’s just another example of how true localization needs to go beyond words.
When Spain sent conquistadors to South America in the 1500s, they were amazed at the vibrancy of the cochineal-extract dyed fabric. The dye quickly became a valuable trade good which spread throughout Europe and symbolized the exotic culture of the New World.