Does red really go faster? Colour, branding and the subconscious

While red may not physically go faster, it certainly is perceived to, with a global study on colour associations finding that an overwhelming 76% found red the colour most associated with speed.

This week, I would like to explain the psychology and emotionality behind the colour red, its use in the retail environment and, of course, why it is associated with speed.

Origins and cultural associations

The psychology of the colour red originates with the subconscious survival instinct which is sparked at the sight and thought of blood.

While there are various uses for red in other cultures, this survival mechanism is universal and therefore the perceptions are common across all countries.

Some interesting cultural specifics are:

  • Australian Aboriginals: Land, earth
  • Celtic: Death, afterlife
  • China: Good luck, celebration, summoning
  • Cherokees: Success, triumph, represents the East.
  • Hebrew: Sacrifice, sin
  • India: Purity
  • South Africa: Color of mourning
  • Russia: Bolsheviks and Communism
  • Eastern: Worn by brides, happiness and prosperity
  • Western: Excitement, danger, love, passion, stop, Christmas, Valentine’s Day


Emotional triggers

There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain and this is never truer than when it comes to the perception of red. This mixed association is brought about by red raising the heart rate, which sends mixed messages to the brain as both love and passion as well as blood and anger (as I have explained in a previous blog).

The top emotional associations with the colour red are: Love, passion, speed, eroticism, anger, sexuality, fear, warmth, danger, energy, action, power.

These emotions of danger and action are where the association with speed originates.

Red in the limbic system of our brain

The colour red activates the dominance dimension in the limbic system in the brain which actively seeks success, efficiency, power and status.

Consumers with a high relevance in the dominance dimension (performers and adventurers) are precisely the target market for Ferrari and the brand’s signature red successfully activates the right emotionality and subconscious associations.


Red in the retail and consumer environment

If you are looking for a peaceful, restful environment, then steer clear but if action, impulse and energy is what you are after then red is a great choice for your brand. It is often used for sale promotion for these reasons and when paired with other colours can create a strong message.

Examples of brands using the colour red effectively are: Coca-Cola (with white) – fun and energy, Ferrari – speed and danger, Hugo Boss – exclusivity and power (see image below of Hugo Boss store, NYC).


Colours are just one of the strong subconscious cues that can be used by brands to resonate with their desired target audience and to design retail and brand experiences that are emotionally relevant.

We look forward to sharing more colour psychology and I am open to requests for which colour and its implications for branding to profile next.

Katharina Kuehn is director of RDG Insights, which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale.



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