Colors in China: a guide to their meaning and tips for marketing

Knowing the meaning of colors in China is crucial for brands selling in this market. In fact, colors in China are linked to cultural aspects that can positively or negatively influence marketing campaigns.

When targeting a foreign market, the first choice concerns the type of approach you want to take: global or local. It is often this first step that will determine the success or failure of one’s venture. Think about the complexity of the Chinese market and the cultural differences that separate Italy from China. Certainly, opting for the second option is the smarter choice.


The different meanings of colors in China

It is not news to say that colors can influence the perception and consequently the behavior of consumers. For example, the choice of packaging color can affect the positioning of a given product. Similarly, it affects a brand’s ability to differentiate itself in a hyper-competitive market. That is why, in the different stages of marketing, considering colors is of primary importance. Through the right choice of color, one can determine not only the perception of an individual product, but also the brand identity of a company. Advertising and marketing campaigns also require close attention to this aspect in order to bring the desired results.


The two most important colors in China

RED (红色): Let’s start with the color that in China is immediately associated with the New Year, an extremely important holiday. Red symbolizes happiness, good fortune and wealth. But also love. However, we want to emphasize the importance of the association of red with wealth. Not surprisingly, red is also the color of red envelopes (红包, hóng bāo), which are given as gifts during Chinese New Year. Increasingly in digital format through WeChat.

YELLOW (黄色): Perhaps not everyone knows this, but yellow is considered the most beautiful and important color in China. If we think of its meaning in Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures- envy or jealousy-we can only be surprised! Beyond the Wall, this color is linked to the concepts of good taste, purity, wealth and authority: it was in fact the color of the emperor. Beware, however, because yellow can also indicate something vulgar. The “yellow” 黄片 (huáng piàn) movies are the pornographic movies.


Other positive colors in Chinese culture

GREEN (绿色): The meanings associated with the color of jade in Chinese culture are purity, honesty, trustworthiness, and health. To these associations, however, we must add a further, counterintuitive one: green hats are a symbol of infidelity. That is why it is best to avoid giving them as gadgets at trade shows or other business occasions.

PURPLE (紫色): Purple is another color with excellent associations: luxury, love and harmony with the universe. Purple seems to appeal especially to younger people, who associate it with the idea of love. Also, according to many studies, the use of purple for packaging and communication is highly effective, especially when targeting these younger consumer groups.

BLUE (蓝色): In the West, blue is linked to the idea of melancholy (not coincidentally, we say “feeling blue” as an indication of being depressed). In China, on the other hand, it embodies the meaning of spring and auspiciousness, confidence and longevity. It is also linked to the concept of quality. Moreover, it is perceived as a feminine color, whereas in many other Western countries it is linked to the male gender.


Colors to pay attention to

Regarding colors in China, there are also shades with not entirely positive meanings, so it is better to use them more carefully:

WHITE (白色): White has always been the symbol of purity. It is no coincidence that it is the color of the brides’ dress in Western weddings. In China, too, it carries a similar meaning, but there are also other ones. The first association that comes to a Chinese person’s mind when thinking of white is mourning. White, in fact, is the diametrically opposite color to red. While the former is the color one wears to honor the dead, the latter is forbidden at funerals and preferred for happier celebrations, such as weddings.

BLACK (黑色): Here we come to the last color, the ambivalent black. Opposite to white, with which it composes the unity of Yin and Yang, black is a color to which the Chinese associate both positive and negative meanings. Linked with the concepts of elegance and quality, it is a popular shade for everyday clothing. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese do not link black to death. However, there is something to pay attention to: black can also mean irregularity or illegality, secret. In fact, the term “underworld” is translated into Chinese by the words black + society, “black society,” (黑社会, hēi shèhuì). Not exactly recommended in brand management!


Tips for using colors in marketing strategies

1. Don’t go overboard with red

International brands sometimes tend to overdo the use of this color, thinking that by doing so they will produce “more Chinese” content. This actually generates the opposite effect to the one desired in audience. In fact, too much red can automatically make people think about New Year-themed content and not finding any connection with the holiday will leave them confused. Just as if a Chinese brand offered a campaign in the West based entirely on Christmas colors, but in the middle of summer. Therefore, one must remember that to go “full red,” one must choose the right occasions, as in the example below.


The use of colors in China: red is associated with the new year
Packaging created by Lancôme for Chinese New Year 2018 (Year of the Dog) – Source: Chic Profile


2. Replace white with other colors

As we mentioned, white is a color with very diverse implications compared to Western culture. For this reason, it is better to replace it with other colors that are still bright, but more positive, such as yellow, for example. This was the strategy adopted by Red Bull, a brand that in the Chinese market abandoned its traditional white and blue colors in favor of a golden yellow packaging. The color gold, in fact, also has a positive meaning. As in almost all cultures, it symbolizes wealth and prosperity.


The use of colors in China: yellow is better than white
Packaging of Red Bull in China – Source: Caixin Global


3. Green is okay, but in the right context

As mentioned, green is another positive color. However, one must pay attention to the differences in meaning between China and the West. Over here, a “green” product tends to be linked to the quality of ingredients or sustainability. In China, on the other hand, “green” means that products are pesticide-free, but not necessarily also eco-friendly and sustainable. In general, the color green has a much broader meaning in the minds of the Chinese. For this reason, brands that promote a campaign based on the sustainability of their products can use this color, but making the necessary specifications. This will ensure that the concept will be understood in the right way by the Chinese audience.