The Color of Money

Feb. 3, 1998
Hues can offend or draw attention depending on culture.

Does your business have a logo? Most do.

Your logo probably has a specific color as well. But as your company globalizes, you may find that color design working against you.

Throughout the world, different colors have different meanings and associations. For instance, in the United States and Europe, we associate the color black with death. We wear black to a funeral, and a funeral notice is printed in black ink (often enclosed in a heavy black border). Yet this is not a universal choice.

In much of Asia, people wear white to funerals. And in Buddhist tradition, the name of the deceased is printed not in black but in red. For this reason, personal names should never be written in red in Asia (unless the person is dead). Printing the name of someone living in red can be highly offensive. It even can be taken as a threat--a prediction that this person will die soon!

If you hand an Asian customer your business card with your own name printed in red, you'll be conveying a highly undesirable message. On the other hand, red is a good color choice in most of Asia for anything except personal names.

Red and gold are widely considered 'lucky' colors in Asian tradition. Annual bonuses to employees are given during Chinese New Year in red envelopes called hong bao. Red candles are burned at birthdays, and brides at traditional weddings often wear red. So red is a good choice in Asia for your company logo or product packaging.

Red is also the color most associated with Communism. In any country fighting a Communist insurgency, the choice of red may have an undesirable connotation. (It was reported that in Lima, Peru, a police building was plastered in red-and-white Coca Cola posters, the better to disguise the red graffiti of the Communist Shining Path Guerrillas.)

In an earlier column, we noted how boxes of U.S.-made disposable diapers are blue for boys and pink for girls, and how those associations are not universal. In some countries, red is considered the most masculine color. This is even true in England, where red is seen as more masculine than blue. (British soldiers often had red dress uniforms, and the British Empire was always colored red on maps.)

Nor is pink universally associated with girls.

In many countries, yellow is considered the most feminine color. Yellow has diverse associations around the world. It is associated with cowardice in some countries--including the U.S., where a coward is said to have a yellow streak. It can also be the color of sickness (an image probably derived from yellow fever). Perhaps because of its association with gold, yellow has often been reserved for the highest ranked people in Asia. In ancient times, only the Emperor was allowed to wear yellow in China. In Malaysia, even today, a distinct shade of yellow is reserved for the Malaysian king. (Modern-day Malaysia has a unique form of temporary kingship, in which a 'Paramount Ruler' is elected for a five-year term from among nine hereditary sultans.)

The color green is increasingly associated with the environment. It is also the color of Islam, which means that it is not a good choice in countries dealing with conflicts over Islam. These include countries such as Algeria (where there is a violent Islamic insurgency), nations such as Israel and Bosnia (which have had recent conflicts involving Islam), or places such as Turkey or India (where Islam can be a divisive political issue). And don't wear green headgear in China--a green hat is the traditional symbol of a cuckold or a pimp.

Finally, to compound confusion, items named by a specific color aren't always that color. A black box isn't necessarily black (the black box flight recorders on airliners are painted a high-visibility color such as orange or yellow to assist recovery after a crash). The much-coveted 'green card' that allows noncitizens to work in the U.S. isn't green. And hair described as red wouldn't qualify as that color in other contexts. The lesson from all this? Before you show your colors in a new market, have them reviewed by an expert--preferably a native of that country.

Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at

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