Colour, brands and identity in tomorrow’s cities

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In London, they brought the fluid neon colours back. For more than 50 years, the moving, illuminated electronic liquid of Lucozade, an energy drink, inspired motorists driving above down-at-heel Brentford, as they reached the western approaches of Britain’s capital at night

Then, in 2004, the local council demanded that the ageing red bottle endlessly pouring golden goodness into a glass be demolished, despite local protests. But in 2010 the product’s makers, GlaxoSmithKline, built a new and exact replica of the original sign and mounted it just 200 meters away. (1)

Here is the first section of a Chapter in a book edited by Jan Brand and Anne van der Zwaag – click on this How colour will likely change the urban landscape link to read the full chapter.

How corporate and product colours will infiltrate public space even more

With Lucozade the brand, the sign and its colours were a widely loved urban monument. And whatever the intensity problems with the new, dear, long-life but low-energy light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are coming into general interior use, we can be sure that, over the next 10 years, the exteriors of the world’s big buildings will brightly shine brands in gigantic colours, with moving lights, in amazing new ways. One does not need to term these works kinetic sculptures, as some do. The point is simple: developments in architectural engineering, height and form, when melded with progress in displays, will conspire to make facades into cinemas for the colourful brand.

In Pudong, Shanghai’s financial district, the vertical corners of buildings already boast blue lights that run up and down 70 stories or more, making edifices fairly throb with energy at night. Already, too, one whole side of a skyscraper plays videoclips over the Huangpu River. So it will not be long before such large-scale tricks make corporate colours into urban icons all over the world. In 1970, following a visit to Tokyo four years earlier, France’s Roland Barthes published his personal interpretation of Japan: Empire of Signs. Forty years later, the electronic urban logo is a large, dynamic spectacle and emphatic corporate or product identifier that’s coming to your city wherever you are. What’s more, its colours will be more precise than ever.

How colours affect our recognition of and preference for certain brands

With Lucozade the red and yellow in the sign directly copy the colours of the product’s distinctive packaging. But there is something interesting about this mix of colours. Red and yellow were for decades the colours of two other, more universal urban landmarks – McDonald’s, and Shell.

As is suggested with Lucozade, red and yellow together can well connote things that are essential to travel in and between cities: fuel, energy.  Figuratively, these are what McDonald’s provides, and Shell provides them literally.

Some maintain that McDonald’s may have benefited from the fact that red stimulates the adrenaline glands in the brain, or that red and yellow are the first two colours the eye processes and sends to the brain.  Yet the similarity of the colours in Lucozade, McDonald’s and Shell suggests that colour in branding is more about repeatedly and consistently being distinctive – about standing out, especially in poorer, grittier, greyer districts such as Brentford – than it is about differentiation against other brands. Indeed, distinguished Australian academics, studying soft drinks brands in the UK and banking brands in Australia, have come to the same conclusion. (2)

The financial and colour clout wielded by large corporate brands may homogenise cities, as environmentalists often charge. (3) But we may also conclude that in complex urban settings, and perhaps especially in the Third World, endlessly familiar corporate colours reassure, suggest modernity and relative safety, work as geographical landmarks, and invite brand loyalty.


1. Ian Mason, ‘Lucozade to unveil its new neon sign by the M4 after six-year absence’, This is local London, 15 February 2010, on http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/whereilive/southwest/hounslow/5008320.Brentford_welcomes_back_giant_neon_sign/

2. Jenni Romaniuk, Byron Sharp and Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Evidence concerning the importance of perceived brand differentiation’, Australasian Marketing Journal, 15 (2) 2007, on http://members.byronsharp.com/different.pdf

3. See for example Molly Conisbee et al, Clone town Britain: the loss of local identity on the nation’s high streets, New Economics Foundation (NEF), 28 August 2004, on www.neweconomics.org/gen/z_sys_PublicationDetail.aspx?PID=189. For an update, see Andrew Simms, Petra Kjell and Ruth Potts, Clone town Britain: the survey results on the bland state of the nation, 6 June 2005, NEF, on www.neweconomics.org/gen/z_sys_publicationdetail.aspx?pid=206

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