Three colours: purple

Three colours: purple

19 January 2017 |
Posted in Colour

“The most extraordinary thing about purple is that it doesn’t actually exist as a single wavelength of light”

It was one of the most coveted colours of all time, accessible only to the rich and powerful. Today, the world over, it remains a symbol of wealth and luxury. Purple has a long and extraordinary history, which is quite remarkable, considering it’s a colour that doesn’t truly exist…

Purple reign: in history

Colourplan recently tweeted: “Purple dye dates back to 1900 B.C., where It took 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5g of the pure dye.” According to The Guardian, it was actually Hercules’ dog that discovered the previously unseen colour after crunching a sea snail on the beach and dribbling purple.

The ancient Phoenicians harvested the shellfish, called murex, to produce the dye. It took so many snails to produce a tiny amount of Tyrian Purple, as it was known, and it was so labour-intensive that for many centuries, says Live Science, it was only affordable to kings and queens. Unsurprisingly, for a product made of seafood, the dye also smelled terrible.

Not until recent history did purple dye become more accessible, and purely by chance. The article ‘The invention of the colour purple’ tells the story of 18-year old chemistry student William Henry Perkin who, while trying to make synthetic quinine in his makeshift home lab, instead created a purple concoction, subsequently making himself a lot of money.


Purple patch: in culture

The colour continues to be associated with expensive items, luxury, power and royalty across a number of cultures, including Japan, South Korea and western Europe. In research cited by Global Propaganda, it’s also the colour of mourning in Brazil, and represents the sea and divinity in many eastern European and Middle Eastern cultures.

In western culture, purple is strongly associated with gay pride, and the colour has also been adopted by epilepsy groups who celebrate ‘Purple Day’ to raise awareness of the condition.

Purple haze: in branding

Because of its elitist reputation, or perhaps because it can occasionally represent feelings of sadness in art, the colour purple tends to be used more sparingly by businesses than many other colours. Yet many international brands have used the colour for their branding with great success, taking full advantage of the connotations of sophistication, majesty and creativity. Yahoo, FedEx, E4 and Hallmark, for example, have defied any unwelcome meaning, making purple work for them in unique ways.


Meanwhile, Cadbury fought for and won exclusive use of its signature purple, Pantone 2685, for some of its packaging. But its attachment to the colour is understandable because, as The Drum suggests, brands use colour to achieve instant recognition. And, for Cadbury at least, colour association works extremely well. Creative Bloq reminds us that our association of Cadbury with its purple shade is so powerful, the company was even able to remove any audible mention of the brand in its drumming Gorilla advert of 2007.

How do we see purple?

Color Matters says purple is rare in nature, and suggests that this is among the reasons why our prehistoric ancestors probably never knew the colour. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it is that it doesn’t actually exist as a single wavelength of light, unlike other colours. As explained by Scientific Britain, there is no purple. Instead, the colour is the result of our brains trying to make sense of a combination of reds and blues.


Because of the ways colour influences us, brands often get specialist help from colour consultants. There’s a lot to consider – science, fashion, design, audience and goals. But when it’s used well, colour can have an extraordinary effect. For more on colour consultancy services, call Silk Pearce on 01206 871 001.