Key summary

  • Color plays a major role in purchasing behavior
  • Humans can determine the subtleties of color at a glance
  • Color should be seen as a way of reinforcing brand positioning

Color plays a major role in purchasing behavior. 60-90 percent of snap judgements are based on color alone, making its power to direct our eyeline unparallelled.

Marketers have always attempted to truly understand how color can be used to trigger certain responses. Many theories have been formed and some developed into generalizations. For example, it’s very common to see claims that red and yellow make people hungry (and that’s why so many fast food chains feature them so heavily) or that blue evokes a feeling of trust and sincerity.

However, at the macro level - across countries and cultures - color can signify very different things. Red is often used in China to signify luck for example, but in western cultures it is mostly associated with danger.

Color association is often a product of its environment. At a micro level, color is intrinsically linked to our experiences as individuals and therefore attaching emotions and feelings to them with any great accuracy is incredibly hard.

But increasingly there is recognition that, although the impact of color on individuals is subjective, there are underlying principles around color theory that are vital to brand contextualisation.

According to the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, brand context greatly impacts purchasing intent and color has a big part to play. What this means is that rather than purely trying to ‘manipulate’ a response through color, color should be seen as a way of reinforcing brand positioning. For example, a ‘rugged’, outdoors brand is probably going to be better served by an ‘earthy brown’ than by a bright pink. A pharmaceutical brand will likely benefit from a clean and ‘sterile’ white. A health food brand might work best with a green, the color of ‘nature’.

This was also shown in a study titled ‘The interactive effects of colors and products on perceptions of brand logo appropriateness’, which demonstrated how an “appropriately chosen color” brought inherent value to a brand. Although this may not be hugely surprising, marketers should take note of how important precise coloring was found to be!

A study, aimed at finding out consumers’ preferences of orange juice color, showed that consumers can effectively evaluate hue and lightness. The coloring actually impacted which juice the subjects chose. They were shown to prefer hues which were the most orangish against other more reddish or yellowish ones. ‘Natural’ shone through and directly impacted their choices.

When we consider this in the context of the ‘Isolation Effect’, a longstanding theory that recognition and recall is better of things that stand out from their surrounding through contrast, the importance of consistency in branding again is made clear.

There are too many cultural and individual variables to predict the exact impact of specific colors, especially when big cultural differences come into play. For example, UPS had to repaint its fleet of trucks in Spain after it realized the brand’s shade of brown happened to be the same color used for Spanish funeral vehicles!

However, there is a difference between the use of color in core branding and the context in which ‘on brand’ pallets are used in localised marketing more generally. Humans can determine the subtleties of color at a glance, so it’s important for brand recognition that the shade of brown in UPS’ logo be consistent, even if it’s broader use varies across the globe (i.e covering some trucks and not others). Afterall, when you see ‘Coca-Cola Red’, you think of Coca-Cola!

It’s why successful global companies ensure their logos are faithfully reproduced across the world (right down to color and design), but tailor the use of color in marketing materials more broadly to meet the needs of local markets!