Showing your true colours

As consumers become increasingly colour literate, designers are having to think up new ways of making a brand’s packaging stand out. By Alicia Clegg

For a humble toilet cleaner, the launch of Domestos Pink Power was decidedly over the top. First came the press events featuring drag queens and a touring glamour bus; next the ad campaign depicting scenes of domestic mayhem, finally the in-store promotions directing our attention to the “shocking pink pack”. But how effective is the packaging in the bleach section of a supermarket?

In a near empty aisle it was difficult to see what all the fuss was about – just a few rows of pink plastic bottles flanked by competing brands in various shades of yellow, green and blue. However, the only bottles to have sold out were the cheaper, own-brand bleach occupying a neighbouring berth.

As supermarket shelves groan beneath the weight of countless extensions and copycat brands, the pressure is building for packaged goods advertisers to find eye-catching designs that will get their product noticed. One element in the design mix which can be changed to make a big visual statement is, of course, colour.

So bread aisles, once dominated by earthy-brown packaging, sport a range of tempting colours, from wheatsheaf golds to grass-green stripes. Even the dairy counter holds surprises, with I Believe It’s Not Butter’s startling blue pack leaping out from a sea of creams and yellows. But how much of this do we notice as we speed towards the checkout? And does it make a difference to what we buy?

Back to school

One colour specialist convinced that colour influences the choices that we make is Colour Affects founder Angela Wright. According to Wright, designers emerge from art school knowing how to achieve the colours they want, but with little understanding of how colour acts on our subconscious.

Wright and her academic collaborators at the University of Derby have designed a software programme to remove the guesswork. Its purpose is to enable designers to identify harmonious colour palettes and accurately predict whether consumers will view a particular shade of red as vibrantly alive or aggressively threatening; a cool blue as cold and unfriendly or soothing.

Wright says: “It is important to appreciate that all colours can be associated with either positive or negative emotions. What determines the outcome are the particular tones that you choose and how they appear in combination with other colours.” So just how useful would this knowledge be to working designers?

At an intuitive level, few designers disagree with the idea that colour affects mood, perhaps even the way we behave. Where most designers part company with the theorists, however, is in the belief that the psychology of colour can, in some way, be systematised. “One of the biggest dangers is becoming formulaic, producing designs that are easy to construct on a PC, but lack imagination,” says Ziggurat creative director Allison Miguel.

The more that is known about the psychology of colour, and the relationships that underlie colour harmonies, the better. But colour cannot be considered in isolation from the other elements in the design mix. There is no guarantee that what looks good on a PC will work well in real life. “Colour only ever appears as a material, even if it is just ink on paper,” says Marian Kelly, managing partner at branding and design consultancy the Brewery. “How a colour appears to a consumer will depend on the quality of the printing, the texture of the material and its surface finish.”

And it is not only the other elements in the composition that designers must consider. An even bigger influence on the way we view colours are the things that designers cannot control in their studios – retail lighting, or the colours that surround a piece of packaging when it is displayed on the supermarket shelf.

Making the best use of colour clearly demands a combination of skills, a grasp of colour theory and an eye for what works, coupled with a lively awareness of what is happening in the world around you. In addition to this, however, there has to be an appreciation of the business challenge facing the brand and an understanding of where colour fits into the brand strategy.

Colour coding

Whether colours are chosen on the basis of what fits with the brand, or merely stumbled upon by chance, there is no denying that being strongly associated with a colour – as Coca-Cola is with red – confers huge competitive advantages. But what if other brands in your category appropriate the colours that you have sought to make your own?

One response is to do what I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter did and break free from the colour norms of the category. Design Bridge creative director Steve Elliott says: “We had to find a way of getting consumers to refocus on the brand’s name. Framing the wording in yellow lettering with a vivid blue background helped to achieve that.”

With so much duplication in the market, it seems likely that more and more brands will get a colour makeover. But the need to stand out from the crowd is not the only factor driving companies to sport new colours. As the number of line extensions multiplies, companies are increasingly using colour as a way of differentiating brands and product variants from one another. The danger here is that the brand can end up with no coherent theme holding everything together. But what if your brand is failing, or dangerously biased towards an older age group? If that is the case, a dramatic visual gesture may be precisely what is needed. “Colour is a great way to target an age group,” says Hilary Dalke, reader in design at Kingston University. “If you are aiming to attract a younger consumer, it may make sense to do what Domestos appears to be doing with Pink Power. Find a colour that consumers won’t associate with the product that they grew up with.”

And it is not only the pressure to stand out that is encouraging brand owners to use colour more creatively. Another force to be reckoned with is the increasingly colour-literate public. “There is no doubt that lifestyle programmes are making people think more about their homes and how packaging will look in the bathroom or kitchen,” says Landor creative director Derek Johnston. “If you are dealing with an upmarket project it doesn’t make sense to confine yourself to the traditional colour palette for packaging.”

It has long been known that colour is a powerful influence. But while no one would deny the value of delving deeply into the subconscious effects of colour, designers must also be mindful of the colours that surround consumers. So if you are searching for inspiration, don’t reach for the colour texts that you read in college, take a stroll down the high street, or, better still, curl up in front of Changing Rooms.

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