Cracking the colour code

Research shows that each colour and combinations of colours evoke particular emotional responses in people – valuable information for marketers when devising the design of packaging and logos

In today’s visual-obsessed society, where consumers have more choice and less time than ever before, it has never been more important for marketers to invest in the design and look of their product or logo. Take the perfume industry, where as much as 50% of the cost of a bottle of perfume can be accounted for by packaging and advertising – often more than is spent on the scent itself.

Research supports the importance of a brand’s visual appearance to consumers. One study by the Institute for Colour Research revealed that people make a subconscious judgement about an item within 90 seconds of initial viewing, and that up to 90% of that assessment is based on colour. Another study by the University of Loyola reveals that colour increases brand recognition by up to 80%.

Yet how much time and budget do marketers and manufacturers devote to thinking about the colours they choose for their products and marketing materials? Many successful brands have arrived at a winning colour combination, but it is often the result of years of trial and error, rather than a more focused and scientific approach.

By applying the principles of colour psychology, marketers can arrive at the right colour combination more quickly and reliably. The following analysis considers the use of colour by five different brands and is taken from a report commissioned by in-store marketing company Catalina Marketing.

The 11 basic colours have fundamental psychological properties that are universal, regardless of the shade, tone or tint. Each of them has potentially positive or negative psychological effects depending on the colour combinations chosen.

For example, the positive attributes of red can include physical strength, warmth, energy and excitement. But in a negative light it can signify defiance, aggression and strain.

The tone of each colour also has an impact. Each of the millions of colours that the human eye can see falls into one of four colour groups. Generally speaking, colours from the same group harmonise with each other and reinforce each other’s good points. Conversely, combining colours from different groups has an undermining effect and can emphasise the less attractive aspects of a colour.

The difference that colour can make becomes clear when comparing two brands from the same product category. For example, in the male toiletries market Lynx and Nivea both target appearance-conscious men, but the difference in their packaging reflects the different groups they aim to reach.

As an upbeat product range for young men, Lynx has taken the hi-tech route, using colours we might normally associate with motorbikes, or mobile phones. Black does not reflect cleanliness or freshness (which could be seen as important attributes in the toiletries market), but it has come to stand for sexiness, especially for males. Targeted at a market that has traditionally shied away from personal hygiene products, there is nothing girlie about this range.

The Nivea approach is much more subtle and the products communicate male cleanliness rather than manliness. Reassuring and water-related colours are used throughout the range – for example white for calming products, aqua for cleansing and stronger blue for invigorating. Nivea is selling on practical product benefits and a trustworthy reputation.

It is even possible for two brands in the same category to use the same colour, yet create a different response from consumers. For example, both Sainsbury’s and Iceland use orange in their branding – a colour that stimulates appetite and is therefore highly appropriate for a supermarket.

Sainsbury’s has focused on taste-buds with its Jamie Oliver advertising and Taste the Difference range. Its current choice of orange is more earthy and textured than the previous logo, and works well with cream to give a sense of rich, natural flavour. This orange communicates naturalness, some quirkiness (“try something new today”), and good sound principles.

By contrast, Iceland’s orange is higher energy, more upbeat and combined with white, suggests low prices. Iceland supports this with red, a dynamic, energising colour. This is not a shop to browse in – more a place to get what you need and move on.

But you don’t always have to follow conventions. Sometimes using an unexpected colour can be a good way to make a statement about your brand. For example, Apple’s initial use of white was a bold move considering electronic goods had been black or silver for many years. However, this only paid off thanks to the high quality and perfect finish of the products – anything less substantial would feel cheap in white.

Colour clearly plays a crucial part in catching the modern-day consumer’s eye. According to the Henley Centre, 73% of purchasing decisions are now made in store. Consequently, catching the shopper’s eye and conveying information efficiently are critical to successful sales. In today’s world of myriad choices no brand can afford to ignore the impact of colour. More importantly, why would anyone want to give that potential advantage away to the competition?

Catherine Shovlin, founder of Customer Interpreter, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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