Designing With Color


We've established that the color of a product or service’s brand and packaging does affect consumer response and a product’s ability to build brand loyalty with customers.

A product or service’s packaging is its brand identity. A brand identity consists of all indicia that consumers encounter when they come into contact with a product or a service. Examples of brand identity indicia are logos, business cards, brochures, Web sites, store fronts, yellow pages ads, catalogs, employees, uniforms, etc.
One of the most salient discoveries I made during my research was that there is no quick and fast “packaging and brand identity color selection guide” that marketers and manufacturers can turn to and guarantee the success of their product or service. Product and brand color management is a process that requires attention to each individual business’s needs, day-to-day management and decision-making, in-depth research and analysis of the business’s brand and consumer base, a close relationship between the marketer and consumers, knowledge and understanding of color psychology, theory and application, and a closely monitored, long-term marketing objective.

The marketing and design industry is replete with colorists, forecasters, and color- trending gurus—all wanting to sell the future. An interesting comparison arose during my review of literature that should caution packagers when listening to expert color forecasters. In 1997, in an article written for Marketing Tools magazine about car color preferences, Rebecca Piirto Heath wrote, “But the colorists interviewed for this article agreed that it is possible to identify collective changes in preferences linked to specific time periods.” She continued with the more specific forecast, “ This is found in everything from the shifting preference away from silver cars to more yellow-tinted platinums.” If we fast-forward five years, and look at the World Almanac & Book of Facts (2004) report, The Most Popular Colors, by Type of Vehicle, 2002 Model Year, we find that in all three major types of vehicle categories; luxury, full-sized/intermediate, and compact/sports car, silver is still the most popular car color with consumers. The companies that painted too many cars yellow- tinted platinum may still have them on their lots.

It is evident that there are many important considerations that must be evaluated when choosing a color to represent the brand identity of a company or their product or service. The four most important considerations that were gleaned from this research are that when choosing a company’s brand identity color the marketing team must:

  1. Chose colors that will most appropriately define and communicate the message, vision, marketing campaign, or brand.
    The first consideration for any new brand identity is to define exactly what message, or brand, the company wants to own in the hearts and minds of consumers. Just as Coke chose to own red, and Pepsi chose to own blue, all new products or services must decide which color will best represent them to consumers.
  2. Chose colors that will be the most appropriate and accepted by the defined target market.
    The second consideration addresses the issue of whom you are selling to. The target market must be considered when brand identity, product or service colors are chosen. A new line of sports apparel that is marketed to athletic, sports-minded, adult males must consider colors that are equally active and energetic. A rich, warm, earthy brown, or a soft, pastel pink probably won’t be the most appropriate color. The majority of active men will not be found proudly running down the street in their new “baby pink” jogging suit. The same holds true for women. An older, more mature woman usually doesn’t buy an expensive evening dress in day-glow green. It isn’t the most appropriate color choice for her demographic or lifestyle. She prefers to buy more conservative colors like black, brown, blue, or warm earth tones like wine-burgundy, forest green, or dark purple.
  3. Thoroughly research what colors the primary and secondary competitors use and currently “own” in the hearts and minds of consumers.
    The third consideration must take into account which colors are already taken, or “owned,” by the product or service’s competitors. There are two directions a company can chose. One direction is to launch a new product or service using the same, or similar, color used by the established leader in their product or service’s category. While this approach leads to less individual identity for the new brand, it does allows the new brand, in the short-term, to borrow the brand recognition of the category leader and steal some of their customers and sales dollars. An example of this would be to launch a new laundry detergent and use the same bright orange color used by the industry leader Tide. In the short-term, some customers that usually bought Tide may try the new brand because it looks like Tide. Customers that do not currently buy Tide because it is too expensive may choose to try the new product because it looks like Tide, but costs less. The second direction is to choose an original, “unowned” color to ensure that your brand is differentiated from the competition. In the long-term, this approach will probably work best. One of the most important contributions a color will have to a brand is to build long-term brand recognition and loyalty with consumers. The longer you can equate a color with a brand in the consumer’s mind, the deeper their brand loyalty will be. Brand color consistency, repetition and exposure are the keys to building brand equity.
  4. Fully and carefully evaluate the psychology, symbolism, and meaning of the colors being considered.
    The fourth consideration is to look carefully at the psychology, symbolism, and meaning of each color that is being considered for a company, product, or service’s brand identity. All colors own distinctive feelings, associations, and memories in the hearts and minds of consumers. The goal of any marketing team is to sift through the available color pallet and find a color that most appropriately communicates the desired message to the target market.

It is important to recognize that none of these four considerations should be addressed individually. They overlap and coexist within the brand color selection process. When choosing a brand color, the marketing team must consider the psychology, symbolism, and meanings of colors as they pertain to their specific target market. For example: a color may be appropriate for the brand’s target market, the psychology and meanings of a color may be appropriate for the brand, and a color may represent the brand’s message perfectly, however, this “perfect” color may be the brand color already “owned” by the company’s primary competitor. In this case the color would not be the best choice for a brand identity or marketing strategy.
Careful consideration of the perceived meaning of each color will also greatly impact your ability to successfully communicate with your chosen target market.


Color Symbolism and Meaning carry over to your Brand and Packaging

There is a direct correlation between what people think of a color, or how a color makes people feel, and how people feel about a product or service packaged in that same color. There is little difference between what attributes and emotions a person assigns to a color and what that same person assigns to a product with the same color. The color that is most associated with a food seems to be the most favorable color choice to use when packaging that food or a food with that flavoring. Examples of this would be brown for chocolate, orange for orange juice, purple for grape juice, etc.

As with all marketing strategies, there is always a rule-breaker that experiences success. While rule breaking is not the norm, and can lead to financial failure, marketers should heed the warning of those opposed to “overly-conservative marketing”. An example of rule breaking occurred when marketers created an unrealistic association between a color and a food. The food and beverage industry has effectively assigned the color bright, medium blue to represent the flavor of raspberry. Blue-raspberry is a flavor commonly used to market food and candy products ranging from bubble gum and juice drinks, to popsicles and salt-water taffy. Few consumers ever question why they are eating a piece of blue food even though it supposedly comes from a red fruit. Consumers have accepted the color blue in blue-raspberry food products, and have come to expect that it will taste like the fruity, red raspberry.

The results from my coffee color packaging survey will be helpful in assisting my students when they choose brand colors for their coffee brand identity projects. The data solidifies that certain colors are going to be more effective when communicating a brand message to a specific target market. The favor participants placed on dark brown, light brown and dark red make them strong candidates for any new coffee product’s brand color. Interestingly, brown is not a popular color in the current coffee marketing industry. My students may want to take advantage of this valuable information to help them build their coffee brands among younger audiences.

As my “Most Popular Brand Colors” Web site research demonstrated, blue and
red were the most popular brand and packaging colors among the twenty-two product categories I studied. Green and white were a distant third. These were the colors that people were most accepting of as brand packaging colors. Blue and red were used in most categories and on a large majority of the products’ packaging. If we look at the brand colors of American companies that are leaders in their industries, the popularity of blue and red is evident. Pepsi owns blue, Coke owns red. Frosted Flakes owns Blue, Frosted Mini Wheats owns red. Total cereal owns blue, Special K owns red. Oreo cookies owns blue, Archway cookies owns red. Premium Saltines owns blue, Zesta Saltines owns red. Stouffer’s owns red, Swanson’s owns blue. Reebok athletic shoes owns red, New Balance owns red. Wal- mart owns blue, Target owns red. Ford owns blue, Chevy owns red. Reynolds Wrap owns blue, Saran Wrap owns red. Maxwell House owns blue, Folgers owns red. Miller Lite owns blue, Budweiser owns red. Dannon yogurt owns blue, Yoplait owns red. Blue Bunny Ice cream owns blue, Kemps owns red. Progresso soup owns blue, Campbell’s owns red. Planters nuts owns blue, Fisher nuts owns red. All laundry detergent owns blue, Tide owns red-orange. Crest toothpaste owns blue and Colgate owns red. I theorize that there is a correlation between the popularity of blue and red in American packaging and branding and the colors of the American flag. Red and blue evoke a number of positive emotions in consumers. Respect, honor, patriotism, love, neighborly companionship, caring, solidarity, and the pride of standing for something that is larger than each of us individually. These colors can touch us deeply and we tend to embrace products and services that share these colors and their American attributes.

Suggestions for future research include expanding upon the coffee color survey to include additional ethnic populations, other geographic locations, other age ranges, and to increase the number of participants. The research survey format could also be expanded into different product categories. The survey format would work for any product or service. It would also be helpful when evaluating design elements like logos, Web sites, and other marketing material.

Additional research could be done to better understand the correlation between the popularity of packaging colors and the colors of a country’s flag. It would be interesting to research if a correlation exists between other country’s national flag colors and their preferred colors of packaging. This could be studied around the World.

When choosing a brand color, it is important to remember that established rules and past successes are no guarantee for future success. If color use in business and industry has taught us anything, it is that the only constant is change. What the current generation responds to, the next may ignore. And they may ignore it just because the last generation liked it. Each generation, group, clique, and culture inevitably seeks its own identity.

This is true of their tastes in music, clothing, technology, food, cars, toys, and television programming—and it is true for their color preferences. Designer and marketers that take risks and try new colors can be the trendsetters for their generation and, potentially, the rest of the world. There was a time when toy marketers wouldn’t have dreamed of using neon green or pink. And there was a time when clothes designers wouldn’t have dreamed of marketing red, green or orange clothes. But times change, people change, and companies, manufactures and marketers must change—or risk being left behind.