At its core, marketing can be considered the art of persuasion with the goal of eliciting an action from the consumer. We use many different methods to persuade, from charismatic spokespersons and jovial mascots to flowery ad copy and engaging user experiences. But one aspect of persuasion that is often overlooked and even more frequently misunderstood is the use of color in marketing and its effect on consumer psychology.
Have you ever heard someone say, “she looks at life through rose-colored glasses?” Have you thought about what that really means? The basic idea behind this common colloquialism is that colors have an effect on our psychology as human beings, a concept that marketers and psychologists alike have been intrigued by for decades.
Consumer’s responses to color largely depend on their personal experiences.
Many attempts have been made to classify consumer responses to specific colors, but it’s been found that responses are not universal. The problem with much of the research available to marketers surrounding color theory is that it is often shallow. For example, a study might say that yellow makes people happy. The problem with this conclusion is that colors will have a different impact based on context, location, and even culture. For example, in Western Culture, reds and yellows are often used in caution and warning signs. In this context, the statement that yellow invokes happiness is not necessarily true. But when yellow is used in the context of sunshine, or say the McDonald’s yellow arches, feelings of joy might be elicited.
Another example is the use of the color blue. In Western Culture, a blue sky can bring great joy, but blue can also be associated with sadness or melancholy, i.e. having “the blues.” In Eastern cultures, blue often holds significant religious value. In Judaism, blue is the shade for holiness and divinity, and in Hinduism it’s the color of Krishna—the most highly worshipped Hindu god. With these nuances in mind, it’s important to think of color theory as a road-map, or a loose guide that should be used with respect for context and audience.
Gender can have an effect on color preference, but so can marketing.
Color preferences not only differ between cultures but also across genders. The often-lamented concept that blue is for boys and pink is for girls is wholly the brainchild of marketers. However, before WWII, the roles were reversed. A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” It wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that pink became synonymous with girls and blue with boys—also a result of marketers creating gender-based color schemes. Now, parents might have a baby girl and buy all the pink products in the world, only to have to start over with blue when they have a boy for their second child. It truly is a piece of brilliant marketing. Gender stereotypes aside, research has found some utility in this phenomenon—men generally prefer bold colors while women tend to prefer softer colors.
Consumers make some purchasing decisions based on color alone.
Although our reactions to color are closely tied to personal experiences, there are patterns that can be seen with the use of color theory in marketing. According to one study, “people make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products. About 62‐90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone.” Hold on a second—90 percent is a BIG number. Wielding this information, choosing the right color for a product can give marketers an equally big advantage over the competition. This same research found that marketers can “use colors to increase or decrease appetite, enhance mood, calm down customers, and reduce the perception of waiting time, among others.”
Colors that seem appropriate for a brand are most effective.
Although customers respond strongly to certain colors, choosing a color based on its corresponding “mood” or effect is not the end-all-be-all. Another study found that “an appropriately chosen color for a brand name (logo) can bring inherent and immediate value to a brand.” This means that the appropriateness of a color can determine consumer behavior. For example, a bottle of shampoo made specifically for blonde hair would probably not perform as well in a brown bottle as it would in a yellow or gold bottle. In this case, color can depict the functionality of a product, but in other cases, it can depict the personality. Take a look at the GMC website for example. You’ll notice the bold and “masculine” colors used—red, black, and silver. These colors depict a rugged and independent brand, which accurately embodies the persona that GMC is going for. Now imagine the website cast in pastel colors, like lavender, baby blue, and mint. This color palette would likely be confusing to the consumer and would not serve GMC’s sales goals well.
The takeaway from these studies is that color appropriateness carries more weight than choosing a color based on its perceived psychological effects alone. Psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker has conducted extensive studies on this concept, resulting in the development of 5 core dimensions of brand personality. These dimensions can be seen as a road-map for brands when choosing an appropriate color for their products, logos, marketing materials, and more.
[[REDESIGN CHART BELOW]]
Colors that stand out are the most memorable.
In addition to color appropriateness, the ways that we use colors together also has an effect on consumer psychology. A principle known as the Isolation Effect states that colors that stand out the most are more likely to be noticed and remembered. Notice the picture below. Which apple would you recall most after you look away? Did you say the red one? Marketers can use this concept to draw the eye to their product in a display of competitors. Using a contrasting base and accent colors is an effective marketing tool that can be used regardless of gender, context, or culture, but color appropriateness must also be employed.
The Isolation Effect is particularly important when considering user flow in website design, and its effects must not be confused with the base assumptions of a user reacting to the qualities of one color standing alone. For example, if a green CTA button on a website gets more clicks than a blue one, it doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers are responding to the green alone. When it’s revealed that the rest of the website is the same shade of blue as the blue button, it stands to reason that the blue button is blending in, while the green stands out. When you also find out that the green button says “GO” and leads to an interior page, the context and appropriateness of the color can further explain the green button’s success over the blue.
Marketers can make better decisions using color theory.
The bottom line is that there are no concrete guidelines to color theory in marketing, but the research available does offer a great deal of insight into the effects that colors have on consumer decisions. By considering the Isolation Effect, color appropriateness, context, and product personality together, marketers can begin to ask more informed questions and arrive at better solutions to their marketing challenges. And marketers who would like to view consumer psychology through the lens of color theory can get their rose-colored glasses here.