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With Color in Marketing, Context Is Everything

With Color in Marketing, Context Is Everything

Ben Jura

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The many ways in which color affects product or brand marketing

Up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone. The thought of rules that help guide brands and products is appealing, but the ways brands use color vary greatly. It depends on the brand, audience and the culture from which it will be viewed—and the context it will exist as a part of.

Color theory is a deep and nuanced discipline, but as it relates to decision psychology in marketing and branding, analysis rarely goes beyond the superficial and definitive.

The Right Color Is Appropriate

It has been shown that consumers see inherent value in congruity between color and positioning of the brand or product rendered in that color. For functional products or brands, the relationship between color and brand should match consumer expectations and beliefs about what colors are functionally appropriate. But if the brand or product is positioned as more sensory and social-oriented, the color needs to match expectations around the emotional content of colors.

In either case, being able to predict the consumer reaction to the appropriateness of a color seems more valuable than the color in isolation. Therefore, when choosing a color, ask: What are the expectations around color when it comes to the experience of the product or brand? One could imagine the pushback an orange juice brand may endure if it considered presenting itself as a “blue” brand in the U.S. The category norms around flavor are extremely strong. But in the United Arab Emirates, for example, the norms and expectations are different, so iconic juice brands like Rani can anchor their packaging and visual identity system in blue without issue.

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The Right Color Communicates Personality

Color is widely considered the most emotionally laden of visual cues. Processed by the viewer after shape but before content, color viscerally triggers subconscious reactions. As a result, it often communicates more than words. While colors do generally align with traits such as sincerity, excitement, competence or sophistication, the ancillary meanings associated with a color are the result of repeated, learned exposure. Humans unconsciously absorb images beginning at a young age which are transcribed over time on their psyche. A young child, easily impressed by bright scenes, might encounter a bed of brightly colored flowers and think, “Wow! That’s pretty.”

Over time, these repeated responses will solidify into tastes and reactions to those particular colors later in life. Now consider that even cities have distinct color palettes that dominate their expression and those colors typically trigger associations for insiders that would be absent in outsiders. The meaning that color conveys is extremely layered and nuanced, so for marketers, it is a more effective approach to take a wisdom-of-crowds approach and find what works for the most people in the most situations.
This way the color may read as more or less optimistic, or be so for a slightly different reason, but at least it won’t communicate something totally off to most.

The Right Color Appeals to Your Audience

Color perception and preference are highly dictated by culture and experience. That preference links strongly back to what the color is seen to communicate. What is the experience of seeing the color green actually like, for example? People in Japan describe traffic lights as being red and blueish even if they look just like they do in North America where we might call them red and green. If the result of a language that for thousands of years had no word for the color green (just something on the green end of the blue spectrum) is that they are defining the concept differently, how else are our unique cultural experiences dictating the meaning of our concepts?

What appeals is the result of history and experience—something that anyone would struggle to give voice to having known nothing else. So while it is beneficial to do research on your target, be wary of how you structure it. Align your stimulus with the way the result will be processed. Let the audience play with color if you want to learn about color, because asking if
the light should be blue or green won’t tell you much.

The Right Color Differentiates

In psychology, the Von Restorff Effect shows that when presented with numerous congruent stimuli, the one that differs from the rest is more likely to be noticed and remembered, delivering on measures of “stand-out” and building equity at once. So don’t just match surveyed tastes with your product or brand. Consumers only know what they know, and if a landscape is dominated by particular conventions in color (or anything else), the semiotics of the category will do a lot of the heavy lifting to communicate the purpose of the brand or product—but following those conventions will surely result in less visibility and memorability.

Think hard about what you are gaining by following convention or breaking from it. Almost 10 years ago, Kimberly-Clark used an almost unheard-of approach to color in the fem-care category to re-invent an irrelevant older brand for a younger consumer. Coupled with a brilliant social strategy around rethinking “taboos,” the disruption and differentiation U by Kotex achieved helped increase sales of the Kotex brand by almost 10%—an instance of using divergent color to shift a narrative so successful that it still comes up in conversations around bold branding choices.

Shakespeare famously opined that, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But if its color was not as deep, would its smell change? If it were dark blue, would your concept of “rose” still fit? How much baggage around “passion” and “romance” coming from our upbringings is changing our view of the color of the rose? Context is everything. Cultural and
competitive context define appropriateness. The personality associated with color comes from repeated exposure and links to emotions previously experienced. Appeal results from our subconscious associations and even things like our linguistic context. But at the end of the day, if your brand or product isn’t noticed or can’t be remembered, why bother? Nurture healthy
skepticism when you see claims showing that making the button red results in 21% more clicks than if it were green, or other such hard-and-fast rules. Or at least, ask what the rest of the site on which this button appears looks like and who was doing the clicking. Those claims may be as spurious as they are comforting.

Photo by britt gaiser on Unsplash.

Ben Jura is associate creative director of Snapdragon, a full-service design firm. Ben identifies challenges facing businesses and offers thoughtful solutions that yield quantifiable results for consistent brand enhancement at key consumer touch points.