Subliminal messages

Color influences consumer choices

Lisa Rivard
3 March 2014

3 min read

The color of products, their packaging and their surroundings can have a major impact on their success in the marketplace. Consumer packaged goods manufacturers continue to refine their color choices, working hard to deliver the intended message about their products.

According to research conducted by The Color Institute, people make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment or product within 90 seconds; between 62% and 90% of that assessment is based on color alone. In fact, Web analytics firm Kissmetrics reports that 85% of shoppers cite color as the primary reason for buying a particular product.

“Fifteen years ago, you’d have to do a real selling job to convince people that packaging color was important,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute in Carlstadt, New Jersey (USA). “But I think we’ve seen things happen in the marketplace, such as the colorful Apple product lines, that show us the psychology of color is hugely important.”


Color is a marketer’s first tool in communicating across all human emotions, said Leslie Harrington, executive director of The Color Association, a color forecasting firm based in New York City (USA). “Before someone experiences a product in other ways, they see it … and that’s all about color,” she said.

Humans have three “relationship” levels with color, Harrington said. The first is universal; on this level, everyone reacts to a color in the same way. For instance, red is universally associated with passion, while blue is calming. The second level is societal or geographical. For instance, people in China react to pink differently than people in the Americas do. And the third level is an individual relationship based on life experiences, which may override the other two levels.

As humans move through life, Harrington said, they collect color associations that affect their subconscious reactions. “The reality with color,” she said, “is that the consumer intuitively knows if it’s wrong. Anything that comes off as wrong, they just won’t buy.”

COLOR EMOTION GUIDE: How color impacts consumer behavior


Marketers must educate themselves about how color “attaches” itself to the products they’re trying to sell, Eiseman said. “You have to understand the message you are trying to convey or the mood you’re trying to set. It’s also critical to know your competition. You don’t want to blend in with the next can of soup. And last, you have to be conscious of building a brand image so distinctive that no matter what other colors you use, there’s still recognition of your company’s persona.”

Sometimes, delivering a product’s message effectively means doing the unexpected with color. When Kimberly-Clark introduced “U by Kotex,” a new line of products aimed at younger women, it decided to step away from the category’s traditional pastel-colored packaging with bright fluorescent wrappers packaged in striking black.

Kim Greenwood, senior manager of virtual reality at Kimberly-Clark, said the packaging conveys exactly the young, fresh message her company wanted for the product. The award-winning design is paying off in sales and market share.


Laying claim to a color can be a game changer for a corporate brand. Harrington said her group found that, with the exception of primary colors, more people know what a color does not convey than what it does convey. And that, she said, creates an opportunity for a company to ”own” a color.

Case in point: the package shipping giant United Parcel Service (UPS), which hung its branding on the color brown. “When consumers don’t know what a color stands for, companies have the opportunity to make it stand for something,” Harrington said. “That’s how UPS did the whole ‘What can brown do for you?’ campaign. They made brown about friendly, good service delivered by sexy guys in brown shorts and knee socks. No one else in their industry can touch the color brown now.” Given the importance of color, Eiseman said, most companies are turning to color experts for help in interpreting and acting on color information. In the process, Harrington said, companies quickly realize two things: how difficult color decisions are, and that they are making them too late in the design process.


of shoppers cite color as the primary reason for buying a particular product. KISSMETRICS

“Color considerations are usually part of the secondary thinking,” Harrington said. “But more and more, color has to be moved up to a strategic level within the conversation. Once you’ve identified brand attributes and personality, you should immediately consider the colors related to that. Make them part of the thinking process right up front. Every single thing we make has a color. Why not make the decision about color a smart and strategic one that can be leveraged as part of your product platform?”

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