How Food Packaging Color Influences Consumer Behavior
Graphic Packaging International’s Nikki Clark examines how color is, or can be, used in food and drink packaging
Packaging is the most tangible representation of a product or brand for consumers and is therefore a primary selling tool for marketers, hence why it is important to spend time getting it right. According to research by marketing specialists, WebpageFX, consumers make a subconscious judgement about a product in less than 90 seconds of viewing it, and 62-90% of them base that assessment solely on color, which could be attributed to the fact that color registers much faster than text or complex graphics. What’s more, almost 85% of consumers say that color is the determining factor when purchasing a particular product.
If consistently maintained, elements of brand identity such as unique graphics and color palette can eventually become iconic. For instance, you see red with a white swirl and you instantly think Coca Cola. Likewise, you immediately associate the color purple with the Cadbury brand. Color is one of the main elements that will set your product apart from other products on the shelf and differentiate it from competitor brands.
The colors you choose for your packaging should project the intended subliminal message to attract your target market and prompt them to choose your product. Think about color in the context of the product’s marketing objectives. For example, using many bright colors will be attractive to children, whereas softer shades will generally be more appealing to older consumers. Similarly, as we are seeing a lot more in recent years, using colors like green or blue can help to portray healthier options.
Scientists, psychologists and marketing professionals have studied and drawn links between colors and the influence they have on human emotion and behavior. According to packaging design creative strategist, Jenn David Connolly, “color influences consumers not only on the conscious level but also on the subconscious level” and so choosing the color for your product’s packaging can be equally as important as choosing its ingredients.
Red is a powerful color known to stimulate and excite, and can actually heighten nerve impulses and increase the heart rate. Similar to what happens when we are hungry and the brain releases neurons, red enhances the appetite and stimulates a physical response. Hence why red is a popular choice in food marketing and can be found on the majority of food product packaging. When we think of red in regards to food we tend to think of ripe or sweet things like tomatoes, strawberries, and candy. Scientists Johnson and Clydesdale found that by adding red coloring to cherry or strawberry flavored drinks increased consumers’ perceived perceptions of sweetness. This highlights how red is a good choice for brands who want to depict a sweet taste.
Yellow is the fastest color that the brain processes, and therefore is usually good at grabbing attention. Like red, yellow is also an appetite stimulant and tends to make people feel cheerful and optimistic (Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, 1999). Studies actually show that when you look at the color yellow, the brain releases Serotonin (the ‘feel good chemical’), which could be used to make consumers feel good about what they are buying. Using red and yellow together evokes the taste buds and stimulates the appetite, so you can understand why this is a popular choice in the fast food industry – think McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC.
As a blend of red and yellow, orange produces similar effects and naturally lends itself to food as an appetizing color. It stimulates senses and emotions which can encourage impulse buying and is therefore a good choice for convenience snacks and FTG. Orange is a youthful color often related to creativity, however in food and beverage packaging it is often associated with certain flavors e.g. orange (Fanta) or cheese (Cheetos) where any other color used for those flavored products would seem very unnatural. In a scientific study researching orange juice packaging, it was found that orange packaging led consumers to expect a higher level of fruit juice content, compared to the same beverage in white packaging (Feliza & MacFie). Research also indicates that people view orange as a color for affordability so could also be a suitable option if you want to portray good value.
Blue is perhaps the most unappetizing color when it comes to food and drink. Besides blueberries, the color blue is almost non-existent in natural foods and the thought of it might even turn some of us away. A classic example of this was a study dating back to the 1970s, where consumers reported a loss of appetite and some even became ill when they were presented with a steak that was dyed blue with food coloring, despite the product being perfectly edible. However, in general, blue is one of the preferred colors by both men and women and many relate it with trust, honesty and dependability. It also implies water and freshness and so can be a good choice for products like bottled water, milk or seafood. More recently we are seeing blue being used a lot in low calorie options – think Weight Watchers. This seems compatible as blue suppresses the appetite and reduces hunger.
Packaging color can also be influenced by trends. Green is the main color associated with being fresh, healthy, natural, organic or vegetarian, and is now a symbol of health and well-being. In food marketing, green is the perfect choice if you want to emphasize or make a claim about natural ingredients or the health benefits associated. It is also frequently used for promoting that a product has been produced in an ecological and environmentally friendly way.
The more colors you incorporate into your packaging, the less sophisticated it tends to feel. White portrays feelings of cleanliness, purity, and simplicity, and when used in packaging usually makes people think that the product does not contain many ingredients. Generally, white is most effective when used as a base color, which works well when complemented with other accent colors. It is also popular with consumers when packaging white colored products such as milk, soft cheeses, yogurt, cream etc; it is appropriate and can give the impression of being natural and fresh.
In the past, the color black was very rarely used for food or beverage packaging. Nowadays, food experts are beginning to see some positive associations with the color. For example, research has demonstrated that eating from dark colored plates can actually control how much consumers eat, which could be a great education tool for diet brands such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World.
Brands are also seeing the benefits of using black to portray a sense of luxury. It’s recognized that consumers tend to associate black with sophistication and elegance and we are seeing more brands using it as a main color on packaging as it can enhance the perception of increased value and high quality. Adding a touch of silver or gold to black can enhance this sense of luxuriousness and exclusivity. It is a powerful color which can be contrasted with white or bright colors to make the packaging stand out. Examples of brands who do this well are Monster Energy and Jack Daniels.
When deciding on the color for your product packaging, it is important to understand the external influence such as cultural change and how color is perceived by society, especially if you foresee a long life cycle for your product. For brands who work on a global scale, understanding different cultures perceptions of color is key. For example, white symbolizes happiness and purity in Western cultures (Neal, 2002), but mourning and death for Eastern cultures (Ricks, 1984).
A recent study from ProCarton looked into how many times consumers made visual or tactile contact with packaging over one quarter. The results were really impressive and indicated that some products can receive an average as high as 45 touch-points (that’s ONE consumer connecting with ONE pack 45 times in just THREE months). The vast amount of times the consumer comes into contact with the product indicates the important role packaging plays in brand exposure to the consumer, as in essence, the importance of ensuring the color is right.
It is also imperative that you analyze and assess your competitors’ packaging, carefully consider context and application, and above all keep your target demographic in mind throughout the entire design process. With all this is mind and with a basic understanding of color psychology, you should be able to make packaging color choices with precision.