Colour, categories and shopper psychology

* 4 min read
Colour can play an important role in-store in helping to differentiate brands from competitors. One study found that strong brands actually elicit strong brain activity, introducing an idea the authors named ‘brain branding’ whereby the brain is responding to particular brands at a subconscious level.

When it comes to making a brand stand out in retail there are certain rules that some products need to be aware of. These can be relatively rigid, such as colour coding on milk cartons – blue for full fat, green for semi-skimmed, red for skimmed. Powerful conventions take hold too, such as the use of certain colours to denote particular flavours, in crisps for example, or a particular colour palette used for bottled beers, green being the dominant colour for European lagers.

Brands need to weigh up whether there is more to be gained by sticking to the conventions of the category in colour terms, and being part of the club, or from standing out. If a competitor is in a dark blue tin, should your brand be in a pale blue tin, or should it adopt a completely different approach, by producing a bright red resealable pouch, for example?

Of course, take it too far and you’re in potentially dangerous territory. Staying with the milk example, there’s a sense that some conventions just shouldn’t be tampered with: changing milk lids, for instance, is something we wouldn’t be able to adjust to. Our associations with these colours are tremendously strong, so much so that they generate an automatic response in our brains. We look at a pint of milk, perceive what the colour of the lid represents and reach out to grab our choice – without reading the label at all. To this day, glass milk bottles remain entirely label-free.

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It’s the same with sub-labelling for “low fat” or “indulgent”. We expect the blue version to be low fat and dark, while intense colours generally promise something more indulgent. Asking consumers to deviate from established colour cues will be a challenge given how hard-wired these tend to be in certain categories.

Having said that, using a new colour to disrupt a market norm, say on a new product, can be incredibly effective. When dessert brand Gü went black, others in the same category were quick to follow suit. Likewise, when Innocent landed in white, Tropicana tried to adopt similar white colourways on its product range.

All categories have colours, or a mix of colours that are relatively consistent: washing powder is bold and colourful and shows movement through many tonal colours. Efficacy of household goods such as bleaches and cleaners is shown through metallics, while organic products try to reflect nature with greens and browns.

Channelling the isolation effect

A phenomenon called the isolation effect is a powerful factor when it comes to standing out. The theory is that stimuli which differ from those that are similar, will be better remembered. In other words, if a brand stands out in some way, it may be better remembered by consumers. So there may be something in being counterintuitive when it comes to colour. Walkers crisps is a case in point: by packaging its salt and vinegar variant in green, and cheese and onion in blue, the brand actually goes against the category norm.

It pays to research the category to reveal any underlying design or colour trends and to speak to consumers to find out how they perceive existing brands as well as how receptive they would be to a new approach and a new colour hierarchy.

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Understanding the shopper journey and the role colour plays in store is crucial. Shoppers enter a store in several different mind states: dreaming, exploring and locating. Dreamers want to be inspired; explorers don’t know precisely what they are looking for, but are aiming to buy from a particular category, while locators know exactly what they want and simply want help in finding it. Brand colours must address the needs of all three of these mind states.

The consumer has to see the product and be motivated to buy it in a few precious seconds. Ongoing sales are the ultimate judgement on design, not how unique or colourful packaging is.

As well as the product itself, any merchandising or point of sale material should clearly be part of the same brand livery.

Bear in mind that each brand does not exist in isolation. Consider how it will look next to competitors and whether it’s existing colour coding will stand out sufficiently. How effective will it look when merchandised in numbers? How does it stand out now?

A category analysis should be conducted and mock-ups tested with focus groups or through online social channels. Eye tracking can also help assess packaging.

Colour, differentiation and the messages you communicate are especially crucial when it comes to launching a new brand. A new entrant into our busy shelves has a lot to contend with, so achieving cut-through is no easy feat. But with the right research, testing and consideration, a pack that distinguishes itself from others within the same category can have lasting success. 

Want to ensure the colour on every one of your pack formats is consistent, no matter where it’s printed or what the substrate is? Give us a call on 01274 202382 or fill out our contact form.