It's probably no accident that Hawaiian Punch is such a deep red. Research indicated years ago that the redder the food, the sweeter it's perceived to be--and kids like their food sweet.
That's true not only of the color of the food. Food marketers also work to elicit particular responses by their use of color on boxes, bottles and cans.
"All of us have involuntary physiological and psychological responses to the colors we see," according to promotional material from the Chicago-based Institute for Color Research, a group that specializes in collecting information on the human response to color and then sells it to industry. "Color . . . impacts our appetite, sexual behavior, business life and leisure time," says Eric Johnson, the institute's head of research studies.
No wonder, then, that the institute points out that "corporations have spent considerable time and money conducting confidential marketing research so that their products will be packaged in colors which they hope will promote sales."
No one is suggesting, of course, that a particular color can hypnotize you into buying an item. But marketers are always looking to grab your attention as you walk down the supermarket aisle. And even subtle factors like color, they believe, can have subliminal influences.
Johnson, who has a degree in graphic design, maintains that "the study of color is . . . scientific." Academic researchers, as well as marketers, have conducted studies seeking to answer such questions as whether reactions to color are predictable, whether men and women respond similarly to color cues, and whether a person's age influences his or her color "psychology."
Some have looked at how reactions to color differ across cultures.
One study, for instance, found that consumers in China and Japan associate purple with expensive products and gray with inexpensive ones. But it's just the opposite in the United States. When's the last time you saw an ad for caviar in a purple can or, conversely, inexpensive macaroni-and-cheese meals boxed in gray?
Orange also appears to be associated with monetary value. In sociological studies in the United States, it has been shown to indicate affordability, Johnson maintains.
Americans do not think of orange "as a classy color," he says. Thus, while you won't be likely to see orange on, say, a box of expensive chocolates, you'll find it on products portrayed as everyday, "accessible" foods, such as Thomas' English Muffins, Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, Sanka and Stouffer's frozen dinners. Orange is also "great on burger stands," says Johnson--no doubt one of the reasons it's in the logos of both Burger King and Howard Johnson's.
Black has become a sort of anti-orange these days. You would never have seen it in a supermarket a few decades ago--just as you wouldn't have seen black party dresses for little girls. But the color now connotes status and elegance, says Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a Philadelphia firm that tracks consumer perceptions. That's probably why Breyer's ice cream and yogurt containers are largely black, as are containers of Sheba cat food, which costs twice as much as many other brands of feline victuals.
"Rich colors like gold reflect quality" as well, says Jim Peters, editor-in-chief of Brand Packaging magazine. That may be the reason Haagen-Dazs ice cream has a motif of gold and burgundy.
Pink containers, like red-colored foods, convey sweetness--often intense, cotton-candy-like sweetness. Boxes of Nabisco's Comet Sugar Cones have a lot of pink, as do jars of Betty Crocker Parlor Perfect ice cream and dessert toppings. The lids on both Parlor Perfect Confetti Sprinkles and Cookie 'n Nut Crunch are pinker than princess phones.
But pink, unlike red, doesn't get your hormones going. As Eric Johnson, of the Institute for Color Research, puts it, "When the eye sees primary red, the pituitary sends a signal" that leads to the secretion of adrenaline, "which causes the body to go into a state of arousal." Before you know it, you've succumbed to the advances of a whole host of red products--everything from Coke to Ritz crackers to Log Cabin Syrup to Campbell's soup.
The "healthy," environmentally friendly, calorically correct color, experts say, is green.
Brian Wansink, director of the University of Illinois Food and Brand Lab, made the point that green is seen that way when he put O'Henry candy bars, normally found in yellow wrappers, into green ones. Consumers he surveyed about the bars speculated that they had fewer calories, more protein and less fat than candy bars packaged in their usual yellow.
Hershey's gets the picture, which is why the company's reduced-fat Sweet Escapes candy bars have green on their wrappers, as do Nabisco's SnackWell low-fat and nonfat cookies and ConAgra's Healthy Choice dinners. Also sporting green: lids on low-fat Haagen-Dazs, cans of decaffeinated coffee (as opposed to the "robust" red on caffeinated versions) and the placards and products in large supermarkets' natural foods sections.
White, like green, signifies fewer calories, says Wansink. While regular Stouffer's frozen dinners are orange, Lean Cuisine entrees come in boxes that are mostly white. And Wansink notes that sales of sugar-free Canada Dry Ginger Ale shot up after the soda's labels took on more white.
Silver also stands for fewer calories. Diet Coke cans have a lot of silver, while regular Coke cans are mostly red.
White is also used for less expensive and bulky foods, such as sugar and flour, and to convey hygiene or cleanliness in the packaging of milk and cheese. Of course, sugar, flour, milk and some cheeses are white, giving the food and its packaging what Johnson calls congruency of color.
Children don't care about color congruence, Johnson says, which is why they're perfectly happy to have a food of any color inside a purple box. But adults like color matchup--no doubt part of the reason French's puts its mustard in yellow containers, orange juice usually comes in a container with some orange on it and so on.
Deep colors, such as shades of brown, indicate roasted, baked or very rich tastes, says Johnson. In focus groups brought together by Demptos Glass of Louisville, consumers said deep-colored wine bottles contained more expensive wine than light-colored ones. Wines & Vines, a trade publication, quoted one focus group participant who said after looking at a light-hued wine bottle, "It's like a mass-produced beer, and you know how that tastes."
The color that hits your eye fastest is yellow--no small thing for marketers, who believe that "for a package design on the supermarket shelf to halt a customer's attention, it must do its job within one twenty-fifth of a second," according to Johnson.
That's probably why there are loads of yellow on cereal boxes (think brands such as General Mills Cheerios and Post Shredded Wheat). There are so many brands to choose from that it behooves the manufacturer to try to be the first to literally catch your eye.