Psychology of color, and how not to use it

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As my regular readers know, I am a strong proponent of a thoroughly thought out, strategic and preferably scientifically backed implementation of instore media. When it comes to instore visuals, such as printed signage or narrowcasting, one important influencer that deserves such tactical attention is color.

Color is well known for its influence on people. Paint your walls light blue and your room becomes soothing and relaxing. Paint them bright orange and it might just energize and refresh you.

The influence of color on people has been thoroughly researched. A key returning aspect in this science is association. We subconsciously associate color with emotions, states or values. The symbolic power of color is so strong, that we can convey powerful messages with it.

Look at branding, for instance. The influence of color on how we perceive a brand is so great that one might even argue that there are tight rules regarding color in branding. Take a look at toothpaste, for example. Whatever your make of choice is, chances are that the packaging is predominantly white with either blue or green. Why? Because these are colors that are associated with cleanliness and freshness. They also convey an image of seriousness and reliability.

For the same reason, white, green and blue are the dominant colors all over the medical world as well. Reliability and trustworthiness are key values here, and these colors communicate those values.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find red. Red as a signaling color is often linked to promotions, actions and low prices. It is the color of choice for discounters and price fighters.

This is where it gets tricky though. There are many handbooks and guides to color psychology that contain lists of colors and their meaning. The problem is that this meaning is entirely dependent on context. The color itself has no meaning. It is within a certain context that a color gains its meaning.

Loud music, for comparison, can be exciting and energizing. But it can also be fatiguing and irritating. The same goes for colors. Your freshly painted light blue room might be relaxing. But at another time, when you feel different, it might be dull and underwhelming. Your orange room might excite you now. But it could be very fatiguing later today.

A little while ago, a large toothpaste manufacturer launched a new sub brand here in the Netherlands. Instead of the regular white, green and blue, they chose to market their whitening toothpaste in bright red packaging. Odd choice. But combined with an ad campaign focussed on young women and a trendy lifestyle they had turned toothpaste into a premium beauty product. Brilliant.

So there you go. We just figured out that toothpaste should be marketed in white, blue and green. And we decided that red was cheap. And here is a brand that ignores both conventions and creates its own new spot within an otherwise saturated market. Theory out the window.

This example shows you cannot simply rely on the charts provided by color psychology researchers. There are too many variables at work.

So does that mean there is no way to approach color rationally or even scientifically? Not exactly. There is one watertight way to be sure you are making the right choices regarding color; you will have to test your own work.

Color psychology charts can be useful as a starting point. Think of what you are trying to communicate and how previous studies found that this can be underlined by color. Next, design your outings and test them. Use a representative panel and test whether your outings communicate the intended values. I will dive deeper into how to research brand outings in a later post, so stay tuned!

Thomas van Straaten
Instore media consultant

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