Whether it’s Skittles going colourless to celebrate Gay Pride, or the #poolgate social media storm during the Rio Olympics, colour is uniquely powerful. The slightest change stands out to customers and if brands don’t get colour right, it can mean the difference between success and failure. Colour is the tangible expression of a brand’s personality: its look and feel, the immediate piece of visual information that captures our attention and ultimately inspires us to purchase.
But you have to be unmistakeable to be recognised. Think Coca-Cola red, Cadbury’s purple, Heinz Beanz blue. Brands are acutely aware that colour is inextricably linked with emotion and they craft their designs with this stimulus in mind. In fact, according to the Institute of Colour Research, up to 85 per cent of customers’ first impression is based on colour alone. Take the colour red: people react faster and more forcefully when they see it, as it’s built deep into our psyche as a cue for danger. In the same way that 'Sale' is always written in red, brands use red to stimulate us to take action.
Other colours trigger different feelings. We’re increasingly seeing retailers in particular opt for green to elicit feelings of nature and the environmentally friendly. McDonald’s, which has changed its store fascia to green, is a prime example of a brand using colour to try and shift perception, while for a retailer like Whole Foods, green fits neatly with the produce on offer.
At any rate, as brands grow in popularity and their distinctive colour becomes synonymous with the product, what counts most is protecting this powerful identifier at all costs. Take Cadbury’s, it first went purple as a tribute to Queen Victoria in the early 20th century, but has since gone to extreme lengths to reinforce its uniqueness, even fighting court cases to trademark and win exclusive use of its colour purple (Pantone 2685C).
Like Coca-Cola, the Cadbury’s design is especially striking because there’s little else on the pack. Other than typography, it’s simple, pure colour coverage. So colour is an advantage to brands that aren’t required to include much information on-pack. But it can be a curse too. Once a brand expands into different ranges and starts shipping its products internationally, there’s greater variation and thus more room for error. Inks vary in richness and brightness depending on the surface they’re printed onto, so ensuring consistency across different materials and containers is no easy feat. Add to that a whole range of different manufacturers working in countries all over the world, and ensuring consistency becomes a tremendous logistical challenge.
Colour management is of such consequence because of its close relationship with human perception. Remember 'The Dress', the viral phenomenon that exploded across the internet early in 2015? Some people swore it was blue and black, and others insisted it was white and gold. Wherever you sided, the meme offered fascinating insight into the way we perceive colour, proving that even the highly sophisticated human eye is shaped by subjectivity. It’s imperative that designers and brands not only study how our brains perceive colours, but also use this understanding to inform their designs.
Technology helps. PantoneLIVE, an online colour database which standardises colour specifications against extremely slim margins, can work to control the conditions that can affect how we see a given colour. Working with Heinz Beanz, our parent company Sun Branding Solutions used the database to identify and agree what the brand’s signature blue should be. The full process gets pretty technical, but the result is total colour consistency across all packaging. And if Heinz Beanz needs to print something new because of a changing shopper trend, printers can download details on the right colour online in seconds.
Ultimately, if a product we’ve grown to trust looks different, we might think twice before we take it to the counter. And that’s true across all categories, even into perfume or designer clothing; if the logo or colour isn’t quite right we’ll notice instantly, and leave it where we found it.
So when it comes to colour, the stakes are especially high for bigger players. The more you expand, the more reason to invest in ensuring consistency. And it’s not just about being identical across markets – colours mean different things to different cultures, what matters is appreciating its nuances.
It all goes back to customer loyalty, the holy grail for brands. Customers want to know what they’re getting and consistency breeds trust. Outer packaging is an effective tool to encourage us to pick up a product for the first time. If we return for a second time and the product itself is just as good, we’re likely to return to it again and again.
Simon Gore is managing director at Parker Williams