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How to Choose the Right Colors For Your Brand

Ten years ago, Heinz  unveiled a new type of ketchup that became an immediate success.  It sold seven million bottles in its first seven months and gained international attention.  It became so popular that when it sold out of some supermarkets, people actually auctioned it off on eBay. So what was so special about this ketchup? Did it taste better? Not at all. Was it made out of better ingredients? Nope.

There was one difference. It was green.

Now, consider the story of Crystal Pepsi, a clear cola that debuted in 1992. Though the soft drink tasted like regular Pepsi, it seemed that most people didn't react well to the idea of drinking a clear cola. After lackluster sales, the product was discontinued after only a year.

The message is clear enough: the choice in color for your product and its marketing materials matter.

Choosing the Best Color for Your Brand: It's not Just an Artistic Decision

Research has shown that color influences our emotions in a variety of ways, but perhaps most importantly, it's the first sensory touch point with a customer or client. "The first point of interaction is shaped by the color, and color is the most memorable sense," says Leslie Harrington, the executive director of The Color Association and a color consultant. "Before anything else, they see color."

Harrington, who wrote a Ph.D. thesis titled Color Strategy: Leveraging Color to add and Extract Values for Products and Brands, urges her clients not to think of color as an artistic choice or preference, but rather a grounded business decision. 

"Color has been one of those things that's been left up to the designer to select something," she says. "The CEOs or management say 'oh I can’t do that, I’m not artistic.' But my argument is that it's not about being artistic – it's not any different than making any other strategic decision for your business."

Case studies have shown that a consumer's decision to purchase products can range from anywhere between 60 and 80 percent based on the product's color.  Color has the unique ability to make or break the success of a product, Harrington notes. "It doesn’t cost you any more to make the right color decision for your product. But if you choose the wrong color, from the onset, you’re not going to communicate what you want to your customer.” In other words, if you get it wrong, it can really impact the overall performance of your company.

Choosing the Best Color for Your Brand: Color Selection

Color is contextual. For example, you might buy a shampoo that's bright orange, but you're probably unlikely to buy a car in that same color. So when thinking about a color for your product or marketing materials, it's important to research the typical choices of color among your competitors, and understand what a particular color is trying to communicate to a customer.

"Go into the store and take a critical look at what colors are there," says Jill Morton, a color consultant and author of a series of e-books about color.  

Morton explains that point-of-purchase sales (e.g. walking down the aisle of a pharmacy), are difficult because your product will sit on the shelf with at least 20 or 30 other products. Sometimes choosing a color that stands out can help. "Garnier Fructis did something quite brilliant with their choice of that green," she says. "You go to a shop, and that stands out."

But choosing an unlikely color can backfire, too. For example, "everything in contact solutions is blue or green, but if you put a product on the shelf that is red, no one is going to buy it," she says.

Most importantly, it's important to distinguish whether the color serves to imply a certain function (e.g. blue is clean, healthy, safe) or if the color implies a certain idea (e.g. neon green is fun, adventurous, different). Once you've determined what it is that your target customer is looking for, you can best decide on the color to help them find it.

Choosing the Best Color for Your Brand: Keeping it Real

Though your company may want your product to reflect a certain idea by a choice in color, it may not be that simple. "Consumers know intuitively if the color and brand connect, and if it's authentic," says Harrington. "If it doesn't connect, it turns them off."  Sometimes, companies think that finding a "popular" color or one that customers "like" will help sales. But this is rarely the case.  "Whether its trendy or not, or whether they like it or not, won't necessarily matter as much as if it’s authentic."

Harrington points out the following example. When Volkswagen came out with the new Beetle, most of the billboards pictured a neon green Beetle, which was a car color few people had seen before. However, that color was authentic to the ideas VW was trying to communicate: rebirth, renewal, and bringing an old icon back to make it new. "It really resonated with the customer," she says. "It allowed VW to communicate in the ad what they were all about – even if it just brought the customer in the store to buy the black or the silver."

This example also illustrates another element of color psychology, something she calls the "pink purse syndrome," namely, you put a pink purse in the window to get customers to come into the store where they buy the black one.

Choosing the Best Color for Your Brand:  When you Need a Change

Sometimes, changing a company color is necessary to indicate the company is still modern and progressive. When freshening up logos or changing a product's color, there are a number of things to consider, says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and international color expert.  "You have to think about whether or not you want to retain some of the past, or completely do away with it," she says.

There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to scrap the color entirely. However, this isn't always the best option. Rather than get rid of all the equity you've built with a certain color, it's sometimes best to hold on to one color, and consider altering the accent color, says Eiseman.  "Most companies want to hold on to the equity and goodwill of their image, and color can certainly do that: maintaining some of the color but adding something new as a secondary color to refresh the image."

A good example of the need to change colors is Kodak, Harrington says, because they needed to move from being a film business in the minds of consumers, to a digital business.  "Since yellow was so iconic with the product, they went to red," she says. "They wanted to signal to the customer that the focus of the company had changed."

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