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Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science

Emerald Article: What we know about consumers' color choices


Randi Priluck Grossman, Joseph Z. Wisenblit

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To cite this document: Randi Priluck Grossman, Joseph Z. Wisenblit, (1999),"What we know about consumers' color choices", Journal
of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, Vol. 5 Iss: 3 pp. 78 - 88
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JMP:
AMS What we know about
5,3 consumers color choices
Randi Priluck Grossman
78 Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, USA, and
Joseph Z. Wisenblit
Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, USA

Keywords Brands, Consumer behaviour, Marketing strategy, Product design,


Product management
Marketing practitioners know that a products color may play an important role in a consumers
purchase decision, but may not be familiar with the empirical research that has been conducted in
this area. The purpose of this paper is to apply an associative learning framework to the color
literature to help understand consumer color choices. Specifically, the principles of classical
conditioning, a form of associative learning, will be used to make suggestions to practitioners who
wish to create or change color associations for their products. The implications of the findings
from the color literature are discussed.

The importance of color in marketing


Marketing practitioners have often turned to color consultants to help them
determine product colors that appeal to consumers. For instance, Igloo Products
Corporation used a color consultant to develop colored coolers for the firm.
Igloo attributes the subsequent 15 percent increase in sales to the new colors
(Lane, 1991). Similarly, other firms have examined consumers color preferences
in order to determine their products color or color range. Producers of school
supplies, such as Mead and Pentel, believe that color is the product variable that
attracts consumers and allows consumers to make fashion statements.
Knowledge of consumers color preferences is consequential because marketers
who recognize which colors in their lines sell best may be able to trim product
offerings and reduce manufacturing costs (Trent, 1993).
A new trend has emerged in which marketers feel that it is important to
update colors regularly (Triplett, 1996). For example, automobile manufacturers
change approximately 30 percent of their colors each year and use color
consultants to advise them on the color palette three to four years before a color
is introduced (Triplett, 1995b). However, research on color preferences for
products suggests that consumers often conform with norms in their color
choices for certain product categories, particularly high risk purchases.
Understanding the factors that enter into a consumers color decision may help
prevent marketers from wasting time and energy chasing the latest trend.
One area of research which may help marketers better understand the
Journal of Marketing Practice:
development of color preferences is associative learning. Consumers learn color
Applied Marketing Science, Vol. 5
No. 3, 1999, pp. 78-88. MCB
preferences for particular products based on associations they have formulated
University Press, 1355-2538 through their experience. In some cases, a favorable experience with a color
leads to a preference for the color. In other instances, consumers develop Consumers color
preferred colors for particular products because they learn, through association, choices
that certain colors are appropriate for certain product categories. The purpose of
this paper is to examine and synthesize the color literature within the framework
of associative learning and to examine some of the aspects of classical
conditioning which may play a role in creating color associations.
79
Conceptual background
The color literature is vast and highly fragmented. No underlying theory of color
in marketing has as yet been advanced. One promising area of research which can
be used to explain consumer responses to the colors of products is associative
learning. Associative learning occurs when individuals make connections among
events that take place in the environment (Shimp, 1991). However, since an
association is not directly observable (Mazur, 1990), a mechanism for creating the
association, classical conditioning, is often used to explain the process.
Traditionally, classical conditioning researchers examined physiological
responses in which a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus
(US) were paired and would then elicit a conditioned response (CR). In Pavlovs
famous study, the US was the presence of food, the CS was the sound of a
metronome and the CR was salivation. When the food and the sound were paired,
the sound came to elicit the salivation, even in the absence of food.
More recently, the consumer behavior literature has expanded the
application of classical conditioning to include instances when the CS consists
of a product or brand and the US consists of pleasant scenes or images. For
example, Stuart et al. (1987) paired a brand of toothpaste with images of water
scenes and subjects developed more favorable attitudes toward the toothpaste
than a control group.
Classical conditioning has also been used to alter color preferences for
products. Gorn (1982) paired either blue or beige pens with pleasant and
unpleasant music. Subjects exposed to the pleasant music paired with a
particular pen color chose to take home a pen of that color. Bierley et al. (1985)
were also able to condition favorable responses to colors (this time colored
geometric objects) using pleasant music (from the movie Star Wars). Therefore,
associative learning principles have been shown to affect color preferences for
products. However, the power of associative learning, which includes a vast
network of associations formulated by an individual, has not been fully
examined in these studies. When the more complicated nature of associative
learning, including higher order learning, is added, its potential explanatory
effect is greater.
Whereas classical conditioning is a specific mechanism for creating
associations, associative learning is a more broad application of classical
conditioning and includes any systematic pairing of stimuli to create a connection
among them. There are many examples of associative learning principles in the
color literature and practitioners who understand the paradigm may be able to
make better color decisions regarding aspects of the marketing mix.
JMP: Many consumers have favorite colors, a phenomenon that may have been
AMS created via an association with a favorable stimulus. However, favorite color does
5,3 not adequately explain consumer color choices for products. Consumers have
likely developed a wide range of color associations for various product contexts,
which makes the task of understanding color responses more complicated.

80 Physiological responses to color


An associative learning framework can be used to explain human physiological
response to color. Researchers have suggested that color associations may have
been formulated early in human history when man associated dark blue with
night, and therefore, passivity and bright yellow with sunlight and arousal
(Luscher and Scott, 1969). To this day, cool colors, such as blue and green, are
considered calming and warm colors, such as red and orange, are considered
arousing (Kreitler and Kreitler, 1972; Berlyne, 1960; Birren, 1978; Costigan,
1984; Davidoff, 1991). Knowledge of the physiological effects of color has been
used by institutions to sedate people without the use of drugs. In one study,
pink was found to calm inmates in institutions and is now used for this purpose
when anger is detected. Dentists have been known to paint the walls of the
office blue to allay patient fears (Costigan, 1984).
Marketing practitioners have also used the association of arousal for warm
and calming for cool colors in retail settings. An anecdotal example is the use of
the color red in casinos to stimulate gambling. In a formal study of the effect of
color on consumers in a retail setting, Bellizzi et al. (1983) manipulated the
background color of a photograph of a furniture store and measured
consumers perceptions of the store and a number of store attributes. The
results indicated that warm colors, such as red and yellow, were more exciting,
while cool colors, such as blue and green, were more calming.
However, other associations that consumers have may interfere with a
marketers intent for the use of that color. For instance, outdoor colors, such as
green and blue, are associated with sporting goods stores and even though red
may stimulate approach behavior in general, it is not likely to be appropriate for
such a retail environment. One study that explains the dual nature of color
response is Crowley (1993). The findings suggest that color may have both an
arousal component and an evaluative component. From an associative learning
perspective, the dual nature of color responses makes intuitive sense as
researchers in classical conditioning have begun to discover that attitudes
formulated via the conditioning process may result both from belief formation,
a cognitive process, and through direct affect transfer, a more emotional process
(Kim et al., 1996; 1998).

The development of color associations


Associative learning can also explain how certain colors have come to hold
certain meanings for people of different cultures. In each culture, associations are
learned by people based on connections they make between colors and their
meanings. For instance, in the West, green is associated with hopefulness, white
with purity, black with mourning, red with love or revolution and yellow with Consumers color
hatred (Kreitler and Kreitler, 1972). In China, white is associated with choices
righteousness and yellow with trustworthiness. Black is associated with
dullness and stupidity in Indian culture, while red suggests ambition and desire
(Kreiter and Kreitler, 1972). Certain colors are also preferred in certain cultures.
There is evidence to suggest that color preferences and meanings are learned
and can be changed. In a study conducted by Walton, childrens color preferences 81
were modified when they were presented with a gift in a box of a certain color.
Through this method, the children came to favor the color of the gift box, their
previously least preferred color (Kreitler and Kreitler, 1972). In 1956 Kreitler
found that Israelis (86 percent) reported disliking the color yellow because it was
associated with the yellow patch worn by Jews under the Nazis. However, the
color of their flag, blue, was considered a color of hope. The experiment was
repeated in 1960 on a new generation of Israelis and 41 percent reported liking
the color yellow because it was associated with the rebirth of the desert in Israel.
Only 3 percent associated the color blue with hope (Kreitler and Kreitler, 1972).
The notion that color preferences are formulated through associations is a
potentially important finding for marketing practitioners interested in
determining colors for products. Rather than examine general color preferences
among consumers, it may be preferable to learn consumers color associations
as a basis for understanding the emotional aspects of color. For example, Pentel,
a company that makes school supplies, found that red and green were not
preferred colors in school supplies because teachers grade in these colors and
they may have negative associations for students (Rouland, 1993).
Marketers can also use the theory of associations to create meanings for
particular colors or to develop a brand image around a color. For example,
Owens Corning uses the color pink to denote its brand of fiberglass insulation.
They then use the image of the Pink Panther to signify that the product is hip
and cool. In other words, they created their own color association and developed
an image around it. Potentially, such a strategy holds long-term benefits as the
Supreme Court has ruled that a particular color can serve as a defensible
trademark for a product (Heath, 1997).

Color preference depends on the product


Color preference does not exist in a vacuum; rather, color preference for
particular objects or settings is dependent upon the situation and the
underlying associations people may have developed. Traditionally, color
research has been conducted using color cards or color swatches and subjects
are asked to indicate color preference independent of the object. For example,
the directions in the Luscher and Scott (1969) color test state Look the eight
colors over and decide which color you like best. Do not try to associate the
color with something else, such as dress materials, furnishings, automobiles,
etc. Just choose the color for which you feel the most sympathy out of the eight
colors in front of you (Luscher and Scott, 1969) This seems to indicate that
JMP: Luscher and Scott (1969) believed there was a connection between color
AMS preference and objects.
5,3 When objects are included in color research, they tend to be geometric
objects (Davidoff, 1991). Studies using objects that are not common to peoples
everyday lives have been criticized. Specifically, Davidoff (1991) states that a red
light viewed through a small opening is in contrast to most of our day-to-day
82 precepts, where it is completely clear that color is at the surface of an object
(Davidoff, 1991, p. 3). He also explains that color is not perceived independently
from objects in the human brain. Therefore, knowledge of a consumers favorite
color is not likely enough to assist marketers in determining the color palette for
product lines. Rather, it is important to understand that consumers have
different color preferences for different product categories. These preferences
are formulated via the associative learning process.
A number of studies suggest that consumers may prefer certain colors over
others for various product categories. A study conducted by Pantone (1992)
found that the most popular colors for clothing were blue, red and black with
black the most worn color for dressy occasions. Automobiles are preferred in
blue, gray, red, white and black, while beige is preferred for carpeting,
upholstered furniture and paint (Mundell, 1993). Holmes and Buchanan (1984)
asked subjects to report their overall favorite color and their preferred colors
for products such as automobiles, clothing and furniture. They found that
peoples color preferences differ depending on the product and their favorite
color was independent of these preferences. Similarly, children were shown to
favor certain colors when choosing candies (Walsh et al., 1990) and adults of
certain cultures prefer particular colors of cheese, even when taste cannot be
distinguished (Scanlon, 1985). The findings suggest that preferences for colors
in particular contexts may be culturally determined based on associations
people of the same culture learn.

Colors have meanings for consumers


Researchers have attempted to attach meanings to colors. For instance, Kargere
(1949) listed 12 colors and their symbolic meanings. Similarly, Birren (1973)
suggests that red is the color of extroversion and associates blue-green with
intelligence, sociability and narcissism. Red has been associated with danger
and researchers have suggested that this is a natural response to the color
(Heath, 1997; Lane, 1991) because the color red is often associated with danger
in nature, e.g. fire and blood (Heath, 1997). Color meanings are also very
important in cueing consumers in consumption situations. For example,
Pharmavites Nature Made vitamins were packaged in a black container with
white lettering. A series of interviews with consumers revealed that they were
mistaking the vitamins for poison because black is often associated with poison
in Western culture. Subsequently, the company changed the packaging to beige
and brown to avoid this association (Lane, 1991). For other product categories,
these colors may be highly appropriate. Consider the mens cologne Drakkar
Noir its bottle is black with white lettering. In this case the colors indicate
strength and masculinity. In advertising for Drakkar Noir, strong men are Consumers color
paired with the bottle and the colors of the product to formulate the appropriate choices
association. In this case, the marketer was able to create and control the
association consumers developed for the brand.
Colors can also signify product attributes. Hewlett-Packard found that white
packaging for its computers connoted accuracy and scientific prowess, but
consumers also believed that it was plain, emotionless and not enticing (Beatty, 83
1997). In the 1950s, Louis Cheskin tested three colors to be included as specks in
Cheer laundry detergent. Blue was chosen because it signified cleanliness, while
yellow was not perceived as clean and red was believed to actually damage
clothing (Heath, 1997). These preferences for particular colors are learned via
associations and past experience with the product category or similar product
categories.
Cultures may attribute similar or different meanings to colors. In one study,
researchers asked subjects to indicate which color they associated most with
certain words. The color red was associated with love for people of China,
Korea, Japan and the USA, but the Chinese also associated red with being good
tasting. Some of the most important differences noted were which colors
indicated expensive or inexpensive products. Whereas in China and Japan, the
color gray was associated with the word inexpensive, the opposite was true
among US consumers. In Asian countries, the color purple was associated with
expensive, but not in the USA (Jacobs et al., 1991). Colors were also associated
with particular countries. For instance, red has a strong association with China.
Therefore, global marketers who wish to emphasize country of origin may wish
to do so using color.
Some color associations among consumers are consistent across countries,
while others are not. In one study, most consumers (more than 50 percent) of
China, Korea, Japan and the USA select green as the appropriate color for a
label on a can of vegetables and many associate yellow with a box of candy.
There is less agreement on products such as soap, cigarettes and headache
remedies (Jacobs et al., 1991). Since many vegetables are green, it makes
intuitive sense that consumers of different cultures would make the green
association. However, since products and their labels may differ for different
competitors, consumers may hold individual associations depending on the
brand that they use. In spite of competitive differentiation, some marketers have
been successful in developing some color associations. For instance, more than
50 percent of Americans in one study considered red to be the color associated
with soft drinks. However, Coke has not been as successful in reinforcing this
association in Korea or Japan. In these countries, yellow is the color more often
attached to soft drinks (Jacobs, et al., 1991).
Color can also be used to differentiate a product. Though red is generally
associated with soft drinks, Pepsi is choosing to develop a strategy around the
color blue (Heath, 1997). The color allows Pepsi to build its own associations and
helps consumers locate the product on the shelf. Similarly, color has been
described as one of the easiest ways to differentiate a new car model (Heath, 1997).
JMP: Conformity in society leads individuals to choose certain colors based on
AMS their associations with gender. In the USA pink is considered a feminine color
5,3 and is associated with baby girls, rather than boys. However, with the correct
associations attached to it, even pink can become a color purchased by men. For
instance, sales of fuchsia pick-up trucks increased in 1994, but the sales were
not to women (Triplett, 1995a). In this case a cultural norm was broken and men
84 may have come to associate the color with excitement or speed. The marketer
can have an effect on this process by using the color matched with the
appropriate images in advertising. Therefore, the principles of association can
be a powerful tool for marketers who desire control over aspects of the
marketing mix.
One study suggests that marketers may have contributed to the development
of color preferences by creating associations over time. Lee and Barnes (1990),
in a content analysis of print advertisements, found that product category and
color were significantly correlated, suggesting that advertisers tend to depict
products in the same colors in certain product categories. These colors may
influence consumers to purchase products that are socially desirable as
depicted in advertisements. Social desirability is a learned behavior and the
colors appropriate for certain social situations are learned via associations that
people learn as members of society.

Developing effective associations for products


Determining peoples color associations may be difficult because consumers
may have trouble articulating associations which are complex. An alternative
strategy for marketers is to create new color associations which they can
control. Understanding the mechanism of classical conditioning can help
marketers develop color associations for products that consumers will
understand and retain. Classical conditioning is most effective under certain
circumstances. Associating stimuli that are unfamiliar to people is easier than
developing associations for familiar stimuli (Shimp, 1991). Therefore, it is easier
to create associations for a new product than for an existing product for which
consumers may have already formed associations, even though the marketer
may not be aware of those associations. Marketers of existing products can still
use the principles of classical conditioning to assist them with color
associations. In this case, more repetition of the link between the stimuli will be
required to overcome past associations. Repetition is important in classical
conditioning and strengthens the bond between the stimuli. Another principle
of classical conditioning that may help the marketer is that it is easier to create
associations when stimuli resemble or are similar to each other in some way
(Shimp, 1991). For instance, since blue is calming, it may be easier to associate
blue with a massage service than with a video arcade, which is more arousing.
When consumers are aware of the connection between the stimuli, they are
more likely to be conditioned (Shimp, 1991). Therefore, marketers should make
associations very clear to consumers. Subtlety is not recommended.
Color preferences for low versus high involvement products Consumers color
There is evidence to suggest that decision making and attitudes differ in high choices
versus low involvement situations. This too can be explained via associative
learning. Involvement has been defined as a situation of personal relevance to an
individual. More specifically, a product is considered highly involving when the
purchase of the product is relevant and the consumer may be more motivated to
make a careful purchase decision. The construct involvement has also been 85
described as the importance of the purchase (Zaichkowsky, 1986). Involvement
has received a considerable amount of attention in the consumer behavior
literature because decision making is believed to differ for low versus high
involvement products (Beatty and Kahle, 1988). Specifically, Zaichkowsky (1986)
suggests that involvement may lead a consumer to believe the product class is
important, prefer a particular brand and spend more time evaluating alternatives.
Researchers have suggested that in high involvement decision making,
emotional response, as well as a myriad other factors, may play a role in the
purchase decision. High involvement products may be important to the
consumer because they are associated with increased risk, economic or social,
have some emotional appeal or have a functional significance.
Conversely, low involvement decision making may be done in a relatively
automatic manner. Often in low involvement decision making, simple factors
may influence a decision in the absence of more important criteria and
consumers form attitudes based on very little information (Kardes, 1988).
Therefore, color, a relatively unimportant product attribute, may actually play
a more important role in low versus high involvement decision making,
particularly when competing products are not seen as vastly different. A few
studies indicate that color may affect consumer behavior for low involvement
products more than for high involvement products. Specifically, Middlestadt
(1990) found that consumers who were exposed to a picture of a pen, a low
involvement product, illuminated with blue light preferred it more than those
who saw the pen illuminated with red light. However, there were no differences
in attitudes toward a perfume, a seemingly higher involvement product, that
was illuminated in red and blue. Further, Martindale and Moore (1988) found
that people prefer typical over atypical colors for objects. Typical colors are
more likely to be learned for high involvement products than low involvement
products because of the use of standard colors for high involvement products in
advertising, as suggested by Lee and Barnes (1990). Leibman (1989) agrees that
the individual may develop a contingency set of color preferences that are
more representative of the appropriateness of different objects (p. 652).
Therefore, color preference may be less important than conforming to learned
associations, particularly in high involvement purchasing, because of the higher
risk factor in the purchase of high involvement products.
In the Holmes and Buchanan (1984) study no correlation was found between
favorite color and color choices for various products such as automobiles,
carpets, sofas, suits, shirts, slacks, chairs and walls. These products may be
high involvement products which are not believed to be directly affected by
JMP: color preference. Conversely, Walsh et al. (1990) found that color significantly
AMS affected childrens preferences for candies, a relatively low involvement product.
5,3 The implication is that although the color of a high involvement product is an
important decision factor, a persons choice of that color may not be based on
color preference. Rather, a more complex formulation of associations which lead
to an emotional response occurs when a consumer considers a high involvement
86 product for purchase. Conversely, since an evaluation of attributes is less
important in low involvement decision making, a highly noticeable, yet
relatively unimportant, factor such as color preference may be more important
in choosing a low involvement product.

Marketing implications
The associative learning framework provides an explanation for a variety of the
effects noted in the color research literature. Consumers learn color
associations, which lead them to then prefer certain colors for certain product
categories. People in different cultures are exposed to different associations and
develop color preferences based on their own cultures associations. Marketers
can use this knowledge in a number of different ways. First, they can identify
the associations that consumers have formulated for their product category and
attempt to match appropriate colors. This may be more effective for high
involvement products, which are accompanied by social risk and may have
higher levels of social conformity. With low involvement products consumers
may be more risky in their color choices and marketers may have the most
opportunity to create associations of their own. This aspect of associative
learning is of most importance to marketers who can choose the colors they
want associated with their products and, by using associative learning
mechanisms in promotional activities, can create the desired associations.
Marketers should consider their products color, the color of packaging and any
colors that are associated with the product in advertising, as part of their
marketing strategy. These factors are well within the control of the marketer.
Color meanings can also be created by marketers by pairing color with images in
advertising that represent the qualities of the brand. Using color as a cue can be a
potentially strong association, particularly when it is unique to a particular
brand. However, even when firms share a color, consumers may develop a
different set of associations based on the product because color is context specific.
Firms may desire to use color as a point of differentiation and a trademark can
help protect a brands proprietary color and its related associations.

Suggestions for future research


Color research in the field of marketing still appears to be in its infancy.
Therefore, studies which examine a variety of measurements related to color
should be considered. Specifically, more research on color preference should be
conducted to determine its strength as a factor in purchase behavior. Further,
color may have an effect on other variables that may be found in a marketing
context. Specifically, color may affect memory for objects or products (Siple and
Springer, 1983; Davidoff, 1991), which could affect advertising, packaging and Consumers color
display strategies. Finally, combinations of colors may have different effects choices
than single colors, though this relationship has not been studied in a marketing
context (Davidoff, 1991). Technology now makes it possible to create color
effects by layering colors over one another, creating a potentially new color
palette (Montague, 1997).
In conclusion, associations consumers formulate can be powerful predictors 87
of their behavior. Understanding how associations manifest themselves in
peoples product color choices requires the examination of a complex network of
associations that individuals formulate as a means of survival. In many cases,
consumers may be able to articulate associations and provide their reasoning
for choosing particular colors. In this way marketers can help clarify their own
color strategies. However, in cases where marketers are unable to identify
existing associations, an opportunity exists to develop new color associations
for products that the marketer can control.

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