One of the most powerful tools in a designer’s wheelhouse, color owes much of its might to its ability to speed messages about packaged products to shoppers. “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” Bill Goodwin, founder of Goodwin Design Group, opines. “When you walk into a Walmart, Target or even a grocery store, there are hundreds or thousands of packages and you can zero in on three so quickly.”
Goodwin says that recall is aided by category “norms.” These norms include where certain products are usually located in a store and the brand colors, and consumers learn these norms at an early age.
“By five or six, kids start to have all of the norms all defined,” Goodwin says. “But if you put an iPad in front of a kid who is two or three but has never had one, they still can pick it up. So why should we expect anything different?”
A living language
That’s because some color cues used for packaged goods hearken back to a person’s first associations, such as the sky and ocean. “You get quite a lot of blue, bright green and bright yellow in household products because they’re mostly associated with cleanliness, the sea, the earth, the sky and all that,” Stergios Bititsios, associate director, packaging and design, at MMR Research Worldwide, explains.
And the use of the color of sea and sky travels far beyond the household products aisle. Goodwin notes that “Big Blue,” technology company IBM, used the positive associations with the color to brand its products and services. “IBM used consumers’ perception of the sky and ocean as things that have always been there,” he explains. “The thinking is that blue means permanent therefore this brand is stable and solid. This went on to influence our perception of what blue means in the food aisle.”
Tom Newmaster, partner at William Fox Munroe Inc., adds, “There’s a sense of trust with blue so it makes sense for heritage brands. It represents security.”
Goodwin points out that blue can also help a consumer make sense of a brand that started with just one flavor and then expanded. Because of blue’s association with permanence and heritage, a brand can help loyal fans find the flavor they grew up by including blue in its packaging.
Like blue, black has a longstanding meaning to the shopping public. “Black always has been synonymous with expensive upscale, luxury,” says Newmaster.
In The Wall Street Journal article, “Packaging Noir: Shampoo, Beer, Gelato All Wear Black,” Suzanne Vranica notes the wide breadth of packaged goods verticals using black to say premium—from solid air fresheners in black cone packages to feminine care products.
At the other end of the spectrum, Newmaster says, the messaging is not as black-and-white.
“It seems like everything’s been thrown up in the air,” he remarks. “White used to represent generic then it was upscale then it came back to private label.”
“But then, I think about [premium coffee brand] Starbucks’ redesigned packaging,” he adds. “When Starbucks redid their coffee packaging, they went to white. I know there was some pushback initially, but then I think they did the right thing. They went for shelf impact in an already confusing category that had color just everywhere.”
And when you consider kids’ growing influence in shopping decisions, color messaging gets even more complex. “We did a shop-along with a bunch of kids and a couple of our clients from a big candy company,” Goodwin recalls. “We saw 22 kids in three shifts and asked them, what green means in gum and candies. For chewy candy, green didn’t necessarily mean lime, strawberry or watermelon. Instead of, seeing color as a cue for a specific fruit flavor, the kids told the researchers that the color indicated that they were about to taste something sour.”
That’s why consumer researchers such as Bititsios say it’s so important to test color strategies for brands. “It requires experimentation,” he remarks. “Brand owners need to be open to change but at the same time employ the right methodologies and the right tools to understand how far they can stretch the design, how far they can go with it without hurting the key asset, which is the brand.”
No risk, no reward
“We’re hearing from clients that they are seeing a sea of sameness out there and are looking for us to make intelligent color choices,” John Nunziato, founder and creative director at Little Big Brands, says.
This is making some brands more willing to try less conventional colors. “Health care brands are using color gamuts that are on the brighter side, almost on the florescent side,” Nunziato explains. “Their products are for a consumer who’s probably not feeling well and just needs to find the product and get back home, get in their pajamas and feel better.” His own agency used this strategy when redesigning packaging for Contac, which includes a bright and light blue for the liquid version of the cold medicine.
These color choices are more viable options today because printing technology has gotten better, with more package printers offering expanded gamut offerings for process color and more options for giving spot colors more spark.
“Some iconic brands have discovered the power of the new printing technologies,” Bititsios says. “Heineken has been using this green color for years. It’s a brand signature; it’s important. But Heineken kept up with the time and updated its green. The color’s more bright; it’s more modern. So the brand modernized the packaging without actually sacrificing any of the brand equities.”
Sometimes you can even use a category color and make it your own. “A color can start as a trend in a category and then someone uses it in a way where it becomes theirs,” Newmaster says. “Nickelodeon is a good example. Pantone 021 Orange always represented cheer and usually a kid’s product. But Nickelodeon hit the market with all these licensed products packaged in this orange and “owned” that orange. Then designers shied away from the orange because it could make your brand seem like it was trying to look like Nickelodeon and
not do its own thing.”
Little Big Brands tries to avoid this problem for its clients with a more custom approach. Nunziato explains, “We almost never use CMYK unless we’re dealing with a photograph.” Pamela Long, partner and director of client services at Little Big Brands, adds, “More than ever, clients are trying to separate themselves from retail store brands. One of the ways that we can really help brands do that is by creating custom colors for them.”
“We’re seeing and using flourishes of color with fine details that aren’t necessarily directly tied to the brand but speak to an expression of the brand,” says Goodwin. “You see it on the Lean Cuisine packaging that came out a year or two ago, you see it all over Clairol Herbal Essences’ packages. It’s almost like a jewel filigree detail that’s just an embellishment but it gives you another opportunity to add color that differs from the trend at the other end of the spectrum where packages have a solid flood of color, white or black. These little details allow you to add layers of visual communication about flavor, scent or occasion.”
Creating design systems with options is compulsory at Newmaster’s agency, no matter how many colors are being used by current SKUs. “When we’re working on a design project, and I know there’s as little as five flavors, I always say, ‘With this initial design, we know the colors we have to use and not use whether they be brand or category specific or flavor specific. But what if the client does a line extension someday? Let’s make sure we build the color palette for 20 products.’ Don’t design yourself in a corner.”