Change Colors, Change Behavior

For years, psychologists have studied the impact of color on how we behave. Does it make us eat more? Does it make us more productive? And most importantly for businesses, does it make us buy more?

Research conducted by the Institute for Color Research, a division of Color Communications Inc, (CCI), and the University of Winnipeg shows that within 90 seconds, most consumers make an unconscious judgment about something’s worth to us, its trustworthiness, and so on. And that 62 to 90 percent of that judgment is based upon color. (opens as a PDF)

But just exactly what that judgment is is up for discussion. There seems to be some inconsistency in what psychologists say is the business effect of certain colors. One expert, M. Farouk Radwan, MSc., author for claims that blue colors in a restaurant can result in a loss of appetite because subconsciously, many people associate blues with toxins. Another report on which references studies form the Color Association of the U.S. says that blue is a good color to calm people and make them stay longer and hopefully buy more when dining out. So what is a marketer to believe?

Various studies from various groups also show conflicting ideas about the use of red in restaurants. Some color theorists and psychologists say red triggers appetites and others saying that it creates too much energy, and increases your heart rate to the point that people lose their appetite, leave sooner due to increased energy levels, and thus eat less. Regardless, many fast food restaurants, rightfully so or wrongfully so, use accents of red to stimulate energy and trigger appetites in the hope of getting people in to eat, then out soon to make room for others.

The importance of color and its impact on brands and business goes far beyond the physiological effect on appetite and food consumptions. The big question is how does color impact attitudes toward brands and shopping behavior? And in the case of red and blue as dominant brand colors – logo, retail environment and online shopping presence – does it really matter

Rajesh Bagchi, an associate professor of marketing in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech conducted a study to compare the sales influence of blue vs. red. Bagchi and associate, Amar Cheema from the University of Virginia, studied sales on red websites vs. those on predominantly blue websites, as well as sales within predominantly blue and red retail environments. Very interestingly, their research found that the likelihood of a purchase is lower with red backgrounds than blue ones. When you compare sales of Walmart, a blue brand, with Target, a very red brand, you have to wonder:

  • Walmart revenue in 2014: $467.30 billion
  • Target revenue in 2014: $71.28 billion

Could it be that too much red in a retail setting makes us energetic and thus anxious to leave — like it supposedly does in restaurants, while blue, as suggested by one restaurant study, makes us relax and linger longer? I know which of these two big box powerhouses I linger in longer and purchase more from. And what’s most interesting is that consciously I prefer the one I linger in the least!

Beyond influencing food consumption and shopping behavior, colors play other important roles in other business settings. To start, colors are thought to influence how we perceive a brand’s attributes and values; which, in turn influence our interest in learning more about a brand or a product, and considering trial or purchase. For example, blue is solid in banking, as it’s the color of trust and intelligence. Green also does well in the financial services industry as, in our country, it represents wealth, money, stability and balance. However, in other countries and cultures, color meanings and influences can change.

Needless to say, choosing which colors are most likely to attract your core consumers, inspire them to engage with your message and hopefully impact shopping behavior among your customers can be nothing short of confusing.

Faber Birren, a pioneer in color research and author of “Color Psychology and Color Therapy,” helps minimize the chaos with a survey that reveals what people themselves say of the values and attributes they associate with various colors. Following is a summary of the colors respondents most associated with particular words:

  • Trust: Blue
  • Security: Blue
  • Speed: Red
  • Cheapness: Orange, with yellow as a close second
  • High Quality: Black
  • High Tech: Black with a small margin over blue and gray tied for second
  • Reliability: Blue
  • Courage: Purple and red
  • Fear/Terror: Red
  • Fun: Orange, with yellow as a close second

In some cases, these responses duplicate what color psychology experts tell us and in others not. For example, most charts showing moods associated with colors show orange as creativity, playful, innovative and fun; and yellow as logic, personal power and humor. Yet in our culture, it also represents caution, or represents the scene of a crime or dangerous event.

While it is fun to study the impact and influence of colors on how we eat, how we sleep (supposedly we sleep better in blue rooms), and our productivity levels, all that really matters is if and how color impacts how people perceive our brand and if that perception translates into sales.

Regardless of what color theory and research you go by when defining colors to present your brand’s attributes and values, the key is to acknowledge that color does indeed influence attitudes and behavior. And instead of choosing colors you like or that are trendy at the moment, take some time to study what colors really mean to consumers’ conscious and unconscious minds and choose those that reflect the personality you want to project to today’s consumers, and one that will last the test of trends and time to continue to appeal to like customers in the future.

Spend some time with your marketing team to identify the values, attributes and even personality traits with which you want your brand to be associated.

Choose traits that reflect the lifestyle, values and interests of your core consumer.

Google color wheel meanings. Study the many color mood charts and psychology reports on color and behavior to guide the choices you make for all things associated with your brand.

The right colors not only help influence attitudes, interest and shopping, but they can also influence engagement with your content on your website, social media and other branding materials. Even the best branding content can fall short of readership and conversion goals if it’s embraced by colors that create a different story than the content.

Author: Jeanette McMurtry

Jeanette McMurtry is a psychology-based marketing expert providing strategy, campaign development, and sales and marketing training to brands in all industries on how to achieve psychological relevance for all aspects of a customer's experience. She is the author of the recently released edition of “Marketing for Dummies” (Fifth Edition, Wiley) and “Big Business Marketing for Small Business Budgets” (McGraw Hill). She is a popular and engaging keynote speaker and workshop instructor on marketing psychology worldwide. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging B2B and B2C purchasers' unconscious minds which drive 90 percent of our thoughts, attitudes and behavior, and provide actionable and affordable tips for upping sales and ROI through emotional selling propositions. Her blog will share insights and tactics for engaging consumers' unconscious minds, which drive 90 percent of our thoughts and purchasing attitudes and behavior. She'll explore how color, images and social influences like scarcity, peer pressure and even religion affect consumers' interest in engaging with your brand, your message and buying from you. Reach her at

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