Psychology of Colour: Food & Drink

Written by Mariana Magalhães
14 January 20 | read

Psychology of Colour: Food & Drink

Whilst we don’t claim to know the slightest about psychology…we do know a little bit about branding and the immersive role that colour can have in packaging for food & drink. Let’s break down what each colour means and the reasons why you should mindfully consider the colours for your company’s products.

Why Colour Matters

“Colour is the single most important product-intrinsic sensory cue when it comes to setting people’s expectations regarding the likely taste and flavour of food and drink.”

Charles Spence

What Happens When Colour Is Underestimated?

By now you might be thinking…surely colour doesn’t matter that much, and there is some sort of truth to that. At the end of the day, the colour of your packaging is just colour, and ultimately it’s not a fundamental, deciding factor when purchasing an item.

However, in modern society, there’s an expectation for a certain flavour to match a particular colour. Subconsciously, audiences associate colours with certain flavours and moods. It’s important brands and products are aware of these, in order to avoid audience disassociation and cause disruption that can affect sales in the long-term.

‘Colour creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavour that is often impossible to dislodge.’

Harris G. in “Colorless food? We blanch.”
The New York Times 2011

Statistically speaking, audiences prefer products that fit their expectations:

” (…) people prefer foods and beverages that taste as they expect them to taste (that is, people do not like surprises, especially when it comes to the stimuli that enter the mouth, and hence have the potential to poison them)”.

“‘Anything’ and ‘Whatever’ beverages promise a surprise, every time.”
Press release 2007.

Colour is then part of the sensory information that pre-dates psychology itself and was used to keep us alive many moons ago – thanks amygdala. Now that we looked at possible reasons to consider the meaning of colour within your food & drink product, let’s dive into what specific colours mean, shall we?

Red

Red and yellow are famously known for being associated with fast food: Mc Donald’s, Burger King, KFC and In-and-out are all examples of fast-food restaurants that use these colours as part of their branding. And rightly so… Red stimulates and excites, and can actually heighten nerve impulses and increase the heart rate. 

Known to enhance appetite and stimulates a physical response, red can also be associated with passion and love hence being frequently used by marketers and branding experts across many different brands.

Additionally, red also can hint at sweetness, due to human’s association to strawberry, berries and other sweet fruit. Scientists Johnson and Clydesdale‘s study revealed that consumers’ perceived perceptions of sweetness were higher when they added red colouring to cherry or strawberry flavoured drinks.

Flavours associated with red: strawberry, cherries

Moods associated with red: passion, excitement

Blue

The colour blue, just like water, is associated with freshness and cleanliness. The blue colour also tends to be associated with the cold as well, so great if you’re promoting a chilled product. Blue can also evoke a sense of serenity and relaxation hence being used for baby products and even for medicinal or/and health-focused products with healing benefits.

Recently, we’ve seen the colour blue also connoting with low-calorie products as we’ve mentioned in the last blog: Lunch! 2019 Event – Brand & Products Highlights with the branding of PRO2GO.

Blue can, however, suppress appetite and reduce hunger so do use this colour cautiously.

Fun fact: a study dating back to the 1970s, where consumers reported a loss of appetite and some even became ill when they were presented with a steak that was dyed blue with food colouring, despite the product being perfectly edible. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, darker shades of blue can carry a meaning of royalty, luxury/lavish feel and even communicate a high-end look. Especially when paired with metallics such as gold or silver.

Flavours associated with blue: blueberries, water.

Mood associated with blue: tranquillity, relaxation, freshness, medicinal, lavishness and hunger reduction.

Yellow

According to Hard, yellow is the fastest colour to be processed by the human brain.

Yellow connotes different meanings, for one, yellow is an appetite stimulant, just like red. Often being paired together, as mentioned above in fast-food restaurant’s branding.

Besides being an appetite stimulant, yellow also has a very optimistic feel to it. Perhaps because of its resonance with the sun’s electric energy, yellow transmits a sense of positivity and happiness.

“Tends to make people feel cheerful and optimistic”

(Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, 1999). 

“Studies actually show that when you look at the colour yellow, the brain releases Serotonin (the ‘feel-good chemical’), which could be used to make consumers feel good about what they are buying,” explains Hart.

Yellow is also associated with creativity. This makes it a great colour to use for innovative products – a designers dream!

Flavours associated with yellow: fries, honey,

Moods associated with yellow: creativity, energy, positiveness, cheerfulness

Green

Green is the main colour associated with being fresh, healthy, natural, organic or vegetarian, and is now a symbol of health and well-being.

Perhaps one of the main colours that its meaning is immediately recognised. Green immediately resonates with nature and health…anyone else think instantly of spinach?..nope? Just me.

If your products are made with natural ingredients or have health benefits associated with them then Green is the colour for your food & drink packaging!

Another association with green is whether a product is produced ecologically and is environmentally friendly.

In food marketing, green is the perfect choice if you want to emphasize or make a claim about natural ingredients as the colour can be subconsciously interpreted as eco-friendly and healthy (think veggies).

With that being said, green also carries some negative notes as it can be seen as unappetizing, especially among children. Also, Heinz, we havent forgotten about your green ketchup.

Flavours associated with green: veggies

Mood associated with green: freshness, environmentally-conscious, healthiness.

White

White portrays feelings of cleanliness, purity, and simplicity, and when used in packaging usually makes people think that the product does not contain many ingredients.

It is also popular with consumers when you package white-coloured products such as milk, soft cheeses, yoghurt, cream etc; it is appropriate and can give the impression of being natural and fresh.

A recent study noted, white can also be associated with salt when it comes to food products: “with 7 of the 51 participants choosing this colour every time), yellow for sour (10/51) and white for salty (15/51)”.

White can also connect with sophistication when used solely (without other colour pairings) in a minimalist style.

Flavours associated with green: yoghurt, milk, salty flavours

Moods associated with white: Freshness, pureness, innovation, cleanliness, sophistication.

Black

Black connotes ideas of luxury and exclusivity.

Higher-end brands tend to use black and/or darker colours in their packaging as to connote sophistication and elegance.

Black is frequently used within workout food & drink packaging due to the intensity that the colour denotes.

For the same reason, black is also very much used to associate with alcohol or alternative drinks with caffeine such as monster energy.

Flavour-wise, black is traditionally associated with bitter flavours: “black, and brown were associated with a bitter taste”.

Interestingly, in the marketing world, black is used to target a predominantly male audience. Maybe for its regular association with sexiness.

Flavours associated with black: Rum, peppercorns, bitter flavours

Moods associated with black: Elegance, sophistication, alternative, masculine

Brown & Earth Tones

Earth and brown tones hint at wholesome and natural. Brown is very much used to communicate ideas of eco-friendliness, being used more frequently in natural food products.

Also used to market vintage looking products or products in which men are the target audience, as it is also a prevalent masculine colour.

Earth tones and brown are both colours that have seen a resurgence in branding across the latest years. Perhaps due to the growing movement focused on sustainability and environmentally-friendly products.

Flavours associated with brown: coffee, chocolate

Mood associated with brown: alternative, rich, intense, earthy.

Purple

Purple is associated with indulgence and luxury.

It is also linked with spirituality and imagination. Although because of it, purple is also associated with religion. If your product is rich in some department you might want to consider the colour purple to express it.

Flavours associated with purple: berries, acai, grapes.

Mood associated with purple: elitism, lavish, luxury.

And we’ve reached the end!

Hope this helped clarified the meaning of colours in packaging and branding for the food & drink industry.

Shoot us any question you might have in regards to any colour of the rainbow and we’ll try our best to answer it.

For actual psychological facts…please see your local phycologist.

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