Color plays a huge role in how we decide what to eat, and marketers know it. In fact, package designers know more about color significance than we likely ever will, which is how they powerfully influence what we decide to buy. However, a basic knowledge of color science in food branding can help you make informed decisions as you shop.
Here's a guide to how colors are often used in food packaging, and the secret messages they contain.
- This is appetizing.
Red is universally used in food marketing. Red is an eye-catching color—eyes literally look to red first—and red stimulates emotional responses and memory triggers. Glance through the contents of your pantry and you'll likely notice that red is featured on almost every food label.
Red also supposedly triggers appetite, which explains why red accent walls are popular in kitchens and restaurants. Red is perhaps such a great color for food labeling because the color found in natural foods typically indicates ripe or sweet fruits, such as berries, tomatoes, and melons.
- This will make you happy.
Yellow is another common color in food marketing. As the "happiest" color, yellow indicates cheerfulness and optimism and general good feelings. The brain releases serotonin, the happy hormone, at the sight of yellow.
Given that eating is an emotional experience—satisfaction, happiness, comfort—food marketers capitalize on yellow’s feel-good power and use it liberally in branding. (And we're fans too; note the color of our cheery logo!)
- This is natural and healthy.
Until recently, green was not a popular color for food labels, perhaps as a result of green being found in nature as grass or leaves rather than prepared food. That is, until the day that sustainability initiatives, eco-friendly products, and organic kale eclipsed suburbs everywhere, with near-divine status granted to The Green Juice. Subsequently, the color green is now almost synonymous with health and well-being in food marketing, and labels commonly feature green hues alongside claims of wholesomeness or natural ingredients.
- This will satisfy you.
In a university nutrition class, my professor claimed that orange is used in food marketing alongside foods that are hearty and satisfying—“the working man’s food” or peasant fare.
While I’m not sure of her sources, it is true that many pizza joints, soup products, potato products, and breads feature orange branding (often paired with brown) on their labels.
- You have a good memory of this product.
Blue foods do not a happy customer make. Why? Because there are no natural blue foods. Researchers for a study in which participants ate steak and fries beneath special lighting found that when normal lighting revealed to participants that their steak was actually dyed blue, some felt physically ill. Blue is also an appetite suppressant, and some weight loss programs suggest eating on a blue plate to curb your serving size.
On the other hand, blue can be found in liberal amounts on snack food packaging, especially for chips and cookies. Example: Doritos and Oreos. This is because packaged snack foods were first released when baby boomers were children, and snacks were marketed for children with colors like blue, pink, and purple. Although now adults, snack “colors” are embedded in the baby boomer psyche, an association that they have passed on to their own children.
Color & Shopping
A study on the impact of color in marketing found that as many as 90% of shoppers make snap judgments about products based on color alone—in 90 seconds or less. But why grab a more expensive food item simply because it has more red on the label? It helps to be aware of these unspoken signals as you evaluate choices.
As you become more aware of colors in branding, you might begin to catch yourself choosing groceries as much for the colors on the label as for the ingredients in the food!
Have you ever thought about how food labeling influences your grocery shopping? Share your thoughts in the comments!