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Color carries meaning and can influence consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many disciplines, such as neuroscience, psychophysics, visual cognition, and biology have used new technologies to gain insights in understanding the complexities of color perception, yet there exists relatively little research in the field of marketing. This paper aims to reestablish the importance of color research in marketing, draw attention to the complex nature of this research, and to fuel further investigation and the development of new insights about color as it relates to marketing. The authors offer an integrated conceptual framework centered on the embodied and referential meanings of color and highlight the complexities and nuances that researchers must consider in order to develop this area. Insights from and gaps in the extant literature are highlighted to present a set of questions and propositions for future research in this area of investigation.

Color is all. When color is right, form is right. Color is everything, color is vibration like music; everything is vibration.

Marc Chagall, Russian-French artist

There is an incredible number of people who fight against the use of colours—but there are also many people who fight against common sense.

Verner Panton in Lidt om Farver (Notes on Colour), 1997

In one of the most famous cinematic moments, Dorothy opens the cottage door and stands transfixed by the colorful landscape before her. This scene, which contrasts the magical and vibrant world of Oz with the drab sepia-toned vision of Kansas, offers a fitting metaphor for the modern consumer as Dorothy. Although once they witnessed only a dull world of single color choices, one-color logos, and isomorphic product colors, consumers now have access to multiple colored versions of products and unique color choices, enabled by technological advances and lowered costs of color manufacturing. Consumers can choose products in various colors to fit and express their personality, match their home décor, or even just play around with a new look.

Some of the best evidence of color's changing and increasingly important role appears in the modern-day Oz of shopping malls, where brands such as Apple, Dell, and GE display a wide array of color choices for laptops, mobile phones, and even toasters and refrigerators. Not long ago, these products conformed to color category norms: gray and black. In this area, among others, marketers are yielding power to consumers, addressing their demands, and allowing them to customize products to fit their own unique needs (Deng, Hui, & Hutchinson, 2010; Moreau & Herd, 2010).

Despite the pivotal role of color in consumers’ daily lives though, scarce marketing research addresses this topic. Oftentimes practitioners are hesitant to explore using different colors (Rawsthorn, 2010) and many confess that they lack updated theoretical knowledge upon which to base their decisions (Gorn, Chattopadhyay, Tracey, & Dahl, 1997). Technological advances have allowed other disciplines—such as neuroscience, psychophysics, visual cognition, and biology—to gain new insights in understanding the complexities of color perception using new populations and/or new methods such as neuroimaging (e.g., fMRI, ERP, MEG), eye-tracking, or modeling (computational or mathematical; Shevell & Kingdom, 2008). In contrast, research in the marketing literature pertaining to color has remained relatively silent, even dormant, on advancements in color research over the last decade. As evidence, please see Table 1 for a summary review of major research in this domain organized by area of study. Furthermore, much of the color research in marketing focuses solely on a color's hue (e.g., red, green, blue) and neglects to investigate its other two dimensions, saturation and value. Saturation refers to the intensity or amount of pigment in a color and value refers to its lightness or darkness.

Table 1. Summary Review of Major Color Research in the Marketing Literature Organized by Area
Authors (Year), JournalAreaIndependent VariablesDependent VariablesMethodologyMajor Findings
  1. This table and related discussion in the text summarizes research in which color is a considered the focal variable. This table and discussion are not meant to be exhaustive of all research that may include color as a minor variable of interest. JA = Journal of Advertising, JAMS = Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, JBR = Journal of Business Research, JCR = Journal of Consumer Research, JM = Journal of Marketing, JMR = Journal of Marketing Research, JMTP = Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, JR = Journal of Retailing, Mgt. Science = Management Science, Mktg Theory = Marketing Theory, ML = Marketing Letters, MSI = Marketing Science Institute, P&M = Psychology & Marketing.

Gorn, Chattopadhyay, Yi, and Dahl (1997), Mgt. ScienceAdvertisingHue (red vs. blue), chroma (saturation), and valueAttitude toward ad, attitude toward brand, excitement, and relaxationExperiment; print ads using Munsell color systemAds with higher saturation induced feelings of excitement and in turn increased likability. High value also produced greater liking for the brand, which was mediated by feelings of relaxation. Findings for hue failed to reach statistical significance.
Lohse and Rosen (2001), JAAdvertisingColor (full color vs. black), graphics (photograph or line art), ad size, and orderQuality, credibility, attitude toward ad, and attitude toward advertiserExperiment; print adsColor can attract reader attention and signal quality. Differences occurred across product categories.
Mehta and Zhu (2009), ScienceAdvertisingHue (red vs. blue)Reaction time, preference, recall, creativity score, motivation (accuracy vs. speed)Experiment; computer displays with HSL color spaceRed activated an avoidance motivation, which increased attention, memory, and favorable evaluations of prevention-focused ads. Alternatively, because it activated an approach motivation, blue led to favorable evaluations of ads that highlighted positive product benefits.
Meyers-Levy and Peracchio (1995), JCRAdvertisingAd color (full color, relevant claims highlighted, black and white), resource demands (high vs. low), and type of claim (functional vs. image)Attitude toward product, positive/negative thoughts, and recallExperiment; print adsColor can be a persuasive heuristic processing cue for less-motivated consumers; effectiveness for highly motivated consumers depends on demand and availability of processing resources.
Babin, Hardesty, and Suter (2003), JBRAtmosphericsWall color (orange vs. blue) lighting (bright vs. soft), and item priceAffective evaluation, excitement, fairness, store patronage, and purchase intentionsScenario-based experiment; description of store wall colorInteraction of color (orange/blue) and light (soft/bright) affected purchase intentions and price fairness. Findings suggest that effects of color, lights, and price on behavioral intentions are mediated by the cognitive and affective reactions they create.
Bellizzi and Hite (1992), P&MAtmosphericsHue (red vs. blue)Purchase rates, shopping time, and feelings (pleasure, dominance, arousal)Experiment; color slides projected on a wallImportance of affective component of color. Blue (vs. red) resulted in more simulated purchases, fewer purchase postponements, and a stronger inclination to shop and browse.
Bellizzi, Crowley, and Hasty (1983), JRAtmosphericsHue (red, yellow, green, blue, white)Approach orientation, physical attraction, and perceptions of store environment and productsExperiment; fabric-covered wall panelsCool colors created a more relaxed shopping environment and increased purchases. Warm colors increased physical attraction.
Chebat and Morrin (2007), JBRAtmosphericsHue (cool vs. warm) and culture (French, Anglo)Mood (pleasure and arousal), environmental quality, product quality, and hedonic shopping valueField study; Visual mall décor elementsColor affected perceptions of quality, but not mood. The effects of atmospheric décor may go through cognitive, rather than or in addition to affective, routes.
Crowley (1993), MLAtmosphericsHue (red, yellow, green, blue)Environment and merchandise qualityExperiment; color slides projected on a wallResults point to a two-dimensional response to color. Overall, longer wavelengths (closer to red) are more arousing (activation dimension) and shorter wavelengths (closer to blue) are viewed as more pleasant (evaluation dimension).
Bottomley and Doyle (2006), Mktg TheoryBranding—logo designHue and product type (functional vs. sensory-social)Color appropriateness and functional vs. social-sensory benefitsExperiment; printed stimuliIn a classification of “functional” and “social-sensory,” affect increased when color type matched the product type.
Labrecque and Milne (2012), JAMSBranding—logo designHue, saturation, and valueBrand personality, purchase intent, likability, familiarityExperiment; Web-based stimuli with HSB color space, and calibrated monitorsAll three color components influenced brand personality. Logo color and shape influenced brand likability. Matching of package color and brand personality profile increased purchase intent.
Labrecque and Milne (forthcoming), MLBranding—logo designLogo color (main and accent colors)Brand equity, product category color normsCalculated homogeneity scores with 281 real brand logosProvides evidence of existence of visual product category norms. Adhering to color norms may be beneficial for product categories containing a dominant leader, especially high-involvement categories.
Garber, Burke, and Jones (2000), MSI Working PaperBranding—package designColor similarity of brand's packaging to redesigned package, and consistency of package color's meaning with originalBrand consideration, likelihood of purchase, time spent examining brand, and time spent shoppingExperiment; computer simulated shopping environmentPackage color novelty increased purchase consideration. Differences were found by product category and for shoppers who were not brand loyal.
Miller and Kahn (2005), JCRBranding—product color namingColor name (typicality and specificity), and order (color picture presented before/after color name)Satisfaction, trustworthiness of manufacturer, and likelihood to purchaseExperiment; printed color swatchesWhen consumers encountered an atypical name (e.g., Cookie Monster Blue vs. Bright Blue) they engaged in additional elaboration, which increased satisfaction with the product.
Skorinko, Kemmer, Hebl, and Lane (2006), P&MBranding—product color namingFancy vs. Generic Color NamePreference, purchase intent, and willingness to payExperiment; computer displaysLabeling a color with a fancy name (e.g. mocha) vs. a generic name (e.g., brown) increased liking, purchase intention, and willingness to a pay for a product.
Garber, Hyatt, and Starr (2000), JMTPFood marketingColor (characteristic, uncharacteristic, clear) and labeling (correct, incorrect, ambiguous)Taste perception (refreshing, tart, sweet), flavor, expensive, and overall preferenceExperiment; sampling fruit-flavored beveragesColor affected identification and flavor perceptions of both congruently and incongruently colored beverages.
Hoegg and Alba (2007), JCRFood marketingColor (natural vs. darker), taste (sweetness level), price, region (Florida vs. California), and brand label labels.Taste of stimuli (different vs. same) and preferenceExperiment; sampling orange juiceColor cues dominated taste cues. Participants perceived a significantly greater difference in the taste of two identical samples with different color than two different samples with the same color.
Gorn, Chattopadhyay, Sengupta, and Tripathi (2004), JMRInternetHue (red, yellow, blue), chroma (saturation), value, and number of exposures (1 vs. 2)Relaxation, perceived download speed, attitude toward Web site, and likelihood to recommend.Experiment; Web-based stimuli with HSB color spaceBackground color of a Web site affected perceived loading time. For each dimension, color affected relaxation, which led to a change in perceived quickness. Perceived quickness affected user evaluations and likelihood to recommend to others.
Kaltcheva and Weitz (2006), JMInternetArousal (warm vs. cool color, saturation, and complexity), and motivation (goal oriented or recreational)Pleasantness and purchase intentionExperiment; computer displaysColor is not the main focus, however both hue and saturation are a central component of the arousal manipulation. Arousal and motivational orientation had an interactive effect on shopping behavior, which was mediated by pleasantness.

The goal of the current review paper is to reestablish the importance of color research in marketing and consumer behavior and to fuel further investigation and the development of new insights about color as it relates to a consumer perspective. As a starting point, the extant literature is reviewed to generate a better understanding of how consumers perceive color and its influence on decision making. Following a brief discussion of the historical role and importance of color in marketing, an integrated conceptual framework that highlights the influence of the embodied and referential meanings of color is presented. The paper concludes with a review of color research in a variety of marketing areas, while highlighting the complexities of color research, and offering and a set of viable propositions and questions for future research.


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Historically, color has been thought to serve a primarily functional role; its use as an aesthetic tool is relatively recent (Birren, 1988; Gage, 1993). Nearly every race, religion, and culture has definite ideas about the importance and application of color and has used it to differentiate and attach meaning to objects. For example, religious and governmental bodies use color to denote power and social roles. Rare and expensive blue and indigo pigments were reserved for royalty and for the depiction of important religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary. Likewise, catholic cardinals and senators in ancient Rome were characterized by their scarlet garb.

Marketers tend to use color similarly for advertisements (Gorn et al., 1997; Lohse & Rosen, 2001; Meyers-Levy & Peracchio, 1995), package design (Garber, Burke, & Jones, 2000), product customization and design (Deng, Hui, & Hutchinson, 2010; Moreau & Herd, 2010), logos (Bottomley & Doyle, 2006), and store atmospherics (Kotler, 1973) to grab consumers’ attention (Schindler, 1986), offer cues about product attributes, and differentiate brands from competitors. In this sense, color becomes an important component of a brand's visual equity and the value derived from this “look and feel” contributes to brand recognition and image (Lightfoot & Gerstman, 1998). As does a carefully chosen brand name, color carries intrinsic meaning that becomes central to the brand's identity (Schmitt & Simonson, 1997), which enables consumers to use color cues to assess products and make decisions. Color is a tool that allows objects to become more nuanced and meaningful, through its richness and beauty (Rawsthorn, 2010). Although color is clearly an important issue across various areas of marketing, the academic research dealing with color still has many gaps and numerous research questions remain unaddressed.

Arguably, understanding the role that color plays in marketing becomes more pivotal as technological advances in methods to create color increase the variety of consumer offerings and allow for more innovative uses of color, including more efficient screens on electronic devices (e.g., smart phone, tablets) and new color choices for consumer packaged goods (e.g., Vitamin Water, Heinz ketchup). The importance and availability of color choices seems to have evolved over time, such that during the Renaissance, individuals made no distinction between red and purple possibly labeling a range of similar hues with the same name (Gage, 1993). Contrast this with today's world in which not only are they clearly distinct colors, but also exist multiple names for their seemingly countless variations. Perhaps the most compelling summary is the evolution of Crayola's crayon boxes, from an initial offering of 8 colors choices in 1903 to 48 colors in 1949 to 64 colors in 1958 to 72 colors in 1972 to 80 colors in 1990 to 96 in 1993 and then to the modern assortment of 120 different colors (Crayola LLC, 2009).


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Referential and Embodied Meaning

Aesthetic stimuli can convey two types of meaning that stimulate and shape consumer preferences. Aesthetic theorists assert that these two coexisting, yet distinct meanings can alter perceptions by communicating meaningful messages and associations (Zeltner, 1975, pp. 41–42). While research in this area has predominantly focused on music (Zhu & Meyers-Levy, 2005), recent work provides evidence that these two types of meanings are not confined to auditory stimuli, but also exist within visual stimuli; operating through similar principles and sharing similar consequences for consumers (Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2010).

One, referred to as embodied meaning, results from attributes embodied in the aesthetic stimulus, independent of context and the semantic content it may evoke (Zhu & Meyers-Levy, 2005; Zeltner, 1975, pp. 41–42). This meaning is driven by stimulation arising from properties within the stimulus and evokes hedonic or valenced feelings (Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2010). For example, the embodied meaning conveyed through a long wavelength color (e.g., red) can activate arousal through high stimulation.

While coexisting with embodied meaning, referential meaning emerges from the network of semantic associations or real-world concepts that are drawn out by exposure to aesthetic stimuli. Unlike embodied meaning, referential meaning is learned and dependent on contextual cues (Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2010; Zeltner, 1975, pp. 41–42). For example, the referential meaning conveyed by package design containing highly saturated colors can evoke playful feelings that are derived from the association of typical bright colors commonly linked with children's toys.

In examining reactions to color, marketing research has identified two dimensions that influence consumer perceptions based on the type of activation they elicit: arousal and evaluative (Crowley, 1993). In terms of stimulation, longer wavelengths (e.g., red) are consistently found to be more arousing than shorter wavelengths (e.g., blue), and have been noted to produce automatic physiological responses, such as increased brain activity and heart rate (Crowley, 1993). Evaluative reactions were found to be unrelated to arousal effects, yet able to induce attitude change (Crowley, 1993; Middlestadt, 1990). This research supports the notion that like other aesthetic stimuli, color influences through two distinct pathways; the arousal dimension is akin to embodied meaning, while the evaluative meaning is akin to referential meaning.

The conceptual model suggests a framework for how people's perceptions and experiences are influenced by these two types of meanings and affect subsequent behaviors, such as preference and choice (see Figure 1). The model also considers that influencers of color experience do not act in isolation; such interactions are depicted using arrows, which represent areas of interdependence. For instance, some learned color associations may represent a cognitive reinforcing or alteration of biologically based phenomena (Elliot, Maier, Moller, Friedman, & Meinhardt, 2007; Elliot et al., 2010). Likewise, color associations may vary by culture and learned color associations may also influence some cultural aspects.


Figure 1. Conceptual model: consumer color perception and evaluations.

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Biological Responses

As previously discussed, the embodied meaning of an aesthetic stimulus is characterized as intrinsic and context independent. Embodied meaning is not learned, but driven by stimulation evoked from attributes embodied in the aesthetic stimulus (Zhu & Meyers-Levy, 2005). Likewise, biological responses to color are not learned, but are present at birth. Explanations of these biological color reactions are grounded in the fact that color perception is a product of evolution and central to survival (Mollon, 1989). These cues have evolved from nature to provide information essential for survival and understanding phenomena. For example, certain flowers bloom in different colors to attract specific pollinators sensitive to that color. Likewise, color contributes to the protection and preservation of plants and animals; for example, color markings can indicate poison, designate gender, aid in camouflage, and display readiness for mating.

On a physiological level, color affects the production and release of hormones. Color perception stimulates the neural portion of the optical pathway to the hypothalamic brain region and into the pineal and pituitary glands, which control the entire endocrine system (Mahnke, 1996). Empirical work demonstrates the physiological effects of color in both animals and humans (see Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983 for a review), with varying effects on heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, muscle activation, blinking, palmar conductance, and brain waves. The physiological properties of certain wavelengths are used in medical treatments, such as in the case of infant jaundice where the skin is exposed to a specific wavelength of light, which alters the shape and structure of molecules in the blood (Mayo Clinic, 2011).

The phenomenon of synesthesia also supports the notion that colors have strong biological links to emotions and physical reactions. Synesthesia is a neurologically based experience in which the stimulation of one sense leads to the activation of an automatic and involuntary experience in another. For example, hearing a certain sound or pitch might induce the visualization of a specific color. Color–emotion synesthesia occurs when people see visual colors in response to affective stimuli (Cytowic, 1989; Ward, 2004).

Neuroscientists speculate that synesthesia is a conscious awareness of normal perception processes that occur subconsciously in everyone (Cytowic, 1989; Marks, 1987), which implies all humans are influenced by these multisensory experiences, but only a small percentage of the population is consciously aware of them. Empirical evidence supports the notion that such color connections are universally embedded. In studies dealing with color–emotion associations (Collier, 1996; Levy, 1984), participants often choose consistent pairings (e.g., yellow for cheerful) even across cultures (D'Andrade & Egan, 1974).


Color's embodied meanings are automatic, enduring, and evoke biological color reactions.

Learned Associations

While embodied meaning drives biological responses to color, referential meaning activates learned color associations. As previously discussed, referential meanings emerge from an individual's network of semantic associations. These networks of color associations are constructed as individuals encounter pairings of colors with particularly meaningful messages, concepts, objects, and experiences. These produce links between color and paired concepts throughout our lives.

According to connectionist memory models, people store semantic information in a complex network comprised of conceptual nodes and links; the nodes represent concepts, which take on activation values based on a weighted sum of their inputs from the environment and other linked nodes (McClelland, 1988). The links represent the pathways between the nodes and are the medium by which units interact. Links are weighted and may be both positive and negative so that a node can either excite or inhibit related nodes based on the strength and valence of their connections. As nodes become excited, the activation spreads to additional nodes through links; the resulting outcome is determined by the pattern of activation. The link weights are thought to represent knowledge and learning is conceptualized as the adjustment of weights (McClelland, 1988) as individuals use feedback to update associations (Janiszewski & Van Osselaer, 2000). Such learned associations and connectionist models have been used for understanding a wide range of phenomena, including emotion (Bower, 1981), brand associations (Janiszewski & Van Osselaer, 2000), memory for advertisements (Forehand & Keller, 1996), and language (McClelland & Rumelhart, 1981), among others.

Color associations have been the topic of significant study in the psychology literature (Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983). Although these studies are restricted in the number of colors and types of emotions and associations they test, the effects of color remain relatively consistent across studies, which provides some empirical evidence of systematic relationships (Elliot et al., 2007; Levy, 1984). Inconsistencies with findings can likely be attributable to weaknesses in the research design such as lack of control for value and saturation, blindness to the experiment, and contextual effects, among others (Elliot et al., 2007).

While consumers may have some awareness of color associations, oftentimes activation occurs without a person's conscious awareness or intention (Elliot et al., 2007; Horcajo, Briñol, & Petty, 2010). Just as other environmental cues can unconsciously affect attitudes and behaviors (Dijksterhuis, Smith, Van Baaren, & Wigboldus, 2005; Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2007), color likely operates as a nonconscious prime and thus has an automatic influence (Elliot et al., 2007) with the ability to activate different motivations (Mehta & Zhu, 2009) and concepts (Rubin, 2010).

In many cases though, marketing efforts can shape consumer's color associations. For example, marketers use colors to shape taste expectations in food, such as adding brown to color cola-flavored beverages and adding green to mint-flavored foods. Marketers also use colors to distinguish gender specifications (pink for girls and blue for boys). Product categories that become associated with certain colors in turn can affect product evaluations. For instance, the color green has been adopted as a marketing tool for environmentally conscious consumption; light pink has taken on a special meaning due to its ubiquitous use as the symbolic color of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer research foundation.

Color can provide a central aspect of a brand's visual identity and increase brand recognition (Skorinko, Kemmer, Hebl, & Lane, 2006) and likability (Labrecque & Milne, 2012), but marketers must take into account people's learned color meanings before they design product packages, especially if they plan to break with color product category norms (Labrecque & Milne, forthcoming). Poor color choices that challenge consumers’ learned associations may even contribute to a brand's failure, as in the case of Crystal Pepsi (Garber & Hyatt, 2003).


Color's referential meaning drives the activation of learned associations.


Learned color associations may represent a cognitive reinforcing or alteration of biologically based phenomena.

Cultural Influences

Since many color associations are learned, cultural aesthetic differences can alter product evaluations (Hoegg & Alba, 2008). However, while evidence suggests that cultural differences exist for many color associations (Block & Kramer, 2009; Madden, Hewett, & Roth, 2000), the magnitude of these differences is not well known, and evidence also supports the notion of intrinsic color meanings shared across cultures (D'Andrade & Egan, 1974; Fraser & Banks, 2004).

Yet through updating connection weights between nodes, cultural meanings can shift over time. For example, an experiment of color associations performed in 1941 with participants living in Jerusalem revealed that 86% of the sample had a strong negative association with the color yellow—the color was used by the German Nazis as a mandatory identifier for the Jewish people. A replication of the same experiment just 20 years later, with a new generation of Jewish participants, indicated that the negative association was reduced, occurring for only 41% of the sample (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972).

Furthermore, globalization and the increasing influence of Western culture, as spread by the global reach of U.S. television and the Internet, has had a key influence on cultural color meanings. An example of this is evidenced in fashion choices of Chinese brides, who traditionally would have worn red, but are now opting for white gowns akin to their American counterparts (Baker, 2009). It seems cultural lines are blurring in relation to color, as supported by recent work that indicates that cultural norms influence color preferences only when they are salient (Chattopadhyay, Gorn, & Darke, 2010).


Culture influences learned color associations.

Importance of Context

Since colors have many associations, context plays a critical role in determining the pattern of activation within the semantic network and subsequent results. Many connectionist models assume an interactive process where multiple cues compete to predict outcomes, such as in the interactive activation model, which is used to explain the importance of contextual effects in letter perception (McClelland & Rumelhart, 1981).

According to connectionist models, nodes have multiple links within memory networks, each with varying weights. The pattern of activation is dependent on competing cues and the weights of association between nodes (Janiszewski & Van Osselaer, 2000); consequently, context plays a significant role in determining the pattern of activation and outcome. Accordingly, feelings of attraction and excitement are more likely to result from seeing a woman wearing a red cocktail dress at a dinner party, whereas the sight of a red street sign should trigger outcomes of avoidance and danger. In this example, red is the key color in both situations, but contextual inputs, such as the object (dress vs. sign), location (party vs. road), and activity (socializing vs. driving) determine the pattern of activation. Likewise, blue is associated with both serenity and coldness (Mahnke, 1996), so using blue as a logo's primary color can elicit associations related to both cold (which is ideal for a frozen product) and serenity (which is ideal for a day spa). Similarly, black may communicate both luxury and sorrow (Mahnke, 1996); however, a black kitchen appliance seems unlikely to trigger a mourning-related association, since dishwashers have no natural connection to funerary rituals.

Recent empirical research in psychology supports this notion (Elliot et al., 2007; Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Red can activate different psychological associations in different contexts, such that in the context of intellectual achievement, red's connection to failure activates an avoidance motivation, which can impair a subsequent cognitive task (Elliot et al., 2007). In a social context though, red's connection to passion, love, and arousal activates an approach motivation and increases the attractiveness of a dating candidate (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). This research suggests that colors can trigger diametrically opposite associations, depending on the context of their use.


Contextual cues determine the activation of color associations through referential meaning.

Being cognizant of these multiple associations can enable marketers to carefully incorporate contextual cues in their messages and thereby prime desired associations. Of course, this effort demands a full understanding of color associations and contextual differences, which reinforces the complex nature of the color experience and the need for more empirical research.


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Aesthetics influence both affect and perceptions of quality (Page & Herr, 2002), and color is an important component of aesthetic design, as well as an area in which marketing managers have very limited theoretical guidance (Gorn et al., 1997). Companies spend substantial time and resources developing their color strategies, though most of this research remains secret due to competitive concerns (Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983). Despite its major role in decision making, a thorough understanding of the many cognitive and noncognitive reactions evoked through aesthetic design is absent from the literature (Hoegg & Alba, 2008).

Intriguing academic work with marketing implications began during the early part of the twentieth century, examining topics such as how color affects perceived package weight (Gunlach & Macoubrey, 1931; Payne, 1958) and taste perceptions (Pangborn, 1960). Most of this work appeared in psychology journals; studies in marketing journals came relatively later. Early marketing scholars mainly focused on advertising and retail store atmospherics (e.g., Babin, Hardesty, & Suter, 2003; Bellizzi & Hite, 1992; Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983; Gorn et al., 1997; Meyers-Levy & Peracchio, 1995), though later work shifted to include topics such as color affects related to food and online consumer behavior (e.g., Garber, Burke, & Jones, 2000; Gorn, Chattopadhyay, Sengupta, & Tripathi, 2004; Hoegg & Alba, 2007).

Complexity of Color Research

Due to the complexity of this area, much of the previous color research leaves many unanswered questions, warranting further investigation. For example, early research often fails to recognize the dual nature of visual stimuli, treating them purely as sensory phenomena, without recognizing their cognitive influence (Garber & Hyatt, 2003; Scott, 1994). In addition, much of this research splits colors into two broad categories: warm (e.g., red, yellow) and cool (e.g., blue, green). When colors get lumped together into these broad categories, additional hues tend to be neglected, which ignores the multitudinous subtleties of individual colors. Furthermore, many studies examined hue without considering the two other dimensions of color, saturation (intensity) and value (lightness). Yet, both of these dimensions are just as important, if not more so, than hue (Gorn et al., 1997; Labrecque & Milne, 2012; Valdez & Mehrabian, 1994). Moreover, because many studies lacked experimental controls for saturation and value, uncertainty exists about whether the results were driven by hue alone.

Color research is rife with complications that can make it nearly impossible to accurately make comparisons and produce replication if not properly controlled and reported (Valdez & Mehrabian, 1994). For example, many researchers have neglected to control for lighting conditions or did not follow and report standardized color models; some used additive models, which involve light being directly emitted from a source, such as a computer monitor, while others used subtractive models, which use pigments and dyes to produce color printing. Additionally, there exists a multitude of color spaces that can be used to precisely measure and produce color (e.g., HSL, HSV, Munsell), yet many studies do not follow a specific system or report specific values essential for replication. Still others used verbal color cues, fabric-covered walls, colored projector slides, or had participants read written scenarios for color stimuli.

As work continues in this area, it is imperative that researchers take these complexities into consideration. This review reveals that there are many opportunities for new work in this area and also for reinvestigations of past topics, which take into account color's complexities. Therefore, past color research in the marketing literature is next considered by topic (atmospherics, advertising, branding, food marketing, and the Internet; see Table 1) in order to identify research gaps, and offer directions for further research. This discussion summarizes marketing research in which color is a considered the focal variable and is not meant to be exhaustive of all research that may include color as a minor variable of interest. A full discussion of color research across myriad disciplines is beyond the aim and scope of this paper.


Color research in this area has had two major foci: (1) the importance of color versus black-and-white advertising and (2) the way that specific colors influence consumers’ moods and evaluations. In terms of color versus noncolor advertising, researchers have identified motivation as a key variable that influences advertising effectiveness and found that less-motivated consumers tend to use color as a persuasive heuristic processing cue; while among more motivated consumers, the effect of color is contingent on their ability to match available and required resources (Meyers-Levy & Peracchio, 1995). Research on Yellow Pages advertising found that in addition to attracting reader attention, color can signal the quality of products and services; however, this effect varied by product category, implying that the importance of color is variable in this context (Lohse & Rosen, 2001). Still, many questions remain such as


How stable and persistent are these effects of color on memory?


Can color on advertisements (vs. black-and-white) affect price perception and perceptions of other product attributes?


Does color interact with other advertising variables such as music, ad layout, magazine environment, and so forth?

Color offers information that influences both mood and product evaluations. Using Apter's (1976) two-dimensional arousal framework, researchers have found that ads using high-value colors induced greater feelings of relaxation; while ads with high saturation prompted feelings of excitement, both of which favorably influenced attitude toward the ad (Gorn et al., 1997). High value also produced greater liking for the brand. Others have found that the background color of advertisements can affect product evaluations and memory; red activated an avoidance motivation, which increased attention, memory, and favorable evaluations of prevention-focused ads, while blue led to favorable evaluations of ads that highlighted positive product benefits through an approach activation (Mehta & Zhu, 2009). Changes in ads’ background hues have also been shown to alter product perceptions, such as elegance and uniqueness (Middlestadt, 1990). Therefore:


In addition to hue, differences in saturation and value are likely to affect attention, memory, and product evaluations. Specifically, since saturation has a positive relationship with arousal, high saturation may increase memory for an advertisement.


Color is a key component of atmospherics; a great deal of color research therefore has focused on this area. Atmospherics, or “the effort to design buying environments to produce specific emotional effects in the buyer that enhance his purchase probability” (Kotler, 1973, p. 50), provide an important marketing tool that can exert a monumental influence on consumer behavior through visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile elements. Color is a highly salient visual element; from the interior to the exterior, display cases and signs, and even the uniforms of the store personnel, color considerations are manifest throughout the store. Atmospherics can influence purchase behavior in at least three ways: as an attention-getting medium, a message-creating medium, and an affect-creating medium (Kotler, 1973).

Experimental research generally suggests that cool-colored store environments are preferable to warm-colored environments (Babin, Hardesty, & Suter, 2003; Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983; Crowley, 1993). Warm colors (e.g., red) increase arousal, whereas cool colors (e.g., blue) tend to induce feelings of relaxation and perceptions of pleasantness (Bellizzi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983; Bellizzi & Hite, 1992). Bellizzi and Hite (1992) also provide evidence that hue-induced relaxation can increase simulated purchases, reduce purchase postponements, and create a stronger inclination to browse.

Color choices can be strategically used throughout different parts of the retail environment. If warm colors increase arousal and excitement (Crowley, 1993), perhaps using these colors at the checkout area may increase agitation and negatively affect consumers’ evaluations of the checkout time, similar to Web page loading times (Gorn et al., 2004). Even the uniforms of the service providers might influence perceived ease and time spent during the transaction. If so, a store such as Target, with its almost overwhelming saturated red atmosphere at the checkout area, may need to reconsider aspects of its interior color choices. The servicescape matches its trademark brand color, but the arousal effects may reduce customer satisfaction if the checkout time seems too long. However, arousing colors may also be beneficial here, as long as the checkout process is expedited since arousal has been linked to decreased self-control and increased impulsivity (Fedorikhin & Patrick, 2010) and indeed, the red color has been posited to increase impulse purchases (Crowley, 1993). Therefore:


Using arousing colors, such as red hue and high saturation, in a retail store checkout environment can decrease relaxation and increase arousal. This can produce (a) a negative effect on perceived length of check out time and satisfaction for consumers in a task-oriented mindset or (b) increase impulse purchasing for those in a browsing mindset.

Research has also examined the joint effects of color (warm vs. cool) and store lighting (soft vs. bright) on behavioral intentions and found these effects to be mediated by both the cognitive and affective reactions they induce (Babin, Hardesty, & Suter, 2003). Yet other researchers found that reactions to atmospheric décor color was driven largely by cognitive, rather than or in addition to affective routes (Chebat & Morrin, 2007) as perceived environmental quality provided cognitive cues that enabled shoppers to infer the quality of the products sold, while mood measures had no effect. Such inconsistencies in the literature may be due to differences in experimental stimuli such as the use of written scenarios containing descriptions of atmospheric color conditions (Babin, Hardesty, & Suter, 2003) versus field experiments (Chebat & Morrin, 2007). Drawing on the fact that referential color meaning is subject to context:


Contextual differences exist for effective color use in atmospherics. For example, color fit may likely vary between store type (e.g., trendy clothing store vs. home appliance store).

Color theorists recognize that different colors also relate to size perceptions. Light colors (high value) recede and increase the perceived size of a room, whereas dark (low value) and highly saturated colors decrease these size perceptions (Mahnke, 1996). Retailers that are limited by space can use high-value colors to increase the perception of space, whereas those that want to create a more intimate environment could use low value or highly saturated colors. While research demonstrates how atmospheric elements, such as ceiling height, can influence consumer motivations and information processing (Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2007), no marketing literature has examined these effects in terms of color. Furthermore, psychology research has linked perceptions of temperature to color (Mahnke, 1996; Porter & Mikellides, 1976), which can also be considered in future research. Therefore:


In addition to lighting, color may interact with other sensory cues including scent, music, ambient temperature, store size and shape, and ceiling height, which alter consumers’ moods, motivations and information processing.

Furthermore, additional research questions in the area of atmospherics arise such as


Do color effects differ by shopper motivation?


What is the longevity of these effects? Can they cross over from other environments as consumers move from store to store?


How does color on retail signage (such as those displaying price discounts) affect consumer purchase decisions?


Product Category Membership, Differentiation, and Novelty

Research has examined how packaging can make a product stand out visually against its competitors. Novel packaging grabs consumers’ attention and increases the probability of an involuntary attention response. Garber, Burke, and Jones (2000) proposed four roles for product color in this context: (1) identifying the product category (e.g., white bags for flour), (2) identifying the brand (e.g., Selsun Blue shampoo in a bright blue bottle), (3) reinforcing existing meanings and associations (e.g., all Reese's brand products feature orange packages), and (4) providing contrast to make the brand more distinctive or eye-catching than competitors (e.g., Pepsi's use of blue in contrast to Coca-Cola's red). At times, these roles may conflict, such as the need to identify the product category but also contrast with competitors.

Package color can influence purchase consideration as colors can be altered to create a novel stimulus and attract attention. Research has found that packages that are altered to be moderately to very dissimilar from their original color increased attention, shopping time, and purchase intent (Garber, Hyatt, & Starr, 2003); however, purchase intentions varied across product categories. Some products become strongly associated with certain colors, often due to learned associations established by pioneering products. A novel color in such situations may create an initial attraction and curiosity, and even might evoke a purchase, but products of varying colors may confront danger when the novelty wears off and they revert to preconceived notions developed from long-standing consumption experiences. As noted previously, consumers of Crystal Pepsi may have been expecting a different taste because of the clear look of the beverage, which provoked disappointment when they realized the product tasted nearly identical to regular Pepsi. Many questions remain unaddressed, such as


How can a brand become more distinct, yet remain consistent enough to be identifiable within a consideration set?

In addition to brand identification and novelty aspects, color can nonverbally communicate product concepts (e.g., country of origin, intended audience, benefits). Red, green, and white on a canister of olive oil signals Italian production (or at least evokes an Italian feel); red, white, and blue signals U.S. origins; likewise yellow dishwashing liquids suggest a lemon scent, green indicates a gentle or unscented formula, orange implies antibacterial properties, and blue conveys grease-cutting benefits (Garber & Hyatt, 2003). In a controversial move, tobacco companies recently lightened their package colors to connote the concepts of “light” and “mild” in anticipation of a governmental ban against using such words on their packages (Rubin, 2010). These companies are thus relying on the fact that consumers will be able to infer the product concepts of “light” and “mild” from these colors and differentiate them from the regular packages of cigarettes.

These examples illustrate color meanings intentionally created by marketers, but color can influence consumers’ perceptions regardless of marketer intent. Research provides evidence that color can trigger culturally instilled beliefs that affect perceptions of the product such that Chinese consumers prefer red colored products to other colors (Block & Kramer, 2009). Additional research shows that color can alter pharmaceutical drug expectations (Roullet & Droulers, 2005). Likewise, the color of a package or product might contribute to perceptions of quality. Brightly or overly colorful packages (i.e., high saturation) can imply low quality through learned associations with inexpensive children's products, whereas packages with a muted palate (i.e., low saturation) suggest higher quality, due to learned associations related to classiness (Scott & Vargas, 2007). The influence of color components on perceptions of quality, price, and performance has not been explored systematically in existing literature, but some research suggests these effects (Scott & Vargas, 2007). Thus, the following proposition is put forth:


Color can provide referential meanings that consumers use to assess product quality, price, and performance. Due to learned associations, brightness and saturation can affect perceived quality; thus vibrant (highly saturated) colors signal low quality, while muted (low saturation, high value) colors signal high quality.

Furthermore, since marketing researchers have confirmed the influence of shape on perceived volume (Raghubir & Krishna, 1999) and area (Krider, Raghubir, & Krishna, 2001) of a package, color also should influence these perceptions. Therefore:


Can package color affect perceived weight and size? Does this interact with shape?

To investigate this question, researchers should build on early psychology research that finds people tend to consider dark colors heavier, whereas light colors (high value) seem lighter (Gunlach & Macoubrey, 1931; Payne, 1958).

Product Color Naming

Strategic naming of colors is another way of manipulating color's psychological impact and is a common tactic of paint manufacturers who attest that the name of their swatches affect sales as much as, if not more than, the pigments themselves (Fraser & Banks, 2004). Academic research supports this notion as changes in color name labeling has led to differences in liking, purchase intention, and willingness to pay (Skorinko et al., 2006). Additional research in this area found that when consumers encounter an atypical name (e.g., Cookie Monster Blue vs. Bright Blue) they engaged in additional elaboration in order to understand the connection between the name and the product, which led to increased satisfaction with the product (Miller & Kahn, 2005).


A logo is central to a brand's identity, and choosing an appropriate design should be a well-thought-out process. The color of a logo often becomes a key component of a brand's identity and extends to other marketing contexts such as package design and advertising, even to the point that the brand may become intrinsically linked to a color (e.g., John Deere with green and yellow, Coca-Cola with red), that some brands attempt to trademark specific colors (Abril, Olazábal, & Cava, 2009). Yet surprisingly, little research informs logo design (Keller & Lehmann, 2006) as a whole, not only in terms of color.

Color logo studies provide evidence that the color of a brand logo can offer inherent and immediate brand value. Past research has found increased positive affective response when a logo's hue is congruent with product type (functional vs. sensory-social; Bottomley & Doyle, 2006). Likewise, research on product category color norms found that differentiation is helpful for some product categories; it can also be harmful for others (Labrecque & Milne, forthcoming). Specifically, this research reveals that adhering to color norms may be beneficial for product categories containing a dominant market leader, especially high-involvement categories. Additionally, hue, saturation, and value of brand logos and product packages have also been shown to drive brand personality perceptions and affect purchase intent (Labrecque & Milne, 2012). However, the aforementioned studies solely examined single color logos (with the exception of Labrecque & Milne, forthcoming), yet in reality many logos contain two or more colors. Therefore, the following research question is offered:


How do colors (two or more) jointly affect consumer perceptions?

Furthermore, since color is related to brand personality:


Do consumers purchase products in colors to match their personalities? Does this lead to favorable outcomes such as brand loyalty?

Food Perception

Most modern foods are not their natural colors but instead are enhanced or modified to provide cues such as freshness and taste. Many artificial color cues thus have become a standard way that consumers distinguish and anticipate flavor, such as green with mint or lime and brown with cola or chocolate. Changes to these food category associations can alter flavor perceptions; yet successes with the use of atypical product colors include Heinz's colored ketchup and Vitamin Water's brightly colored beverages. It appears that the role and acceptance of color differentiation in food has changed dramatically, even during the past decade. Although research on color and food is prevalent in food sciences, scant marketing attention has been paid.

Color can alter taste perceptions, dominating other flavor information sources, including labeling and taste (Garber, Hyatt, & Starr, 2000; Hoegg & Alba, 2007). Research found that color cues can even dominate taste cues such that color matches exaggerated homogenization, and therefore caused greater perceived differences for same-taste pairs of different colors than for mixed-taste pairs of the same color (Hoegg & Alba, 2007).

Despite evidence from studies and real-world examples, marketers know little about the boundary conditions of the effects of altered food colors. Beginning in 2001, Heinz began introducing a variety of colored ketchup offerings including green, blue, and purple, and claims to have benefited with the introduction of each new hue (Srakocic, 2003); yet sales eventually began to drop, and these irregular ketchup shades no longer exist.

Marketers need to consider when showcasing food color is important. The color of products, especially those that are novel and unique to consumers, such as quinoa, daikon, fava leaves, may need to be made visible to consumers to facilitate purchase. Coca-Cola's research identified one of the factors to have affected the demise of a new product, Coke Blāk, described to consumers as a “coffee-flavored cola,” was the opaque package that did not allow consumers to visually inspect the product prior to purchase (Clark Jones, personal communication, April 24, 2009). Therefore, the following proposition is put forth for this area:


In order to adopt a new/novel food product, consumers should be able to obtain a sensory feel of the product through visual inspection of the color of the product prior to or at the time of purchase.

Moreover, additional questions remain unanswered in the area of food marketing, such as


When can using an unexpected food color produce novelty?


Does the exposure order of a product's sensory attributes impact perceptions?


When and how do learned food product associations (green ketchup or blue tortilla chips) override a consumer's biological responses to food products of that color (food that is blue or green is encoded as spoiled by the biological system)?


Do consumers make inferences about the caloric value, nutritional value, or temperature of food based on color cues?

Internet Marketing

Considering the increasingly important role that the Internet plays in consumers’ lives and the ease with which color can be altered in a digital environment, it seems surprising that so little work pertains to this area. In one major study, Gorn et al. (2004) found that the background color of a Web site can influence perceptions of loading time, affect, and willingness to recommend the site to a friend—and these effects were mediated by feelings of relaxation. For example, blue increased relaxation, which in turn decreased users’ perceptions of waiting time; while red and yellow decreased relaxation. In addition, saturation decreased perceived quickness and relaxation, while value increased perceived quickness and relaxation.

In studying online retail atmospherics, studies have included color (warmth and saturation) as part of a mix of environmental cues, including complexity and music tempo, to explore the effect of arousal on shopping behavior (Kaltcheva & Weitz, 2006). They found that task orientation determined the valence of color-induced arousal; in this e-commerce context, arousal produced a beneficial effect only when consumers engaged in recreational shopping and were not search oriented (Kaltcheva & Weitz, 2006).

Indeed, other studies found that warm hues and high saturation induced arousal (Gorn et al., 2004; Valdez & Mehrabian, 1994). Therefore these attention-getting properties may be beneficial for “attracting eyeballs,” while simultaneously they may also send negative signals such as a lack of competence or untrustworthiness which would be devastating to high-risk sites, such as banking. Thus:


Site type difference (e.g., high vs. low financial or information risks; experiential vs. informational sites) moderates arousal effects online. Arousal and pleasantness induced by online color cues may alter consumer trust and behaviors, such willingness to divulge personal information.

In addition to site design, these matters should be explored in relation to online advertising such as whether certain colors (including levels of saturation and value) affect click-through rates, engagement, willingness to share personal information, and purchase intent. As consumers increasingly use the Internet to conduct transactions and business online, these matters become ever more important.

Being relatively new, this area is rife with research opportunities including


Do color choices matter more for certain types of Web sites?


Can color affect attention to online ads and click-through rates?


  1. Top of page

Marketers have long used color to catch consumers’ attention and as a visual mnemonic device to support recognition. To connect with consumers and effectively communicate a brand's meaning, marketers continually need new and compelling means to reach consumers. Visual identity assets, including color, can encourage connections with consumers and should be embedded in a brand's DNA. Unfortunately for marketers though, the literature offers them few guidelines, even as color becomes increasingly important and the need for such investigations grows more imperative.

This paper reviewed the extant literature and highlighted the complex nature of color research. Additionally, this paper presented a set of viable propositions and research questions to advance color research in marketing. Although this review illustrates that researchers have focused considerable attention to certain areas of marketing, a great deal of research is possible. New research can add an increased depth of understanding to these areas by examining interactions between the different variables, the underlying process mechanisms and moderating variables, and also by investigating previous findings at different levels of analysis by using new tools (e.g., eye-tracking, fMRI) and considering new variables (e.g., saturation and value, in addition to hue).

This research presents an integrated conceptual framework for understanding how color influences consumer perceptions and subsequent cognition, emotions, and behavior. Although marketers do not have control over all areas, understanding the processes by which the mind encodes and decodes color information is fundamental to understanding how color affects consumer decision making, as well as for making effective color decisions.

Arguably, context is an important component of the conceptual framework. Researchers must pay careful attention to the contextual variations of color effects because colors carry multiple meanings that may conflict. Recent empirical work illustrates that red's ability to produce both attraction and avoidance depends on the psychological context (Elliot et al., 2007, 2010; Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Past research that did not take this into account may have been context-driven. In the future, researchers must pay careful attention to this matter to avoid false generalizations.

Additional Future Research Directions

The multidimensional nature of color meanings also should remain at the forefront of researchers’ minds. As marketing managers and researchers consider color effects, they should also take into account the two types of meanings that color elicits. Furthermore, it is strongly recommended that researchers be cognizant of the influence of the three components of color (hue, saturation, and value), accounting for and examining research directions in relation to all three, as saturation and value have been shown to be just as important, if not more, than hue (Gorn et al., 1997, 2004; Labrecque & Milne, 2012; Valdez & Mehrabian, 1994). As noted, it is important for researchers to understand the deep complexities of color research. This discussion provides an outline of the major complexities here; however, a full discussion of the technical aspects of color reproduction is beyond the scope of this paper.

Existing color literature leaves many gaps and opportunities for research, as outlined in each section of the paper. Additional, general questions also arise, such as


Are some consumers more sensitive to color than are others? Are there generational or gender differences with regard to the role and importance of color?


Can consumers be segmented by their color preference? Do consumers who share color preferences share other important attributes?


How do color trends affect product choices? Does the importance of these trends vary by consumers’ level of involvement or need for uniqueness? Does product type (e.g., conspicuous vs. nonconspicuous, self-expressive vs. functional) moderate this relationship?


What is the role of color for variety seeking?

In conclusion, given the recent advances in color research in related and unrelated fields from neuroscience to psychology, a renewed interest in color for marketing research is imperative. Further, technological advances in color production and delivery (e.g., increased array of colors, full-color digital screens, and decreased production costs) have altered the role that color plays in our lives—a modern change that must be examined with up-to-date research. Arguably, color research is critical for the advancement of marketing theory and also presents a highly promising area of growth for marketing practice.


  1. Top of page
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