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The wonderful world of color; because of our complex relationship with the spectrum, choices about hues, shades, and saturation are make or break factors.

Because of our complex relationship with the spectrum, choices about hues, shades, and saturation are make or break factors

When humans see red, primordial memory kicks in. The bright scarlet of glistening blood, the red of fire, evoke images of heat and danger and send instant messages to the brain. When our ancestors saw red, they knew it was time to fight or flee.

"Red causes a physiological reaction. When we see red, we must pay attention," observes Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, board member of the Color Marketing Group, and head of the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training. Marketing professionals took note of the peremptory nature of red long ago, and have used the color to sell everything from sports cars to cola.

Well--almost everything. Sometimes red can be a liability. When consumer psychologist Louis Cheskin conducted the original research for Cheer detergent back in the 1950s, he tested three different colors of flecks in the product: red, blue, and yellow. Consumers reported that the yellow flecks didn't get clothes clean enough, and they claimed that the red flecks actually damaged clothing. Only the blue flecks were singled out as getting clothes cleaner. In truth, "The color offered no advantage or disadvantage in cleaning ability," says Nan Powell, research director for Cheskin & Masten/Image Net, the research firm founded by Cheskin. But those blue flecks helped make Cheer one of the longest-lived detergent brands on the market.

Likewise, when Tide was created in the 1950s, it was Cheskin's idea to make the product white and the packaging a bold orange. "It conveys the message of powerfully clean," explains Powell. "This is a great example of how high contrast between product and packaging can convey a more effective emotional message." The white powder alone suggests cleanliness, but the addition of the bright orange Tide package conveys power and strength.

Welcome to the wonderful world of color, where choices about hues and tones and shades can be make or break factors. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: In a landmark 1995 decision, the Supreme Court deemed color such a potent brand identifier that a particular shade alone can serve as a legally defensible trademark.

Color can also shake up the established order of things, drawing fresh attention to an existing product by making it stand out from the crowd. That seems to be the theory behind the new advertising campaign for Pepsi-Cola, which Cheskin & Maskin/Image Net is helping to develop. Until recently, the color most often associated with cola has been red. Coke started the trend with its proprietary hue, and most store brands have followed along with various shades of the same. Pepsi plans to go with blue, based on Cheskin's research, which found that blue trailed red by only 2 percent (94 to 92 percent) when customers were asked which color represents Pepsi. "Pepsi will be rocking the boat, as it were, but blue will become a point of differentiation for the brand so consumers can go straight to it on crowded shelves," Powell explains.

Pepsi's strategy has a solid base. When a consumer encounters a new product or an in-store display, up to 60 percent of the first impression comes from color, according to B. J. Eichhorn, president of BJ's Lifecode Merchandising in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

"Usually marketers don't think about what's going to trigger a purchase response when they select colors, but they should," Eichhorn says. For example, she says, the right shade of Golden Arches gold can trigger a purchase response for fried fast food. "That first impression is lasting, and much of it comes from color," Eichhorn says.

A Universal Language

Much of the selling power of color can be traced back to the emotional memories associated with various hues. For example, we remember the taste of a hamburger wrapped in gold and red paper. "Color has the power to communicate emotion and the essence of the product inside," Powell says. …

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