Colour has a major impact on the expectation of the flavour of a certain food or beverage. Rafael Bonache, marketing manager at Scentium, breaks down the important considerations when deciding on colour for a flavoured food product
Identifying a consumer’s way of thinking can help marketers design brands and products that use colours that are more attractive to the mindset of their target markets. To a certain extent, certain colours can even actively influence a person’s mood or attitude towards a product and can be vital in the final decision-making.
According to recent studies, almost 50% of low-effort purchasing decisions (i.e. buying a soft drink, two chocolate bars, or an ice cream) are made unconsciously, mainly because our brain responds to these situations before we can think about them. Nearby colours can also sometimes trigger incentives to buy these products.
The taste of a colour
When it comes to flavours for food and beverages, colours can play a key role in creating expectations from consumers. Colours often evoke specific associations with food. For instance, it is normal to think that green grapes are sweet and ripe, while a green orange is unripe or mouldy.
Besides being a visual factor to make something look appetising (or even influencing our digestion process by triggering salivation), how can colours influence the purchasing decision? In some cases, colours can play a role in providing additional information on the actual flavour of the item. In other cases, it can even help in positioning the product or defining its category. For example, the light white colour of a transparent bottle of milk could make you think that it is skimmed milk, and not a full-fat milk. The consumer would likely be unconsciously looking for a line on the packaging text under the brand name saying “skimmed” to strengthen this belief. But what if it read “white chocolate flavoured milk” instead? This is an example of how products can be managed successfully by retail product marketers. They would use packaging design tactics like adding a coloured background on the label or writing the flavour of the product in big bold letters on the front of the pack. However, in the case of some products that are traditionally retailed in transparent packaging (e.g., sauces, CSDs, baby savoury meals, sweet spreads, prepared meals, etc.), have no packaging at all, or that fall into the clean-label trend and are characterised by transparency and minimalism in packaging, the use of colours in the product plays an important role in purchasing decisions.
Flavours and colours: Make it or break it
At a fundamental level, food colours are usually linked to the palatability of the product. However, sometimes purchasing decisions are not based on this criterion, but rather on flavour curiosity. Here are three key questions to consider for colours when working on the development of a flavoured food product.
- The novelty of the flavour, product or category – colour as barrier or driver
Make sure not to create any barrier of misinformation. The “boost” of first trial purchases is crucial to new food and beverage products. If the taste pleases a consumer on the first trial, it is more likely to result in customer loyalty. Therefore, any colour that is radically opposing a consumer’s standards or personal conception of food colours could have a negative impact on their purchasing decision, particularly in the basic food categories. On the other hand, when it comes to a new food product that is disrupting or indulgent, it might be good to use an unexpected colour. Early adopters could even find it more appealing. In 2017, the introduction of ruby chocolate with its characteristic pink colour contributed to its success and positioning. Ruby chocolate does bring a certain characteristic flavour from the ruby cocoa beans. However, due to its original colour, it mostly positioned itself as a new type of chocolate within the traditional options (black, with milk and white chocolate).
- The prototypicality of the category concept – information reinforcement
Products with colour attributes that are repeatedly observed within their category often end up creating standards within this category. An interesting case is the introduction of plant-based milks into the European market almost 10 years ago. The transition from dairy milk to plant-based drink consumption was, in some cases, driven by lactose intolerance, digestion wellness or more sustainable lifestyles. However, for some people, the prototypicality of the white colour in milk created a barrier for consumption. Why would “milk” look off-white or even brownish in the case of almond milk? Nowadays, regulations in Europe no longer allow for the use of the term “soy milk”. Companies must use the term “soy drink”. They must also use carton packaging in the category. This is pushing the colour of plant-based milks to the background in consumption decisions.
- Impulse purchase – the vivacity of colours in food products
A large number of consumers’ spontaneous purchases are related to the colour of food products. Some categories like ice creams, sodas or snacks stimulate your desires for indulgence, to quench your thirst or to satisfy your curiosity through colours. It is true that the smell of waffles when passing a street vendor is sometimes powerful enough to trigger an impulsive purchase. However, the colour of the waffles, the syrup and the toppings are what reinforce this impulse. Recent consumer research showed that consumers’ likeability of ice creams increased when they saw chunks of chocolate or cookie dough in it. This can easily be related to the fact that the vivacity of colours increases when the deep brown colour of chocolate pieces contrasts perfectly with the light brown colour of the ice cream.
As food categories evolve towards the use of natural ingredients and the reduction of food processing, the consideration of colour in food formulation is not expected to change dramatically in the upcoming years. The interference of historical prototypes and beliefs in mass consumption products is too strong to change consumers’ mindsets once they have been established through well-defined marketing techniques.