It doesn't take a Ph.D. in linguistics to understand the message conveyed by a product labeled "Richer! Healthier! Greener!" But package designers use a host of wordless cues to hook you on a subconscious level—and in the seconds it takes to walk down an aisle lined with scores of beckoning products. In brief, designers consider color, the consumers' desires, and what the competition is doing.
It can work something like this: "It's common to have red and blue in a category," says Marcus Alfonsetti, an expert in the cultural analysis of brands and associate director of Added Value, a consulting company. "We notice red quicker than any other color." People also have an instant connection to blue, the color of the sky and water—things we can count on—"so blue takes on an association with trust," he says. Though those colors can have positive and negative meanings—red can signal danger or love; blue, optimism or sadness—they are such staples in our society that, Alfonsetti says, "if one brand is red, another commonly comes out and is blue." (Think Coke and Pepsi or Colgate and Crest.)
Within a brand, companies often indicate variety in predictable ways. "Richer colors indicate a richer flavor," says Paul Haft, president and chief color officer of Haft2, a consulting company. "Lighter suggests lighter types of foods." (Tubs of Dreyer's/Edy's Slow Churned Light Ice Cream have muted colors, not the deep brown of the brand's Grand flavors.)
Beyond specific colors, products might put on an "outfit," Alfonsetti says. There's the "artisan" look—brown cardboard with a see-through window and words such as "handcrafted." (See Tostitos Artisan Recipes.) There's the "minimalist" look common in mineral waters and vodka. And there's the almost anti-sophisticated look of, say, Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Goldfish crackers.
Culture isn't stagnant, and neither is package design. Designer Duffy & Partners, for example, worked with Kellogg's years ago to establish its Smart Start cereal in an aisle awash in primary colors. "We did the obvious thing that no one else was doing—a white background with a beautiful photograph," company chairman Joe Duffy says. "It said, 'This isn't kid stuff; it's sophisticated.'" Where does a company go once white is no longer new? General Mills just launched Wheaties Fuel in a black box.
Be swayed by taste or nutrition rather than by a pretty package.