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Shaken & Stirred - Influential Brand Profiling and Positioning

Colour theory and the psychology of in-store promotion

Phillip Adcock, the founder and managing director of Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd writes

All human beings have an inbuilt reaction to colours, whether it’s the calming effect of blue or the alarming effect of orange. Even the colours and number layouts on price labels are carefully chosen to manipulate our instincts.

How label designers use colour theory in supermarkets

Human beings are drawn to bright, contrasting colours such as supermarket favourites red, yellow, black and white. The Neanderthal eye is always drawn to red as a potential threat; we associate it with urgency, excitement and speed. In contrast, yellow is seen as a friendly, cheap and optimistic colour while black is bold and sophisticated — but too much black on price labels may put your customers off. A combination of red, yellow, white and black creates a high-contrast, very visible label.

Four examples of different labelling strategies

Before are four labels for fruit juice from four different supermarkets. They have all used a similar range of colours, drawing from red, yellow, black and white. All are distinctive in different ways and all use a similar range of strategies to make their offer seem the most appealing and cost effective.

Frequent shoppers are trained to be aware of their supermarket’s sale colours, and will react to them positively even if the sale itself isn’t particularly good value as their brain has created an emotional association between these colours and saving money. By creating big, impressive displays with bold messages, stores may lead shoppers to make purchasing decisions they may not otherwise have made. Multi-buy offers are processed by the reward centres of the brain and often bypass logic entirely so any emotional triggers may have a major effect.

Cheap, Cheerful and Friendly

This label uses yellow writing on red, written in a friendly font that mimics hand-written sale signs. Many people associate local stores with good value and this style of handwriting with smaller companies. The original price of the item is not shown on the sign, so the shopper tends to overlook it entirely — they are given the choice of trusting their emotional intuition, which is easily influenced, or getting out their calculator and working out the price per carton individually.


Urgent and Easy to Read

This label again makes use of red, with shoppers conditioned to search for the red, white and black labels. The single unit price isn’t shown. As these offer labels are often displayed on top of the original label, it is hard to know how good the deal really is. The currency symbol is also underplayed; 30% of shoppers need glasses and many of these forget them when they shop. Many labels take advantage of that with big numbers and small units of currency.


Bright and Easy to Calculate

This label also relies on red, white and black. They lead their label with the biggest number in the offer, and also include the original price, allowing the customer to easily calculate the value — the difference between the original price per unit and the multibuy price per unit is more easily calculable than if it were divided by three.


Good Value and Simple to Calculate

Unlike the other stores, this label uses yellow and black, implying good value. Again, the yellow and black combination is distinctive. Much like the label above, they include the original price although on this label they lead with the unit price, followed by the multibuy discount (and again the added value is obvious as the number is simple to divide).

Number Theory and how it skews our perception of value

Shoppers tend to give undue weight to the first number they see on the label, viewing a higher number as a higher level of value; for the above examples, the first and third stores which both lead with the number four sold more products (averaging 1.9 and 1.7 cartons of juice per customer), whereas the label leading with the number 3 sold 1.6 per customer and the last label selling just 1.4 per customer.

Merely having a sale ticket is likely to increase purchases whatever the figures upon it; sales were increased despite the fact that in every shop less than 50% of purchasers bought enough juice to qualify for the discount.

While shoppers might think they can beat the system, they are surrounded with psychological tips and skewed perspective wherever they go. Supermarkets can take advantage of Colour Theory to give their customers a unique perspective on their products.

Phillip Adcock is the founder and Managing Director of the research agency Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd, a shopping research organisation using psychological consumer insight to explain and predict how customers will behave.

SBXL operates in seventeen countries for hundreds of clients including Mars Chocolate, Tesco and B&Q.