A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that colors and their attributes play a much larger role in consumer decision-making than thought throughout the past several decades. Now researchers are learning that lightness of color packaging combined with retail shelf positioning can influence consumers to make purchasing decisions.
Why Color Lightness Matters
It's clear that every individual associates colors with emotions in their own personal ways based on experiences. That's why colors have been so prominent in brand marketing campaigns from logos to more complex visuals. Packaging designers have known for over a century that colors trigger emotions. They've also understood emotional responses to different shades of color.
The lightness-location research is far from conclusive, but it works as a starting point to explore new competitive edges with product packaging. How often does a conversation among marketers come up about color psychology and perceptual fluency? Just by knowing a little bit about it gives a brand an edge over competitors.
The research on lightness-location dynamics is rarely a topic in publications on modern marketing or packaging, but there's enough evidence to suggest it's worth investigating more deeply. The 2009 Deng and Khan study on what the researchers coined "the location effect" established through experiments that objects are perceived to be heavier when placed at the bottom of a visual field. Objects seen at the top of a visual field appear to be lighter in weight.
In this sense there's a relationship in consumer perceptions between color lightness, weight and location. Light colors, just like lightweight, are perceived as softer, safer and easier to manage. So when a consumer sees a light-colored package on an upper shelf that appears to be lightweight, does that mean they automatically want to buy it? Not necessarily, but it's an attention-getting strategy that triggers sales for certain products.
Why Color Lightness MattersLight vs. Dark Colors
The research on how people feel about light versus dark colors is debatable because of how responses differ from behavior. Surveys show people tend to view dark colors as least favored in studies, yet dark colors prevail in the market. Blue is the favorite color of people around the world including in the United States. When it comes to cars, though, America's most popular colors are #1 white and #2 black.
Different products have different color associations with consumers, so one must be careful about making generalizations. Retail shoppers often gravitate toward cool colors such as pale blue. Red can be a stimulating color because of its brightness, but it also has deep associations with stop signs, blood, violence and aggression, causing many people to link it with danger.
Lighter colors often trigger more calm emotions compared with darker colors. Meanwhile, despite research that says black is people's least favorite color, it's closely associated with luxury, strength and power. The downside to a retailer using too much black for wall color is that it can make a room look smaller.
Shelf Location Perceptions
When light-colored objects are positioned on upper shelf positions, the placement increases a shopper's perceptual fluency, which relates to the ease with which they process information. Interestingly, consumers also tend to notice lightweight objects that are light-colored and placed on upper shelves.
These findings have been published by education researcher Wiley Periodicals. The study is titled "Effects of Lightness-Location Congruency on Consumers' Purchase Decision-Making" by the research team of Tsutomu Sunaga from Kwansei Gakuin University, Jaewoo Park from Chiba University of Commerce and Charles Spence from University of Oxford.
Perceived visual heaviness plays a role in consumer purchasing decisions along with the lightness of packaging colors and the location of products. Shoppers estimate in their own minds if a product is heavy or light. When they see light-colored lightweight objects on upper shelves, it conveys congruency. Similarly, dark-colored heavier objects on lower shelves also falls in line with perceptions of congruency.
Color Research Findings
Only in recent years have brand analysts and retailers realized that the combination of color lightness and shelf position can inspire sales. The placement of products should be congruent with customer expectations. Granted, there is still much research that needs to be done on color psychology and how it relates to shelf placement and weight perception.
The location effect works best when heavy items are placed on the bottom right of a shelf and lighter items are placed on the upper left section of shelves. Perhaps consumers have simply become used to these patterns and subconsciously expect stores to arrange merchandise this way.
At a hardware store, shoppers are likely to see heavy machines on lower levels simply out of convenience. Supermarkets usually don't sell items that heavy, but the heavier items they do sell, like a bag of potatoes, typically don't require reaching upward.
When color lightness and location are incongruent from a consumer perspective, it could be challenging to sell the product. In other words, placing a light colored package on a bottom shelf makes it less noticeable than on an upper shelf. Meanwhile, placing a dark colored package on a top shelf creates potential perception problems. Dark colors sometimes are perceived as heavier items, so if they are placed on upper shelves, consumers may be less inclined to reach for such items.
Power of Combining Lightness with Location
Using the lightness and location strategy requires experimentation. The location effect may not apply to all products, since different brands have different reasons for the packaging designs they choose. Some products sell well largely due to brand familiarity, which is one of those marketing cornerstones that can be easily overlooked when focusing too much on eye-opening scientific studies.
A popular brand that drives global sales doesn't have to worry as much about where its products are placed on store shelves. Once a brand becomes ingrained in a consumer's psyche as a favorite, the consumer will find the item in the store even if they have to ask a clerk for assistance. But lesser-known brands don't have this luxury and must rely on standing out more than blending in.
So brands that are trying to make a splash in the market can ease their way into public consciousness through strategies that aren't widely published. Color psychology has been around for many years, but the studies involving consumer perceptions of colors and product placement have not yet gone deep enough to explain these associations in greater detail.
The idea that light colors are associated with more calm emotions can only be applied to certain products. Packaging designers should take an interest in whether these consumer perceptions mean anything for the products they package. As far as location, that's a variable that most packaging designers cannot control. A retailer that has its own white label brand, however, can control product placement, which gives the brand a competitive edge.
References and Further Reading
[ 1 ] Effects of Lightness-Location: Congruency on Consumers’ Purchase Decision-Making (2016), Tsutomu Sunaga (Kwansei Gakuin University), Jaewoo Park (Chiba University of Commerce), Charles Spence (University of Oxford)
[ 2 ] Consumers Emotional Responses to Functional and Hedonic Products: A Neuroscience Research (2020), by Debora Bettiga,Anna M. Bianchi, Lucio Lamberti and Giuliano Noci. Published in Frontiers in Psychology