Here is a short (haha!) lesson in color theory that I put together from my experience working week-in and week-out at San Manuel casino. With over 40 different acts every year, plus special promotions and events, I was able to track what colors sold an act that was determined to be a “dog” or hard-sell, and what colors could even kill what should have been a sure-thing.
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Color plays a key role in the success of advertising. After all, it’s pretty much the first thing anyone notices, making color your best – and sometimes only – chance to get a message across. For this post, I will concentrate on color and save font choices for another time.
The use of color in most design for marketing and advertising is driven by certain obvious reasons; the need to reflect a specific brand, as well as the attempt to communicate a certain mood determined by the product. Company branding is pretty straightforward – specific colors dictated by logos and other collateral will need to be incorporated into at least part of the design. The choice of color scheme for conveying the ‘personality’ of a product is often a lot harder to develop.
But some colors are actually more right than others. There is a psychological and physical impact on people. The significance of various colors isn’t universal and unchanging – in many ways it’s quite the opposite: various ethnicities and cultures often associate the same color with very different emotions and ideas.
And if this all sounds questionable, good. It means you have a brain, now use it. I have found that color can actively influence consumers and I use my knowledge for good and evil… Here are some of my basic color facts:
Red, the most vibrant and powerful of colors, seems like a good place to start. Since studies have shown that it’s the first color babies recognize, and one that continues to appeal to most people throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. At a purely symbolic level, it’s the color of fire and blood, an association that’s common to all cultures and therefore extremely powerful. Less specifically, it’s a color that seems to be associated with energy, war, danger and power, not to mention passion, desire, and love.
So what does that mean for marketing?
To start with, some of these associations are so deeply ingrained that it’s stupid to use a color other than red to represent certain things. Try showing extreme emotions such as violence or passion with shades of blue and you’re going to run into problems. What’s more, I have seen in its brighter variations (tomato), red actually provokes a physical response by creating action in both men and women. For this reason, its use in ‘sexy’ advertising scenarios or as an erotically charged statement (on lips or fingernails) should quite literally set hearts beating faster – and as I mentioned, it works equally at arousing both men and women. Whether the physiological ‘red effect’ happens simply as a result of its associations; or because the color itself somehow provokes such a response; or, if, indeed, this effect relies on a combination of the two isn’t something that matters. Who cares why? What is important is that red, like virtually every other color, exerts a measurable influence on the consumer.
More about the ‘red effect’… different from any physical reactions it might provoke, red is association with force, and power, and is an extremely dominant one. Consider all the small details in our everyday lives that support this: red icons on switches to indicate their ‘on’ state, the plastic coating on ‘live’ wires, the tiny red glow that tells us an electrical appliance is working. All of this makes red the best color to suggest fast-moving action or extreme force – examples of uses that fall into this category include sports, slot machines, action-adventure or dancing. This deep-rooted association with power also makes red a good candidate for any product that seeks to impart the idea of improvement, rapidity or physical change. Red also increases appetite, making it an excellent choice for advertising food (Chinese restaurants use red color schemes for this reason, but – red simply happens to be a very popular and ‘lucky’ color in the Chinese culture). However, if enticing diners to eat heartily is something you’re aiming to do, an all-red environment is a good way to get stomachs rumbling.
Although it derives from red, pink has little of red’s forceful qualities. In fact, although it’s usually perceived as a warm and fairly upbeat color, it is, of course, popularly associated with femininity and even passivity. A cliché, perhaps, but its vigor-reducing reputation has again been shown to have some basis in fact. A famous study showed a shade of bubble-gum pink used in certain cells in a men’s prison was unexpectedly found to change aggressive inmates behavior and make them more docile. Research corroborated the fact that pink did indeed have significant calming qualities – although a subsequent study revealed that after a certain time these effects were dramatically reversed as prisoners became more agitated and aggressive than before. (Surprised? You try living in a bubble gum pink environment). The fact that pink does induce at least a temporary sensation of calm makes it a powerful factor in the color-coordinated approach to advertising. It became a favorite for any female only promotions such as Ladies Night Out. This association was explored on a very limited basis because the strong association with femininity means that anything ‘too’ pink is was completely ignored by men.
There’s one other area in which pink has an interesting effect, however – and one that didn’t alienate males. It was in food product posters on-site. I theorized that the color lead consumers to believe they’re tastier, or even identify a flavor that isn’t actually present. And pink coloring is a particularly effective way of suggesting sweetness. This may relate to the fact that it’s often used as a coloring in candies, but whatever the case, the association is powerful enough to substantially increase a food’s perceived sugariness or even depth of flavor. Although in these health-conscious times sweet, sugary foods have lost much of their popularity, the marketing of products inside the casino, on the floor worked: feel-good desserts, ice creams, and shakes.
Occurring naturally as a sign of plant growth and renewal, green is one of those colors that are universally seen as positive, fresh and fertile. It’s the easiest color for the eye to assimilate and therefore one of the most relaxing; it induces feelings of calm and restfulness, and can even improve vision. In short, it’s a very positive color indeed. This emphasis on nature, freshness and renewal means that I commonly used green to emphasize the new, improved offerings of a repeated promotion from a previous year. But if you notice a certain irony in this, good, because green, of course, has steadily evolved into the symbol of all that’s ecologically aware. Congruity in advertising – or the notion that what’s implied about a product should be supported by its reality – is one of the most vital aspects of marketing. Get this wrong, and there’s no consumer forgiveness. Its current associations have equally led to opportunities for more refined targeting. Wholesome, healthy food items were quickly identified as such through predominant use of green.
Different greens, different meanings… Green is a symbolically complex color, and particular shades transmit subtly different messages. Darker greens – the classic color of money – have long held an association with casinos. The added implication of wealth and savings made green a good choice for promotions, particularly any Ass-In-Seat promotion. Lime greens sucked. It never sold anything when it was used. Finally, association with green from its use in traffic control to signify ‘go’ was a great tie-in. This link with movement, forward motion and vehicles made it a good choice for anything related to transportation: bussing, train networks, travel promotions. And for online advertising, using green for buttons or links – clicked – you’re practically inviting a user to go ahead and do so. Oddly enough, red in this context never seemed to work, maybe green was seen as a less risky click.
Blue is the world’s most popular color. And as one that, like green, occurs in nature – the hue of skies, water and sea – it’s not surprising that it’s so well loved. With such universal associations and widespread appeal, blue is an important asset to any color use. Unlike very warm colors, which provoke impulsive, passionate responses, blue is a cerebral color that’s commonly associated with clear thinking and intellect. Surprisingly, darker blues have a widespread appeal among men and works fantastic in and out of a casino setting.
Blue emerges as a clear favorite in almost any casino advertisement. Its implication of steadiness made it an effective choice for San Manuel’s branding, although its white-collar association with conservatism could have hurt perception, in the long-run, it helped. Blue’s lighter, brighter shades, takes on happier, sparkling and spontaneous overtones. The pure and natural aspect of such blues convey a sense of cleanliness and freshness and drew patrons from every demographic. Bright blue became the obvious choice for the typical entertainment advertising. Evocative of cloudless skies and inviting pools, it gives a tantalizing taste of tranquility and relaxation. In fact, blue is such a flexible and well-liked color that it’s almost impossible to miss-use – with one major exception.
Foods really don’t benefit from any kind of association with blue. Maybe the blue/food combo induces feelings of nausea. We instinctively associate the color with something that’s rotten and unsafe to eat, but whatever the case, it’s not a great choice for marketing any type of casino meal.
If you’re still with me…
I will cover yellow, white, black, orange, purple, and brown in another post.
For now… takeaways to consider: Sometimes the decision is partly intuitive – most people understand (even at a very basic level) that bright colors will convey a different kind of mood than neutral grays or dull and muted colors. The guidelines of traditional color theory come up as a kind of balancing act to ensure that everything works together and that the right kind of colors are used.