Color has always been a factor in brand identity, flavor amplification and consumer recognition. From iconic colored logos to bold hues indicating flavor, the rainbow can be a powerful tool for brands in the functional food, beverage and nutraceutical industry. But why are colors so important and how can brands maximize their value?

Visual Attraction to Color Vibrancy

Humans’ attraction to color vibrancy goes back to about 200 to 300 thousand years ago. A 2016 study by Perloni, Pergola, and Rumiati examined the role of human trichromatic vision in food evaluation. One of the major questions was whether the berries or the leaves are more eye-catching.

They found that people are inherently drawn more strongly to the reds and purples of the berries than to the green leaves. Red tones in fruits and leaves generally indicate higher protein and nutrient content, which was important for early humans. Pets rely on olfactory senses. We evolved to become a visual species because we have photoreceptors in our eyes with a trichromacy ability, which means we can see the full-color spectrum. This goes all the way back to hunter/gatherer days when we picked out berries over leafy greens. Our attraction to color vibrancy is an innate human characteristic, not a result of cultural bias. What does this mean for food and beverage products on the market?

Research Shows Color’s Impact on Flavor, Preference, Purchase Intent

“Taste” is a multi-sensory perception constructed from taste buds, visual appearance, aroma and mouthfeel. Flavor and color work hand-in-hand to create a product experience and win over consumers. This phenomenon was evaluated in an academic study published in the Journal of Consumer Research using orange juice. Researchers tested consumer preference for orange juice while varying the shade using food dye or the sweetness level using added sugar. When comparing two glasses of juice, one with a brighter orange hue, consumers perceived the more colorful sample to be sweeter and more flavorful, although no actual sweetness difference existed. Conversely, when the researchers added sugar to one of two visually identical glasses of juice, those same consumers could not taste the difference. To further this research, Sensient conducted broad consumer research of its own to evaluate and quantify the impact of colour alone on purchase intent and flavour perception. This online quantitative study tested 8 product categories with category users from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Each subject is a regular purchaser of the product category—so anyone reviewing carbonated soft drinks regularly buys and drinks carbonated soft drinks.


Sensient Consumer Research 2017

Even though the testing was solely visual, consumers still had flavor expectations based on the visual attributes. In most of the tested categories, more color-intense products create the impression of a more appetizing and higher quality product and the expectation of a tastier and more flavorful product. Flavor perception was positively correlated with brighter colors, and consumers showed a clear preference for those samples with color vibrancy.

Comparative results in the aggregate, mimicking real-life at-shelf buying decisions, showed statistically significant higher scores for both purchase intent and overall liking on brighter colored (high color image) concepts. This tells us that bright shades are often the best choice.

How Could Color Impact Profitability for Brands? 

Not only did consumers like the more colorful products better, but they also indicated that they were more likely to purchase more intensely colored food and beverages.

More intense color lifted purchase intent score +5% ON AVERAGE ACROSS CATEGORIES

For example, a colorless or less intensely colored yogurt drink which generates €15 million in sales in a year could reach an additional €750,000 in sales annually if a flavor-appropriate color was used.

Color Impacts Flavor Perception

Color can not only affect purchase intent and trial rates, but also flavor perception. Sensient’s research continued with a study evaluating the quantifiable impact of color on flavor perception with in-person sensory testing. For each product, eighty U.S. category users evaluated two products with identical formulations except color. Sensory testing data aligned with the results of the online testing, with optimized color generating increased purchase intent and increased overall liking scores over low color alternatives. Most interestingly, while flavor remained constant and only the color changed between two otherwise identical products, optimized color increased flavor perception scores by an average of +14.7% across categories.

Overall, color’s impact on purchase intent, flavor perception, and overall liking has consistently been found to be statistically significant. Purchase intent was higher in five of the seven products tested, with optimized color providing an overall 4% lift to purchase intent scores. Brands looking to impress shoppers should not overlook this key component, as vibrantly colored products are better liked and more likely to be purchased by consumers.

How Can Sensient Help

One way to take action on this research with your next project is to consider color as early in the formulation process as possible, at least as early as the flavor is considered. Flavor and color work intertwined to determine a consumer’s overall experience. It’s important not to underestimate how much color can influence consumer taste expectations, which motivate consumer liking more than any other attribute. Consumers believe that products with more vibrant color will taste better, have superior sweetness and are more flavorful.

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