Did you hear about the dustup between soda drinkers and a major soda manufacturer just before last Christmas? The story got quite a bit of media coverage. It seems that Coca-Cola decided to go with a holiday theme on regular Coke cans, as they often do, but this time around they changed the overall color of the can from red to white. To holiday-weary shoppers who weren't paying close attention, the silvery white cans looked the same as Diet Coke cans, which are silver.
The confusion not only caused a caloric setback for consumers watching their waistline, it had the potential to be much more serious for people with conditions like diabetes.
According to a Wall Street Journal article, Coke's marketing team intended to create a "disruptive" campaign to get consumers to pay attention. That approach apparently backfired. Or did it?
The color change may not have caught shoppers' attention in the store, but it certainly got their attention when they took the first sip. The unexpected sugary taste was disruptive enough to send them back to the store for a refund. The resulting media coverage has gotten the attention of everyone else and given Coca-Cola plenty of free publicity.
After Coke decided to phase out the white can, not surprisingly, the controversial cans started showing up for sale on eBay.
One lesson for marketers in this story is that color is an important aspect of brand identity. Consider that Coke and Diet Coke are two different brands under the same parent company, Coca-Cola. If you look closely at a picture of the white Coke can next to a Diet Coke can you'll notice a number of visual differences, including typography and placement of type, not to mention the name itself. All of these elements are aspects of brand identity, yet many consumers based their selection solely on color.
Take a look at National Geographic magazine's logo, for instance. It's nothing more than a yellow rectangle. Even without the name of the magazine next to it, it's still a recognizable symbol representing the yellow border that has surrounded the cover of every issue ever published. Imagine what would happen if NatGeo designers decided to change the color to red for Christmas.
Postings on social media like YouTube and Twitter debated whether the Coke in the white can actually tasted different from Coke in the traditional red can, leading one to wonder whether packaging or product color can influence taste perception. In the recent Coke situation, color is only part of the packaging and has no direct connection to the actual product, however there are many products - fresh and processed - where color variations are found in the product itself.
Food and drink of an unusual color, like a blue potato, a purple pepper or white cranberry juice, can be "disruptive," attracting a shopper's attention. But will it convince them or deter them from purchasing it? You can help them make that decision.
Customers may wonder whether differently colored fruits and vegetables or value-added products of the same type only look different or whether they taste different, too.
For example, white cranberries, which are regular cranberries harvested before they turn red, not surprisingly, have a lighter flavor than red berries. The same is true with wine. Blush wine made with red grapes but without the skin where most of the color, and flavor, is contained, naturally taste different from red wine made from the same grape variety.
Some cheese manufacturers offer the same type of cheese, like American or Cheddar, in yellow and white. Sometimes there is no difference between these cheeses of the same brand and type other than color, yet individual consumers prefer one color over another even though they taste the same.
Remember the clear beer and clear cola introduced in the early 1990s? They were supposed to taste the same as their colorful, traditional counterparts, but alas, while the color was intriguing at first, the flavor was forgettable, which is why you won't find any on store shelves today. The purported image of purity could not overcome consumer preference for the color traditionally associated with the product.
Sampling will answer questions about taste. Cooking demos and photographs can illustrate how color can visually liven up a dish.
The moral of this marketing story is that color is a powerful attribute that can be the very essence of your business' identity and an intrinsic part of how people experience food. So give color careful consideration in all your marketing decisions.
The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.