We are in a color-obsessed industry. Brand colors, in particular, are critical. Consumers have iconic brand colors seared into their memories. That’s why they can pick out the bottle of Tide in the grocery store from 30 feet away. In fact, some colors like Tide Orange, Coca-Cola Red, and UPS Brown are so iconic that if there were a “color line-up” of various shades of orange, red, and brown, we would be able to correctly pick the brand colors out of the line-up every time, right? Think again.

The reality is, consumers have pretty faulty color memory. This innate human frailty was the premise of a recent blog post by Eddy Hagen on Insights4PrintCEO.com. The post was titled “You Can’t Correctly Remember an Iconic Color, Not Even Coca-Cola Red.” It was inspired by a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, which found that people’s color memories are actually quite poor. Based on the results of this study, Hagen devised his own test. (Click here to take it.) He created a slide show of six color patches in varying shades of red, all with the Coca-Cola logo superimposed. He then asked people to choose the correct Coca-Cola Red.

All of the reds were well-known brand colors, including Tesla, Adobe, and of course, Coca-Cola. Despite the fact that Coca-Cola Red is embedded in the fabric of American culture, the majority of people got it wrong. I took the test myself, and so did I. Granted, I wasn’t viewing the test on a calibrated monitor, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

At the outset, I thought, “Of course I can accurately identify Coke’s brand color. Can’t everyone?” But when faced with all six color options, suddenly I was second-guessing myself. The one I selected was very close, but it was still a brand color that belonged to someone else. My husband, who has an extraordinary eye for color, also took the test. He got it wrong, too. (We each picked different colors.)

Hagen’s conclusions?

If my feeling is right, if other studies that I’ve seen are right, our color memory isn’t that good at exactly remembering a brand color. Yes, we will remember that it’s a vibrant red. But which vibrant red? That’s another story. I guess you could easily swap Coca-Cola red with Adobe red without anyone noticing or anyone bothering….Except for the brand owner, maybe.

As to be expected, Hagen’s column got a lot of comments from people concerned about any hint that color standards should be loosened based how inaccurate people’s color memories are. But I’m not sure that, when it comes to the results of these studies, we can fault color memory alone. How do most of us consume information? Digitally, and once color goes into the digital realm, brands lose control. To prove it to myself, I Googled images for Coca-Cola Red, and as expected, the results showed images in which the red looked quite different from one image to the other. My red is in there. So is my husband’s, and they aren’t in the same image.

How can we be faulted for remembering brand color incorrectly when non-brand-standard color is all around us? Which Coca-Cola Red am I supposed to be remembering? The one on Coca-Cola’s print materials, where color can be controlled, or the ones I see most often in the world around me?

Despite the challenge, this doesn't mean that brand standards should be loosened. It is because brand standards are held to the greatest consistency possible that we come to associate specific colors with specific brands.

Furthermore, one of the aspects of Hagen’s test was running the colors in a slide show, not side by side, because the human brain does better when comparing colors to one another than trying to remember them in isolation. Yet, on a retail shelf, how do we see color? In comparison to others. When you look down the retail aisle, you don’t see a whole variety of brand colors in shades of red. You see Pepsi Blue, Mountain Dew Green, Off-Brand Purple Grape, and...yes, Coke Red. It’s why competitive brands don’t pick colors close to one another.

Still, standardizing and trying to control brand color can be time-consuming and costly. So...

  • if consumers have really poor color memories, and
  • if brand standards cannot be controlled online where most people consume information, and
  • if consumers identify brands on retail shelves where few brand colors are close enough to make perfect color control a true differentiator from one product to another,

...what is the true value of maintaining a brand’s color standards? Or is the ability to perfectly hit brand color every time across all production devices just a competitive differentiator among printers?

I’d love your opinion!