How many hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are spent on getting perfect color match in this industry? That’s why it’s so interesting to read Eddy Hagen’s columns that challenge our assumptions.

Just recently, Hagen was at it again. He had conducted an informal survey of 108 people asking about how product/package damages and color differences impact consumers purchase decisions. The survey is titled, “The Influence of Color Deviations, Damaged Packages on Shopping Behavior and Brand Loyalty.”

Hagen starts out by acknowledging that crafting a survey on human behavior is very difficult. There are so many variables, including subconscious ones. Trying to do a study in a controlled environment allows you to control many of the variables, but it tends to negatively impact results because participants might not show normal behavior under controlled conditions. There is also the very real impact of “question framing,” or the phenomenon in which the way you pose the question can influence the results (sometimes dramatically).

The survey was designed to get the most accurate assessment of consumer behavior possible. The results?

When it comes to packaging damage, it doesn't impact consumers’ purchase decisions significantly. Consumers didn’t care about color deviations either. Hagen notes that, in relation to color, this was also the conclusion arrived at by Kate Goguen (RIT, 2012) in her thesis titled “The Influence of Color on Purchasing Decisions Related to Product Design.” So Hagen is in good company.

The number one reason for switching brands, Hagen found, was competitive promotions or that a shopper’s favorite brand was not in stock. Variations in color on the packaging ranged very, very low—almost negligibly—on the “reasons to switch” scale.

Personally, I’ve not purchased certain food products because the food looked discolored, washed out, or otherwise unappetizing on the label. Intellectually, I realize that the color of the green beans on the label may or may not bear any resemblance to the color of the beans inside the can, but there is the other part of me that thinks, if the manufacturer doesn’t have enough quality control to get the color right on the label, what kind of quality control do they have in the food processing operation? Plus, the color of the beans may just churn my stomach. Hard to pay for a product that does that.

But that’s not what Hagen is talking about. He’s not talking about color variations that make food look unappetizing. He’s talking about slight color shifts (in the range of a few Delta-Es) in brand colors that printers agonize over. Is your Tide more or less orange this month than last?

Of course, whether or not consumers care about color shifts implies that they could recognize the correct color in the first place. Hagen has also found that most consumers’ ability to do this is highly suspect.

Hagen referenced a test he’s been running for a while now, one that tests the consumers’ color memory. The results continue to show that most consumers cannot pick iconic brand colors such as Coca-Cola red out of a line-up of similar colors. I took the test myself some time back, and I got it wrong. My husband took it, too, and he has the best eye for color of anyone I know. He also got it wrong.  Hagen also referenced a test he did previously in which one out of three print professionals and one out of four general consumers claimed to see differences between identical flat packages. When they were folded rather than flat, the numbers were even higher. We are so conditioned to be hyper-critical about color that we notice differences that aren’t even there!

Back to Hagen’s current survey. He found that even when people do see a difference in color in their favorite brand packaging, 78% said they would buy it anyway. Only 22% would postpone the purchase because of a color variation. “The average consumer doesn’t live color like we do,” Hagen says. “These kind of [even fairly large color] differences don’t get noticed unless you specifically ask [people] to notice them.”

He concludes the post by emphasizing that this is not an excuse for poor print quality, only that basic ISO standards are fine when it comes to consumer acceptance. Printers often demand tighter tolerances simply because they feel they should.

What are your thoughts? Are ISO tolerances sufficient? Have printers made them a competitive differentiator whether consumers actually care about the actual differences or not?