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International Bulletin of Business Administration ISSN: 1451-243X Issue 11 (2011) © EuroJournals, Inc. 2011 http://www.eurojournals.com

Response to Color: Literature Review with Cross-Cultural Marketing Perspective

Sable, Paul Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Akcay, Okan Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Abstract This paper will include a review of research and literature on the cultural and psychological associations and meaning of colors in a cross-cultural marketing perspective. It will introduce and provide evidence that an individual response to color is not only learned or innate but also can be influenced by physiological aspects as well. Global marketing individuals need to recognize; how colors are perceived across world markets, how meaning and associations that color conveys across various cultures can change, how physiological factors can affect our perceptions of color. Color is created in the brain to act as a perceptual tool for our visual-cognitive and visual-affective functions. Both functions have a considerable effect in shaping our responses and influencing the manner we perceive and act upon the world around us.

Keywords: Color Literature review, marketing response to color, physiological color perception.

Introduction

Marketers, advertisers and graphic artists agree that the effects of color on the consumer certainly can help facilitate the exchange process. Studies have shown how color can grab and retain attention, can stimulate emotional responses, can affect an individual’s perception, can form attitudes, and can improve learning and persuasiveness. Color is influential at every level in the marketplace, from brand logo, image, signage, display, packaging, and even the product itself. Color exercises very strong effects plus it induces reactions in individuals based on both physiological instincts and associations. While some colors may have universal meaning and associations, research has shown that similar colors within varied cultures have disparate associations and meanings. Within the context and limitations of past studies it can be said that there are strong cultural variations in the perceptions, preferences and associations of color. Global marketers are recognizing how colors are perceived across world markets. Not only what meanings or associations they convey within varied cultures, but also how innate and developed physiological factors can affect our response to color.

What is Color and How Do We See It?

In reality, our physical world has no color – there are only light waves of different wave lengths. It is left to the retina cover of an individual’s eye to distinguish among the bands of light that makes the

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world a rainbow to us. We are born with the ability to take in color and thus, the eye is a complex receptor (Wagner, 1985). Simply, the rods and cones of a person’s retina respond to light whereby an electrical chemical process sends signals (by way of the optic neurons) to the visual center of the brain where seeing really occurs. The cones in most retinas are of three types – those sensitive only to blue, to green and to red. They work in complex combinations to provide the many color variations we see. In fact, the human eye can see over 7 million colors. Interestingly, not all signals reach the brain’s visual center; about 20% stop at the pituitary gland. This gland sends out chemicals that signal other glands in the body. These trigger our response to color (Wagner, 1985).

Physiological Response to Color Varies

Some research has been conducted recently on the biological structure underlying color vision to include the “receiving” of color and the glandular response to that color (Kosslyn, 2003). The pituitary gland, upon receiving a color signal, can send out chemicals that signal other endocrine glands in the body. For example, when the eye sees red, the pituitary gland sends a signal to the adrenal medulla gland, which is located at the top of the kidneys. The adrenal medulla then secretes epinephrine (adrenaline) which causes an increase in an arousal state. Emotions in general (excitement, alertness, calmness) can be enhanced by the gland secretion. According to one study in the U.S., color can help relieve stress, encourage activity or promote socialization. The color blue has positive healing effects, red increases appetite and blood pressure. Green is associated with life and growth and reduces fear and anger; it also helps to decrease stress. Most people respond to white as a symbol of purity and cleanliness. Gray can be a depressive color but it is also a creative color (Wagner, 1985). Many studies have shown that demographic variables such as age, gender and ethnicity also influence the effectiveness of color (Sliver, 1988; Paul, 2002). For example, eyes naturally turn yellow with age, altering people’s perception of colors (Harrington & Mackie, 1993). Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., has been avoiding yellow and blue in their packaging, targeting the health conscious baby boomers. Yellow and blue don’t appear as sharply distinct to older eyes (Byron, 2011). In addition, several studies have demonstrated significant differences in color among people of differing geographical heritage to include economic development or even sunlight exposure as explained below. Could people from widely varied geographic areas develop different color saturation levels, through physiological conditioning which could affect their meanings, associations and preferences? Variation in brightness and saturation can play an important role in colors’ perception and association with behavior (Crozier, 1996). Within a region dominantly filled with sunlight, colors can subdue brilliant light; deeper tones of many colors will absorb more light and reduce the amount of reflected sunlight. It has been proposed that in areas where sunlight is extremely bright, colors and contrasts decline in intensity. Consequently, people living closer to the equator have more highly developed vision (a larger number of efficient rods in the retina). It has been documented that people living near the equator possess greater amounts of yellow intraocular pigmentation in the eye that causes a depression in color discrimination and for example, a reduction in the perception of blueness. People from northern latitudes, where light is reflected less directly, have developed a more refined color vision. Light does affect the perception of color. Studies have attempted to link lighting with mood and cognitive abilities and found inconsistent results (Knez, 2001), but lighting does contribute to determining “color appearance”. Visual spectral sensitivity is mediated by our retinal cones (Wurtman, 1975). A number of recent studies have been done relating colors to ethnic segments in the U.S., indicating specific ethnic differences in color preferences (Silver, 1998; Crozier, 1996; Jameson, 2005; Ogden, et al., 2010). Hispanics are usually drawn to brighter, stronger, more intense colors. African Americans prefer deeply saturated colors and Asian Americans have a significantly lower preference for green than any other ethnic segment. Blue is number one overall choice of color by ethnic groups,

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but the second most popular color varies among them. Also, African Americans and Hispanics lean proportionately more toward purple, Asians toward pink and Caucasians toward green (Paul, 2002).

Schools of Thought on Our Response to Color

There are a number of diverse viewpoints regarding an individual’s response to color and human behavior. The two major schools of thought are: color reaction could be of innate or instinctive origin (Grossman & Wisenblit, 1999) or of a learned/associative origin (Adams & Osgood, 1973; Hupka, et al., 1997). Are color preferences learned over time as shared affective meanings, are they a result of experience, are they a conscious association of language, literature and other cultural factors? There are some that argue (Crozier, 1996) that the difference in color associations are more a difference in latent philosophical religious attitudes than innate differences in the perception of color. There are also a number of studies (Boyatzis & Varghese, 1994; Krishna, 1972; Choungourian, 1968; Yang, 2001) suggesting that demographic factors such as age, sex and even ethnicity should also be considered in explaining the communication values of various colors (Paul, 2002) . A renewed area of research that perhaps can help individuals understand the development of color and color preferences is “associative learning”; indicating that perhaps a favorable experience (or conditioning) with a color leads to a preference for certain colors. Traditionally, classical conditioning researchers examine physiological responses in which a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus are paired and would elicit a conditioned response. Whereas classical conditioning is a specific mechanism for creating association, associative learning is a more broad application of classical conditioning and includes any systematic pairing of stimulus to create a connection among them (Bierley et al., 1985). This associative learning framework can be used to explain human physiological response to color. Researchers have suggested that color associations may have been formulated early in human history when man associated black/dark blue with night and therefore unknowness/positivity and bright yellow (sunlight) with alertness/arousal (McCracken, 1988). Other studies, mainly in the mid-90’s suggested that color may, indeed, have both an arousal component and an evaluative component as well (Kim & Bhargava, 1998; Shimp, 1991). More recently, researchers in the classical conditioning school have begun to discover that attitudes formulated through a conditioning process may result both from belief formation, a cognitive process, and perhaps even through direct “affect” transfer, which would be an emotional process.

Associative Learning & Culture

Associative learning can explain how certain colors have come to hold certain meanings for people in different cultures. In each culture, associations are learned by people based on connections they make between colors and their meanings. Most researchers agree that cultures do attribute similar or different meaning to colors. People in different cultures are exposed to different associations and thus develop color preferences on these cultural associations. For example, color has been shown in many studies to have religious associations. Orange for example, is the most sacred color in the Hindu religion, but has no significance to many other religions. The color itself is not even acknowledged as a color in Zambia and a point of interest is that orange is the least favorite color in the U.S., but the most favored in the Netherlands (Aslam, 2000; Madden et al., 2000). It is interesting to note some cross-cultural similarities exist as well. Government buildings and museums are associated with grey in an inordinate number of countries. In a cross-cultural study (Wiegersma & Van der Elst, 1988) blue was found to be the most preferred color, in general, across cultures. Jacobs (et al, 1991) conducted research on colors and their association with 13 words in four countries, Japan, China, South Korea and the U.S. The results showed distinct similarities and dissimilarities across just these four cultures. People in all four cultures associated blue with high

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quality, and black with power. But many colors had opposite meanings among the cultures (Aslam, 2006). Cultures also differ in their aesthetic expressions as colors represent different meanings and aesthetic appeal (Keegan & Green, 2011). Examples of disparate perception and response to color include: White symbolizes mourning or death in East Asia, but happiness, purity and birth in Australia and New Zealand. Blue is perceived as cold and evil in East Asia, cold in Sweden, but warmth in the Netherlands. Green represents danger or disease in Malaysia, envy in Belgium, love in Japan and sincerity and dependability in China. Red is unlucky in Nigeria, but lucky in China, Denmark and Argentina. Yellow represent warmth in the U.S., but infidelity in France. It is associated with jealousy in Russia, but pleasant, happy, good taste, royalty in China. Purple is the color of love in China and South Korea. Anger and envy in Mexico, sin and fear in Japan. Purple is considered expensive in China. In the U.S. blue is associated with boys, and pink with girls. But in Belgium, the association of blue for a boy and pink for a girl is reversed (Aslam, 2000; Sable & Akcay, 2010).

Color and Marketing

Marketers and advertisers understand the importance of color. For over 60 years, researchers have studied the effects of color and we know that they are multifaceted in facilitating the exchange process. We know that color can stimulate emotional response, affect persuasiveness, reflects prestige, and color can certainly affect a consumer’s overall perception of a product. In advertising, color has been shown to reinforce copy claims, improve learning and increase readership. Colors exercise powerful effects and induce reactions based on both instincts and associations. Colors alter the meaning of the objects or situations with which they are associated, and color preference can predict consumer behavior. Thus, color is an integral element of corporate and marketing communications. It induces moods and emotions, influences perception and helps companies position or differentiate themselves from the competition (Aslam, 2006). Color is a variable that belongs in the context of market trends. Bright, clean pastel colors dominated the ‘50s earth tones the ‘60s and ‘70s natural colors in the ‘80s, jewel tones in the ‘90s and bright colors ushered in the new millennium (Palmer, 2004; Ogden et al.,

2010).

Importance of Color in Branding

The use of color in branding has taken on new importance as more companies go global. In some cases, a standardized color can be used in all countries (Keegan & Green, 2011). Global brands such as BP & Canada Dry (green), Cadburys Chocolate (purple), Coca-Cola & Marlboro (red), IBM & Pepsi (blue), Hershey’s Chocolate (brown), and Kodak & Caterpillar (yellow) use color to differentiate, and stand out. Brands are fortified in memory by way of an “associative memory network.” Marketers use color to strengthen associations. This is the set of brands that come into our head when we have a need for something (e.g., rent-a-car companies). What company do you associate with the colors, red, yellow, blue, etc.? If consumers lack the motivation or ability to evaluate a product they may use signals or “extrinsic values” such as appearance or color to make a decision. In today’s world of product parity and competition (with lots of options and brands), branding and perhaps color has gained more importance. Color will also have more importance in countries where illiteracy prevails or the use of symbolism is widespread. International packaging, brand and product names also are often plagued by problems of language, pronunciation, meaning, cultural considerations and legalities and as a result, non-verbal cues have become increasingly important in positioning international brands quickly and effectively (Cateora et al., 2011; Keegan & Green, 2011).

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Human Color Categorization

Human color categorization has long been researched and investigated (see Hardin & Maffi, 1997), but the area has recently received more attention with many additional studies (Davidoff, et al., 1999; Lindsey & Brown, 2005; Kay & Regier, 2003; Robertson, et al., 2005) contributing to findings and literature. Most of the evidence suggests that there is a good deal of “universality” in color categorization across cultures, but there is a considerable amount of variation as well. If this is the case, what factors may the conflicting tendencies be attributed to? There are two perspectives on color categorization: The first is that the commonalities of color categorization by individuals and cultures are largely explained by human perceptual processing (Lindsey & Brown, 2006; Komarova et al., 2007). Another view is that socio-cultural factors contribute substantially to the ways color appearances are categorized and named by different ethno- linguistic groups (Davidoff et al., 1999; Robertson et al., 2005). The latter view suggests that societies that share similar environmental, pragmatic, and social circumstances are more likely to exhibit color categorization systems that resemble one another. Today, the consideration is more so that both universal perception processing (physical/physiological) and socio-cultural factors play substantial roles in the development and in the use of color categorization systems. There are also a number of studies suggesting that demographic factors as age, sex ethnicity and even geography may help explain the communication value of various colors.

Cross Cultural Responses to Color

Globalization has led people to become more sensitive to cultural diversity and this is especially important to companies that market their products/services across the boundaries of continents. For many years, anecdotal evidence and research in cross culture studies on color have suggested different colors take on different meanings and associations and thereby “affect” color preferences within these cultures (Jacobs et al., 1991). More recent research has focused on another important aspect that of the biological structure underlying color vision. These studies have suggested some very distinct commonalities that humans may have for color preferences. For example, blue is supposedly the best liked color across most cultures (Chattopadhyay et al., 2000). The findings of such studies lend credence to the fact that there may be opportunities for standardization in the usage of some colors globally. On the other hand, studies also have indicated that different “hue” and “chroma” (amount of pigment and the saturation of the pigment) can vary due to physiology and psychological differences (Gorn et al., 1997). Another stream of research has focused on the effects of hue (e.g., Bellizzi & Hite, 1992; Madden et al., 2000; Crowley, 1993). Perceptually, colors are generally received in three dimensions:

hue, saturation and brightness. Brightness and saturation are more widely shared by individuals than hue. Both brightness and saturation are polar dimensions (light-dark, pale-strong) that are clearly marked by magnitude, whereas hue is more complex. However, due to individual perceptual variation, hue is actually the dimension for which individual differences should be greatest intra-culturally (Jameson, 2005, Wexner, 1954). In fact, Kuehni (2001) convincingly showed that hues differ considerably across individuals and groups of individuals and those variations are quite significant for monochromatic lights, yet smaller for reflective surfaces. In addition, color variation in humans can be attributed to human trichromat color processing initiated by the absorption of photens by the three classes of cones in the human retina. Our neural signal on color thus can be different if there is a process deficiency and there can be various levels of deficiencies (Kamarona & Jameson, 2008). On the extreme level would be color blindness. Color deficiencies can vary among different racial ancestry groups and even gender. For example, within the United States’ Caucasian groups, color blindness occurs in about 7% of males and about 0.4% of the females (Sharp et al., 1999). It is also evident that some cultural communities that are geographically

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isolated or have a restricted gene pool (Finland and some Scottish islands) sometimes produce a high proportion of color blindness. Cross cultural response to color again brings up the universality versus cultural specificity of the effects of color. While it is evident that the physiological structures responsible for color vision in humans is universal (Davidoff, 1991), there may also be a culture-specific level as well. Exploring the relative role of basic and culture-specific effects could be helpful with decisions marketers may face whether to vary or standardize the colors used in different countries (offered by research of Gorn et. al.,

1997).

Conclusion and Discussion

Color literature is vast and can be highly fragmented. There are diverse viewpoints that color reaction and response in individuals could be of innate or instinctive origin or a learned/associative origin. The concept of color universality can also be fraught with risks as well. But most all agree that color does have a considerable effect on shaping our response and influencing the manner in which we perceive the world around us. To be sure, there are both many cross-cultural similarities as well as dissimilarities that exist and marketers need to be aware of them. This paper presents ideas from current literature plus introduces a number of ideas about physiological and biological differences, and changes in individuals that could also play an important role in color perception. Some continuing areas of further explanation would be: are color perception and associations of color stable over time in various cultures or do they change as a result of cultural association changes? Also, are there gender, age, ethnic or other demographic variables with perhaps resulting physiological differences that may cause specific target markets within a culture to react or respond differently to different colors? Finally does our cognitive response to color cause our physiological response or do the two occur in parallel?

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