Thursday, May 17, 2018

Do you remember a logo?

I stumbled across a quote the other day that I found interesting. This was on the Coca-Cola website:

"There is no Pantone color for Coca-Cola red, but when you see it, you know it."

Ah! To be tanning under the Coke Red Sun!

This sounds like one of those factoids that everyone knows is true, so nobody would be crazy enough to actually test it. Well, guess what? I know a few crazy people. In fact, one of my best friends, Eddy Hagen, has recently tested this very thing with an online test: how well can you pick out Coke red?

(As an aside, here is the process for joining the John the Math Guy's Best Friend Club: Connect with me on social media. Contact me somehow or other with a message that does not contain the phrase "John the Math Guy is a doofus." Then you're in. If you just want to get on my email list, then send an email to to subscribe.)

There are two tests in Eddy's blog. In the first test, Eddy tests your short-term color memory . You are shown a color, and then asked to pick it out of a line-up later. That one is kind of a warm-up to the real test. In the second test, he shows you a bunch of colors and asks you to pick out Coke red.

Do people know Coke red when they see it, as the Coca-Cole website suggests? He shares the results in another blog post. I don't wanna give anything away, but the title of this post is You can’t correctly remember an iconic color, not even Coca-Cola red.

Which one makes you thirsty?

Who is right??!?!? Let's get to the bottom of this!

Brand color is important

Brand colors are important, especially if you have a brand to sell. Here is what Axel Kling (Print Quality Assurance Manager for Coke) has to say about the importance of brand colors:

In today’s marketplace of unlimited beverage choices, a brand’s first point of contact is most likely to be at the point of purchase. And how well your product stands out on shelf could determine whether it’s put in the shopping cart or left behind.

I know most of my readers have private chefs who do their grocery shopping, but imagine if you will, being in the snack aisle of a grocery. You are trying to find your favorite bran cereal with raisins. Just reading that line, I'm gonna guess that you're thinking "purple". Am I right??! Of course, the image below wasn't any clue.

When I am old, I shall eat cereal out of purple boxes

The bran owners of the various raisin brands have trained their cereal boxes to be distinctive colors so that they can jump off the shelf into your shopping cart. And lets, face it. Nothing says "raisin bran demographic" quite like the color purple.

This is an aside, but how can Kellog's and Post and Trader Joe's and Total and John the Math Guy Breakfast Foods all use the name Raisin Bran? Interesting trademark factoid: The Skinner Manufacturing Company was the first to sell raisin bran, back in 1926. It trademarked the name, but in 1944, the Supreme Court rescinded the trademark, saying that you can't trademark a simple description of a product.

Speaking of trademarks, the color purple, and brand colors ... In 2004 Cadbury applied for a British trademark for the color purple (Pantone 2685C)  "applied to the whole visible surface, or being the predominant colour applied to the whole visible surface, of the packaging of the goods." Nestle objected, and their application was denied. It seems you kinda have to have a mark, if you want to have it trademarked. But, this trademark application in 2004 was a revision of an earlier trademark from 1995, which is still in force, at least until Nestle contests that trademark. 

Imagine my surprise when I found out that the chocolate wasn't purple!

This is in the UK. I apologize in advance to my British friends and enemies, but I'm not all that excited about British law. I mean, back in 1492, we fought the Spanish-American war to get away from having to follow your laws about tacks in our tea. What about US trademark law and colors?

I read up a bit on Wikipedia about color trademarks. In the US, you can trademark a color so long as it serves no other purpose other than to distinguish your product. So, Johnson & Johnson can trademark the name Band Aid, but not the color, since that serves as camouflage on certain people's skin.

There are a number of colors that are trademarked in the US, as shown in the image below. I compiled these from the Wikipedia article and the Business Insider article Can You Identify These 12 Brands By Their Trademarked Colors Alone?

I am gonna conclude that at the very least, brand owners think that brand colors are important.

It's not just about being able to find your favorite cereal

Color is about brand recognition, It helps you find a specific product within a dazzling array of colors. But the prevailing wisdom is that it also communicates something about a product. Red universally means romance or hookers, except when it's used on a fire truck or a stop sign. And of course, it doesn't mean romance if you are in China, where red signifies joy and luck. Or on one of my earlier blog posts where I decided it just signifies excitement, which explains why double-decker buses are red. But trust me. The meaning of a color is universal and unambiguous.

John spent the better part of an afternoon looking for his cereal

I have heard several presentations at conferences where the speaker says something like "color accounts for 86.3% of our buying decisions". As a math guy, I know that 95.4% of all statistics are made up, so, is there any definitive research behind the importance of brand color? Or is this just one of those statistics that gets quoted enough so that it becomes established fact?

Here is a quote from Daivata Patil that sounds authoritative:

Color is ubiquitous and is a source of information. People make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products. About 62‐90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone. 

Authoritative, with numbers and everything. But the article does not describe how these numbers were determined or even give a reference to where they came from. Hmmm.... urban legend?

Here is a similar quote from Axel's presentation. Remember Axel? The color guy with Coke? He attributes this quote to Jill Morton's Color Matters website. Both attribute it to Loyola University.

Color increases brand recognition by up to 80%. 

I googled this quote to try to find a link to the actual study. Note that I put quotes around the words so that Google knew that I was looking for those exact words in that order. Goggle told me there were "About 2,170,000 results"! I admit to not reading through them all. I looked at the first ten hits, trying to find the title or author of the study, or maybe a link. All of them mention Loyola, and several of the web pages reference Jill Morton. None of them give any more information about the study.

Time for an infamous John the Math Guy tirade. This is not Science. I'm not saying that I have reason to doubt the statement, or that the various places that provide this quote are required to track down and report the original source. It's just that, for me, I would like to assess the strength of the argument. Was this an undergrad student who made up the numbers the night before the term paper was due? A professor who assembled twenty students for a little test? Or was this a master's thesis with hundreds of volunteers following a rigid experimental protocol?

Gregory Ciotti expresses my concern a bit more emphatically than wishy-washy me:

Most of today's conversations on colors and persuasion consist of hunches, anecdotal evidence and advertisers blowing smoke about "colors and the mind."

Getting back to the topic

Let me take a minute to try to remember where I was going with all of this. Oh yeah. Eddy Hagen's experiment about Coke red recognition.

Eddy's online experiment carefully explains the methodology and the results. It's Science, but I'm not gonna claim that Eddy's online experiment is good solid Science, and I don't think Eddy would either. He acknowledges that not all monitors are calibrated, and surveys where the participants are self-selected are a bit less rigorous that random selection. It could be that zealous PepsiCo employees deliberately failed the test to discredit their competitor. Or it could be that some of the individuals clicked at random just cuz it was late at night and they were waiting for the pizza guy to arrive. did another test of people's ability to recall brand logos. They brought in 156 people, and had them draw the logos of ten well-known companies from memory. This involved recalling not only color, but the shape and text of the logo.

Can you draw these from memory?

They have some stats on various aspects of the logos, but I did my own counting. I looking only at whether they got all the right colors, without adding extraneous ones. The results below are not all that fabulous, especially for multi-colored logos.

Green, Orange, Red
Burger King
Blue, Orange, Red
Foot Locker
Black, Red
Blue, Yellow
Blue, Red
Blue, Yellow

I will point out that I was rather lenient about allowing different shades of the correct color. I allowed an orange flavored yellow to count as a yellow, or for Ikea blue to be too light or too dark. The image below shows the variation in color for Satyrbucks, which uses only green in the logo.

156 guesses at Starbucks green

At the far left, you see all 156 logos as drawn by the participants in the survey. (You can see a full sized version of this on website.) In the middle drawing, I pulled all of the green pixels from each drawing, and averaged them together to show the green that the participant chose. At the far right, I show the 21 contestants that came within 10 DE2000 of the true Starbucks green. For reference, a common tolerance for commercial printing a color is 3.0 DE2000. Only two people out of the 156 participants were able to create a color from memory that would have been deemed acceptable printing of that logo.


I have made the assumption that there was an unbroken chain of proper color management throughout this process. If I had to put money on that, I would say that I would prefer to not put money on that. I don't say that to disparage at all. I just know that the bar for rigor in Science is pretty high. But, looking at the middle image above... I rather doubt that any deficiencies in the rigor of this test could have caused that much variation in color.

Another caveat is in the interpretation of the results. This is a test of the participant's ability to recall the proper color from memory (as in Eddy's Coke red test), but also a test of the participant's ability to reproduce that color using the software provided. So, the logo drawing test is harder than the task of trying to find your favorite raisin bran.


Eddy provided me with an interesting anecdote: "To put that unique Coke red in perspective: in the LinkedIn ‘Printing Production Professionals’ one of the printers that works for Coca-Cola shared that in the X-mas edition, the Coke red is slightly darker… (which I checked in my collection of Coke cans and it is correct) So if color is soooooo important, how does this different Coke red impact sales?"

I'm still kinda pondering why Eddy has a Coke can collection... but these two experiments beg the question about how precisely a brand color needs to be defined. Both experiments are well above the level of urban legend expressed by the statement "Color increases brand recognition by up to 80%". But neither experiment quite fulfills the high bar of rigor required to be accepted as peer-reviewed Science with a capital S. I don't expect to see either in the next edition of Color Research and Application.

But, the two experiments are suggestive, and that suggestion is a contradiction between the brand owner's expectations of what is needed and the psycho-physics of the color that we see.

In the next installment in this series, I will take a closer look at the Science that has been done, especially the Science having to do with our memory of colors. If you want a bit of a foretaste, look through the references below. I am going to pretend to have digested them in the next blog post.


Bae, G. L., M. Olkkonen, S. Allred, and J. Flombaum, Why some colors appear more memorable than others: A model combining categories and particulars in color working memory, J Exp Psychol Gen. 2015 Aug;144(4):744-63

Belcher, Teri, and Kevin Harvey, The Influence of Color, ANTEC 2007

Bartleson, C. J., Memory Colors of Familiar Objects, Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol 50, No 1, Jan 1960

Burnham, Robert W., and Joyce Clark, A Color Memory Test, Journal of the Optical Society of America, Vol 44, No 8, Aug 1954

Ciotti, Gregory, The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding

Cunningham, Meagan, The Value of Color Research in Brand Strategy, Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2017, 5, 186-196

Elliot, Andrew J., Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work, Frontiers in Psychology, April 2015, Vol 6, Article 368

Goguen, Kate, The Influence of color on purchasing decisions related to product design, Master's Thesis, Rochester Institute of Technology, Feb 20, 2012

Javed, Saad Ahmed and Sara Javed, The impact of product’s packaging color on customers’ buying preferences under time pressure, Marketing and Branding Research 2(2015) 4-14

Kling, Axel, The Importance of Color Management for a Consumer Product Company, Printing Industries of America Color Management Conference, 2011

Patil, Daivata, Coloring consumer`s psychology using different shades the role of perception of colors by consumers in consumer decision making process: a micro study of select departmental stores in Mumbai city, India, Journal of Business and Retail Management Research (JBRMR) Vol 7 Issue 1 October 2012

Mohebbi, Behzad, The art of packaging: An investigation into the role of color in packaging, marketing, and branding, International Journal of Organizational Leadership 3(2014) 92-102

Morton, Jill, Color & Branding, Color Matters

Satyendra Singh, Impact of color on marketing, Management Decision, 2006, Vol. 44 Issue: 6, pp.783-789


  1. It's not some dark secret or weird believe why I have a can collection: it's to check if the iconic Coke red is always and everywhere the same (which is not the case btw). So for educational reasons. You can see a part of my collection in this new article:

    1. I appreciate you clarifying why you have a Coke Can Collection! I do recommend giving his blog post a quick read. He covers some points that we don't usually think about when we are admiring the splendid printing job on a Coke can.