Understanding Colour Psychology for Restaurants & Brands
Even in the food & hospitality industry, colour has a huge role in visual perception, emotion and human behaviour. I am so fascinated by this topic because it is interesting to understand our subconscious and how we react by the colours we see. Most people, including myself are unaware of how much a colour or ‘chromatics’ can influence reaction and triggers our appetites.
“we eat with our eyes.” “This makes colour critical in most every aspect of successful restaurant designs.” — Jackie Lohrey resource
In this post I go over basic colours to help understand why colour is important for your brand, restaurant and recognition. Wether your choosing a colour for a logo, brand colours, the interior design of your restaurant or the design of your menu. This will give you a thorough understanding of which colours to use and which to steer clear from.
Psychological Properties: Red is known to stimulate and excite and relates closely to passion and energy.
In relation to food: Enhances the appetite, when we see red we get and energy boost, similarly this happens when we are ready to feast and neurons fire up in the hypothalamus part of the brain. Also known to heighten nerve impulses and increase heart rate.
Examples: Red is the most common and effective colour used in the food industry. For example when you look at many food corporations or fast-food chains the majority will have red in either their logo or variations of their brand essence. When you think food and the colour red you may associate it with tender meat, a juicy strawberry or even a sweet candy. Your mouth may just be watering right now.
Exceptions to the rule: Because red is such an intense colour it does happen to cause reaction much quicker than any other colour, causing impulse or urgent response. It has been tested that red table cloths will actually make a person eat more, but use the colour cautiously since too much of a good thing can be harmful.
Psychological Properties: Blue is generally used for corporate and conservative brands and is actually the most popular colour in America rated at 35% — according to Wikipedia. The colour represents security, and trust. But not necessarily the best choice for a restaurant.
In relation to food: Blue is actually known to suppress appetite and reduces hunger. Simply put: the most unappetizing colour.
Examples: The largest success in blue food over the past decade has been the introduction of the blue M&M. Yes it was a success, but would it work in anything other than blue candy? Highly unlikely other than a few exceptions. Blue is one of the most repulsive colours when it comes to food and will actually draw people away from eating. Why is this? Because blue is not commonly seen in food other than blue berries, Adirondack potatoes and most of the time reminds us of spoiled foods. Studies have shown that blue is just a turn off — it’s a human instinct I guess. Blue used in restaurants can also hinder a persons appetite though use of blue table cloths, blue walls and surroundings.
Exceptions to the rule: With a bit of optimism, blue can be used to it’s advantage. Have you seen the low calorie ‘blue label’ food packs in the stores? Utilizing the reaction people have towards the colour and using it to its advantage by hinting at weight lose or reduce appetite. Blue is also very common in seafood restaurants mainly to reflect the colour of the water. It screams fresh! Some honourable mentions: The Blue Goose brand which I feel plays on the idea that we should consider quality over quantity. And the grk brand which ties in very well with Greek culture.
Psychological Properties: Although they say never where orange to an interview because it makes you look unprofessional. Orange is also classified as energizing, bold, optimistic and fun, but should be used carefully as it has negative aspects that reflects immaturity and being superficial.
In relation to food: One thing that pops into our heads is probably orange juice, right? Orange encourages impulse and comes off to some as a comfort colour. Orange typically stimulates all senses which of course has a lot to do with the experience of a restaurant. It can encourage sales in all sorts of dining areas including cafes, bistros and diners, while stimulating appetite and conversation. If surrounded by the colour customers will eat, talk and spend longer time periods resulting in spending more money — since orange is associated with good value.
Examples: Tropicana and Fanta top the chart for obvious reasons. And brands like Home Depot is a great example because it is aligned with value.
Exception to the rule: There are some high-end brands that have dominated the market with an orange palette like Hermes (the high-end bag brand) or Veuve Clicquot, anyone? So there is much hope for orange after all!
Psychological Properties: Yellow often portrays happiness and can be an uplifting colour. Enthusiasm, optimism and youthfulness are also general associations. Be careful, as it can sometimes come off as inexpensive depending on how it is used.
In relation to food: Yellow can be commonly mistaken in the food industry, although it screams youthfulness this can sometimes be mistaken for being unsophisticated or naïve. Although yellow triggers the analytical side of our brains it looses touch with our creative side, which food is generally about creativity, no? Correct me if I am wrong. So an all yellow colour palette can be hard to trust as it encourages our analytical instinct and may result in lack of creative freedom. Although subtle tones like beige is more-so common in food as it relates more to the natural side of the yellow spectrum. Beige is found in natural foods, which gives off a earthy feel or even the morning sun.
Examples: They say yellow can cause uneasiness, which can benefit fast food restaurants who want fast customer turnaround. This can be established by painting the walls yellow or even making yellow a dominant brand colour. Although when used as a secondary colour in a logo — yellow is generally not much of a harm. Big Brands like Burger King, McDonalds, Subway or Lays are good examples.
Psychological Properties: Green has been used to portray wealth, relaxation, balance, harmony, nature, environment and creativity.
In relation to food: Green is commonly used in food because it is associated with being healthy, vegetarian, fresh and generally speaking: good taste.
Examples: Not only is there a plethora of green examples but sometimes they take on different meanings. Green encourages relaxation because of its correlation to nature. Starbucks, one of the largest coffee chains in the world has established it’s logo using primarily green. The Starbucks brand is subconsciously hinting to sit down and relax. Whole foods and Green Giant are two other great examples — they want to be seen as fresh and healthy. Even a lot of organic food brands use primarily green.
Psychological Properties: We associate pink with sincerity, calming, feminine and romantic.
In relation to food: Generally associated with sweet, pig skin or even a feminine brand. When you see food that is pink most of the time it is easy to think it is unnatural, and not so healthy. But it has calming and settling aspects which do well for the brand Pepto Bismol — mind you I wouldn’t consider it a food per say. So branding a restaurant in these colours may not be the best bet, unless your out to sell sweets or setting up a bakery.
Examples: Pink M&Ms, pop, candy, even pink lemonade. At Valentine’s Day, how much pink do you consume?
Psychological Properties: Having a classic appeal, black is commonly used to portray power, authority, strength and sophistication — although it can be somewhat of a cold colour.
In relation to food: Menu Engineer, Gregg Rapp has mentioned that black ink on white paper has the most contrast which means the menu is most legible. In a logo, black and white portrays the sense of simplicity and leaving colour out can give a chic feel.
Examples: A lot of the restaurants listed in the Worlds 50 Best have a black logo. Reason? Simplicity and sophistication. When speaking of black food, on the other hand may not necessarily come up as the most desirable colour — unless you happen to be visiting Burger King in Japan. Some of the top foods associated with black are black liquorice, squid ink pasta, kalamata olives, burnt ends, Jack Daniels and black rum. With the ever so popular rustic design in the food industry, black chalk boards are quite popular. Although try avoiding too much black in your environmental design, unless your a spin off concept of ‘Dinner in the Dark’ like o.noir in Toronto.
Psychological Properties: Solidarity, maturity and reliability — although if overused can give off a sense of depression and no emotion.
In relation to food: Straight out grey is not commonly used in food, grey is highly used in combination with accent colours that can be quite appealing, while in contrast. Seen mostly in packaging for teas, grey has a earthy tone to it and can be associated with natural ingredients. Have you ever served a dish on a stone like plate? Silver on the other hand is much more so popular, as it has representation of class, cleanliness — think of those stainless steel counters. I know I have seen it more times then not of silver bottles and tin packaging.
Examples: With grey, there were a few examples that stood out mainly as mentioned in tea packages, labels and in combination with other colours on menus. Silver on the other hand is widely seen in primarily packaging alcoholic and non. High end brands with high-end print.
Psychological Properties: Stimulates innocence, clarity, purity, hope.
In relation to food: White in restaurant design happens to neutralize food colours and contributes to glare. Although white space, on the other hand is very important in menu design as this contributes to effective legibility of a menu. When used properly white can give off a sense of cleanliness or clarity and is usually most popular as a secondary or accent colour. When plating, white space can accent a dish bringing focus to the food . Just Google ‘food presentation’ and you will see what I mean. Although, if overused; things can become dull and pain so always be cautious.
Examples: The Burger’s Priest is a good example accented with black and yellow to give a sense of purity. White and negative space works well to accent the a primary colour in most brands. As mentioned black and white logos are very common when the brand is giving a sense of simplicity and sophistication.
Psychological Properties: Generally associated with royalty and lavish lifestyle. Some others: wisdom, respect, power, creativity, dignity and spirituality.
In relation to food: Purple although similar to blue is more — so tolerated, but not a fan favourite by any means. Purple is not very common in food brands or restaurants, but can pop up in foods like berries, wine, fruits and legumes. Oh, and we can’t forget our good ol’ Dairy Milk by Cadbury. They even trademarked the colour to be synonymous with their brand. Yup, they literally own Pantone 2685C.
Examples: Taco Bell is probably the most prominent purple logo in regards to large chains showing a contrast in the market. However I would question why Taco Bell rebranded to purple in 1995 and steer away from a great colour palette? I’m not really sure but they have recently brought out the ‘Cantina Menu’ with what seems to be a slight steer away from purple to a fresh green hue. In my opinion, Pepsico is testing the waters with a sub-brand and getting customers to think it has a healthy side — interesting to say the least.
Psychological Properties: Captures the feeling of being grounded, sincere, reliable, wholesome, comfortable and inexpensive.
In relation to food: Brown is associated with coffee shops, pastries and chocolate. Brown can also be used for organic presence, natural farming and can stimulate appetite.
Examples: Most of the time, organic food brands use brown along side green to associate fresh and natural. Brands that are highly recognized using brown include: Godiva, Hershey’s, Balzac’s and Second Cup — although they had a ‘test’ rebrand to a full black logo — wether they discard their brown logo is TBD.
Psychological Properties: Having a transparent or clear packaging is almost a dead give-away that a brand has nothing to hide. Clear resembles transparency, honest and in some cases healthy.
In relation to food: Not only does this apply to food but when you have a large open window to your restaurant this resembles a safe space and encourages you to look inside.
Examples: Over the past 50 years plastics have become a booming packaging source and it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. Again plastic and clear packaging shows the essence of the product which can be very successful when displaying food.
Exception to the rule: Not all food is glamorous in transparent packaging. Just imaging it, refried beans in a clear container? Maybe not the best bet as it wouldn’t be appetizing to see brown mush — thankfully it comes in a can. So of course use only when it is best suitable.
Keep in mind that the state of a colour is very important. Whether it is a saturated, darkened, intensified or brightened. These variations of a pure state colour can largely effect its perceived intention. For example a beige (muted yellow) can be commonly found in breakfast restaurants to reflect the essence of morning — sun glow or even a leisurely relaxed atmosphere. Whereas, bold primary colours are often used in fast food restaurants, to encourage quick turnover.
When using multiple colour combinations, also consider that some may resonate with their original meaning but may alter if placed with a colour that off-puts its initial profile. Always consider your primary colour and your secondary/complimentary colour. It is great if they contrast or compliment one another.
Why is colour so important? Whether your a graphic designer or a restauranteur a specific colour palette will influence your audience and create a reaction. So picking the right colour is essential to getting the right audience and the right response. And a Restaurateurs objective is to gain returning customers and customers enjoy brand recognition — which is established well through colour.
Colours can determine the dining experience and can be subtly to extremely influential. Although as Wikipedia puts it: ‘the interface between colour and environmental stimuli is a highly complex interface and one which is open to the influence of a large number of factors’ — and although these are just guidelines to go by, it is still important to do research before picking your colour scheme because as we all know colour can be very subjective, so choose wisely.
Looking for a trending colour? Pantone every year comes out with a trending colour, so have a look on their website to check it out. But be sure it fits your strategy, trending colours may not be the best choice.
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