Q&A: The Power of Money & Color: Symbols in Marketing

Posted on by Beth Negus Viveiros

Different people react differently to colors, symbols, names and other cues in their environment. In “Drunk Tank Pink,” author Adam Alter looks at the relationships between environmental features and our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Each chapter describes how a different feature affects individuals, ranging from the name a person was given at birth, to corporate symbols, to weather patterns.

alter-picAlter, an assistant professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, is a featured keynote speaker at LeadsCon Las Vegas, March 25-26 at the Mirage Hotel & Casino. Chief Marketer recently talked with Alter about the power of symbols, and what colors are the most important in marketing.

CHIEF MARKETER: You talk about the power of symbols in your book. In your opinion, what are the most powerful marketing symbols today? Historically?

ADAM ALTER: One of the most powerful symbols in the world of marketing is money, which sits at the root of all consumer behavior.  We know, for example, that people experience the act of handing over money in exchange for goods or services as a form of pain not unlike physical pain.  If you look at their brains as they pay for something—or even if they imagine parting with money—you see the same patterns of activity you might expect to see when they experience mild physical pain.

At the same time, if you destroy money in front of people, by burning or tearing it, the part of their brains that tends to be associated with the use of tools is activated.  In destroying money, you’re squandering the many possibilities that money brings, and since money is a tool that allows them to achieve those possibilities, their brains metaphorically revolt at that destruction.  This has important implications for pricing schemes.  Since we know that people experience pain each time they’re forced to part with money, the best move a business can make is minimizing the number of individual, discrete charges levied on the consumer.

It’s also wise to decouple the pain of paying from the experience, since paying tarnishes the enjoyment of the experience.  If, for example, you’re a resort owner, and you want your guests to enjoy the experience at the resort, it makes sense to charge the fees in one hit, rather than in a series of small doses, and to apply that charge as far away from the enjoyable part of the resort experience as possible—either long before the vacation begins, or after it ends.

CHIEF MARKETER: As you note, the true power of a symbol really lies in what consumers’ associate that symbol with. Once a symbol has a truly negative connotation (the swastika, for example), is it ever possible to rebrand it positively? Is it even worth the effort? Any examples you can think of? 

ALTER: It’s very difficult to change associations—and far easier to begin with a new symbol that hasn’t been tarred by a negative association.  My sense is that positive symbols become negative all the time—the swastika, for example, was associated with peaceable religions long before Nazism co-opted the symbol—but it’s much rarer for negative symbols to acquire positive associations.  Negative information is always stickier than positive information, and that’s certainly true in the domain of consumer behavior, where complaints and negative press are much more stubborn than positive press is beneficial.  Brands may occasionally come back from negative press, but I can’t think of many that have overturned strong negative associations.

CHIEF MARKETER: As you discuss in your book, color can also greatly influence peoples’ moods and attitudes. Red, for example, can cause a variety of emotions (not all positive), and yet it stands front and center in promotions for large brands like Target and in holiday marketing. Any thoughts on why red is such a powerful color in marketing and promotions?

ALTER: If the first goal of a brand is to capture attention (as most models of consumer behavior suggest), then red is an excellent choice.  It’s an arresting color that we’ve come to associate with warnings and vigilance and fire, and many other concepts that are attention-grabbing.  As you note, though, some of the associations we have with red are less positive, so it’s important to think beyond the process of capturing attention to work out whether the color inspires appropriate associations.  You mentioned Target, and in that case I think red is an excellent choice—it meshes well with the bulls-eye symbol that people associate with the word “target,” and now with the brand, Target.

CHIEF MARKETER: Different cultures have different associations with different colors. In today’s globally connected online world, any thoughts on whether marketers should consider color in their online (and offline) promotions?

ALTER: They should certainly consider which colors they use—as should any brand in any context.  It’s important to pay attention to how different cultures might perceive the colors you choose, particularly if your brand has aspirations of expanding beyond its home market.  There’s some evidence, for example, suggesting that the color blue is liked across all markets, apart from a couple in East Asia in which blue is associated most strongly with sadness or death and mourning.

CHIEF MARKETER: Are there certain colors that make people more or less receptive to purchasing?

ALTER: People believe so.  If you think about fast food brands, many use the colors red and yellow, which are supposed to encourage consumption (of both food and products).  This is true of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, and so many other fast food companies.  I’m not sure that the same color makes sense in every context, or that we’ve definitely nailed down which colors encourages purchasing behavior across different contexts and markets, but people have strong beliefs nonetheless.


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