Marius Pontmercy was clearly onto something when he declared red the color of desire in Les Misérables. The same hue we’re universally conditioned to interpret as ‘stop’ is also a bright and bold force of advertising, encouraging us to spend our hard-earned cash (or credit), whether it be for a sip of Coke or a drag of a Marlboro cigarette.
Consumerism practically bleeds red, a color that has pumped immortality into the corporate veins of iconic brands like Kellogg’s, Levi’s, and Colgate. A US resident can’t say ‘Target’, for example, without calling to mind that massive crimson bullseye – a standalone emblem of American retail since 2006. But as marketing methods evolve to outsmart the smartphone era with more ways than ever before to communicate directly with consumers, has red lost its proverbial shine?
According to marketing researcher David Pring, managing partner of the advisory firm BlindSpot Partners, it’s worth noting that there is no single red, just as there isn’t a singular meaning that use of the color conveys. In fact, there are at least 24 named variants of the shade that can be anything from what you see in the flag of the USA to what you drink with a steak dinner. “[The shades] start with ‘scarlet’ (O’Hara or Johansson – your choice), via the intensity of a well-aged Burgundy and end with ‘lust’,” Pring says. There’s even a type of red that’s aptly titled ‘desire’, proving that Marius really did know what he was talking about. So it’s no surprise that the color can be a ‘weapon of choice’ for marketers looking to incite emotion: “It evokes excitement, strength, desire and a host of power attributes,” Pring says. At the same time, however, it can mean aggression, anger and warning. It’s a color of extremes, representing happiness and good fortune in China while symbolizing mourning in South Africa.
Nonetheless, these potentially negative connotations are not actually the reason that today’s well-recognized global entities are shying away from the shade. Only about 25 percent of the top 100 American logos employ red in a significant way, which can be explained by the rapid rise of technology titans like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WordPress, and Skype, all of which are geared towards connecting people in a digital world that’s drenched in blue. Yes, there’s a glaring irony in the fact that blue, a color meant to imbue calmness and security, is so widely used across the anxiety-inducing and isolating social-media space. Still, it maintains its spot as the world’s official favorite color and a preferred logo option for tech-related companies. And then there’s the of-the- moment popularity of brands like Apple, Nike, and Gucci, which have made black an attractively sleek choice as well.
As a result, red is starting to feel a bit old school now – a nostalgic nod to the glory days of fast food and sports cars where smoking a cigarette was not a death sentence, rather the ultimate cool-kid move. As consumer behaviors shift – driven largely by a more health-conscious, socially aware breed of shoppers – so has the efficacy of red as an advertising tool. People want to know if their aluminum-free deodorant is packaged using biodegradable materials, for example, and brands have found color to be a way of responding to such demands. Consider the renewed generational significance of green: for Boomers, green is money, whereas for Millennials and Gen-Z, it’s the entire sustainability movement.
Even if green becomes the new blue, which became the new red, color is simply one small piece of the complex marketing puzzle. “Ultimately, it’s all about attracting the buyer’s attention,” Pring says. “Color is just one element, and red is just one color of about 10 million that the human eye can discern.
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