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Color me moral: how the meaning of colors influence consumer behavior

Comportement des consommateurs : quelle influence a le sens des couleurs ?
Published on
18 November 2021

A recent study published in the scientific journal Psychology & Marketing this year and co-authored by  Yan Meng, Associate Professor of Marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, has demonstrated how the moral meaning associated with the colors black and white can influence consumer behavior. The findings of the study, Color me moral: White and black product colors influence prosocial behaviors, have significant potential impact on the welfare of society considering just how prevalent and popular these product colors are. 

An eclectic combination of research interests

Marketing and consumer behavior research are disproportionately directed towards studying buying behavior: why do people purchase certain products? But what about what happens afterwards? For example, buying food is obviously consumer behavior, but Meng realized as a PhD student that "the food you purchased is now yours but so is the associated waste. So your behavior with respect to that waste, for example throwing it away, is also consumer behavior." This realization inspired a long-term interest for Meng in the consequential actions connected with and resulting from buying behavior, a relatively understudied domain.

Meng's research interests also include sensory marketing and, in particular, color. It is well-established that color has a huge impact on a consumer's decision to buy a product but beyond the diversity of consumer preferences, the broader implications of product colors are relatively unknown. "Color is very interesting and even more so when we integrate the meanings that people assign to colors and how they vary around the world. For example, red represents luck for Chinese people but for the Irish it's green," says Meng.

Color within the context of morality

Meng decided to combine these different research interests in collaboration with a colleague, Eugene Chan at Purdue University in the U.S. "We wanted to study how the meaning of colors, in particular, white and black and their meaning within the context of morality, influence consumer behavior post-purchase."

Western cultures have been conditioned to perceive white as 'morally good' and black as 'morally bad'. The research analyzed whether buying products in these colors influenced consumers prosociality in accordance with moral regulation theory and following a moral credentials framework. "Basically, what that means is: if a person perceives a white‐colored product to be morally good, then purchasing that product represents a good deed and makes them feel like a more moral person. This then motivates licensing to act less morally and prosocial behavior is reduced. On the other hand, if the consumer perceives a black-colored product to be morally bad, the purchase of that product equates to committing a morally wrong deed. The person thus sees themselves as being less moral, motivating compensation through increased prosocial behavior," explains Meng.

The researchers' hypotheses were supported by six different experiments which included a range of different products (such as bookshelves, smartphones or coffee cups) and an array of prosocial measures (participants willingness to complete additional questionnaires without any additional payment or to donate to charity a proportion of an imagined unexpected tax refund or a real bonus compensation). "The results showed that product color can lead to moral regulatory effects. However, for these effects to arise requires that the consumer links the purchase to their own sense of self," explains Meng.

The potential societal impact

Considering that white and black represent two of the most common and popular product colors, the prosocial consequences of buying products in these colors have significant potential impact on the welfare of society. "Consider, for example, the Apple iPhone which is usually available in black and white and is often released just before the holiday season, which is an important time for donations. Another really interesting question relates to packaging, what is the effect of purchasing a black-colored product in white-colored packaging? This is particularly intriguing if you consider how much easier it is to change the packaging than the product," reflects Meng.

Meng's ambition for the future is to continue combining her eclectic mix of research interests – in particular, color, sensory marketing, identity and moral regulation theory - to form new lines of research and generate knowledge in areas that are currently largely unstudied and unknown.

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