Colour in Packaging: Pretty in Pink?


Pink Packaging – Guest post by Harriet Paul, freelance book editor and content writer.

We were lucky enough to have Harriet join the team for a month in October. Having worked for some of the world’s largest publishers, including Penguin Random House and Bonnier, we invited Harriet to write a piece on colour used on packaging. The read time is about 10 minutes and gives some great insights into problems that brands can face when using the colour pink.

The use of colour in packaging design is undeniably important – research shows that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on colour alone [Source: Help Scout].

Colour choices are not only important because they can become so connected with a brand logo or image, but also because of the connotations society attaches to them. Understanding the impact that colours can have on our attitudes is essential to making marketing-smart colour decisions and designs, and becomes critical when seeking to bridge the gap between what you are trying to communicate and what is actually being perceived.

Up until recently, it seems to have been a universally accepted truth that ‘pink is for girls and blue is for boys’. But in the modern era – where gender equality is firmly on the agenda and gender definitions themselves are being redefined – more people are stopping to wonder exactly why products geared towards men are often presented in ‘manly’ shades of blue, black and grey, while feminine products are ‘girly’ and flowery. Or, you know, pink.

The history of pink

Interestingly, the colour-gender stereotypes that are so widely accepted today were the exact opposite only a century ago. A trade article published in 1918 stated that:

“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
[Source: LiveScience]

If, as researchers believe, the colour-gender switch only occurred after WW2 as a marketing ploy to sell more goods to consumers, it leads us to wonder whether there is any real truth behind the reasoning that boys inherently like blue and girls prefer pink. Do the current gender norms reflect some inherent biological preferences between the sexes – some preference that baby boomers seemingly discovered – or are they culturally constructed?

Do girls prefer pink?

Research has shown that there are some clear preferences in certain colours across gender. Men do, in fact, respond better to bolder and darker colours such as black, blue and grey; while women prefer softer colours, and show a significant preference for the colour purple compared to men.

Despite these minor differences, however, the colour blue has been consistently proven as the favoured colour for both genders, and far more popular among women than pink. See pie chart. [Source: LiveScience]

Research also indicates that there is no discernable preference between the colours pink and blue in infants, suggesting that any preferences we form later in life are perhaps as a result of cultural conditioning rather than any inherent preference.

The concept that ‘pink is for girls’ is reinforced in us from childhood. Stroll through any toy store and it becomes immediately apparent which of the toy aisles are ‘meant’ for girls and which are for boys through gender stereotyping alone. Gender studies show that although there is no initial preference for the colour, by the age of two, girls started to like pink, and by the age of four, boys become determined in their rejection of pink.

It’s fair to say that no other colour is more associated with one gender than the colour pink – and that this isn’t necessarily always a good thing.

The problem with pink         

Of course, there’s no problem with pink as a colour itself – it’s in the meaning we attach to it. Surveys conducted in the US and Europe report that pink is most associated with the characteristics of charm, childhood, femininity, politeness, romance, sensitivity, sweetness and tenderness [Source: ‘Psychology of Color’: Eva Heller]…None of which are particularly empowering attributes. The colour is often associated with passivity and gentleness, which has led many to worry that its traditional use in products for girls could be reinforcing negative and outdated gender role stereotyping. Research indicates that most of the packaging for personal care and household products still perpetuates gender stereotypes.

The effects of the gender stereotypical messages that young girls see can be far-reaching, impacting the roles they see for themselves in business as well as their behaviour as consumers. For example, stereotyping has been blamed for the lack of women specialising in industries that require science, maths and engineering skills.

Generally speaking, it’s not a winning strategy to guess the likes and dislikes of girls based on ingrained cultural tropes and stereotypes. On the topic of pink, results of a study by research agency, The Pineapple Lounge, back up the message that brands need to move away from using ‘pink and princesses’ as symbols of femininity. According to the research, girls increasingly want to distance themselves from stereotypes as they get older, with 39% of girls aged 13-14 saying they dislike princesses and anything pink, compared to just 27% of 8-10 year olds  [Source: The Pineapple Lounge]. Instead, girls want to be treated as individuals and inspired to think differently, rather than simply be pigeonholed. The research also indicates that girls will engage more with brands that do empower them and help them define and discover who they are.

Experts believe that brands still defaulting to gender stereotypes when creating products and communications could be putting large swathes off buying them for good. This creates a brand loyalty problem, potentially missing out on a lucrative market from an early age.

The key takeaway is this: understanding the context in which pink is being used is essential to understanding how your audience will interact with it. If not used in the right way, the association of the colour pink with femininity can backfire big time.

Backlash: when pink goes bad

Many brands continue to categorise their offerings by gender without issue. There are, however, some products that simply need no gendering, and this is where the biggest consumer backlash lies.

Take pens, for example. We all know that women need something to write the shopping list with (!), so let’s take a moment to remember the uproar that occurred when BIC decided it was a good idea to make a pen that even women could use – the ever so pretty, delicately designed ‘Bic Cristal Pen For Her’. Cue the eye-roll of a thousand women.

Or, how about beer for women? Thankfully, women now have their own pink ‘lady’ beer bottles to pick from. There’s the low-calorie ‘Chick Beer’, complete with a six-pack designed to look like a handbag (‘cos how else would we carry it), or ‘Pink IPA’ – a special edition release of a brands flagship IPA, but dressed in pink as a “beer for girls.” A joke gone wrong on the brands part, perhaps – they found themselves in the firing line on what was meant to be a satirical take on the use of pink in the branding world. Unfortunately, the joke got lost in translation, as did the fact that the limited edition beer was aiming to raise awareness for the gender wage gap. [Source: The Dieline 2018]

So, why is it that brands can have a hard time targeting their products to women?

Studies show that the relationship between brands and colour hinges on the perceived appropriateness of the colour being used for the particular brand… In other words, does the colour “fit” what is being sold. This could explain why when brands use a gender-associated colour for products that don’t ‘need’ to be pink – such as beer, pens and cleaning products, there is an instant disconnect with the consumer.

Another explanation is that, while it might be true that men prefer their products on the ‘manly’ side – particularly when it comes to the sports and beauty market, the same cannot always be said for women. For example, even anti-aging brands – typically targeted at women – choose to package their products in reds, greys and dark blues. Some of these brands deliberately use colours that are associated with masculinity in order to persuade consumers that this is a product they can take seriously. Would these anti-aging products have the same shelf impact if they were packaged in pink?

Women could also be more likely to feel alienated by packaging choices than men due to a difference in their shopping habits. Research shows that men and women have different priorities when walking the aisles. Whereas men are on a mission to grab what they need and go, women are more likely to stop and consider their options. They study the packaging to find value in its appearance, thus being more likely to have higher expectations from the product offerings available.

[Source: ‘Men Buy, Women Shop’: The Sexes Have Different Priorities When Walking Down the Aisles]

‘People’ packaging

Clearly, the use of a clichéd colour in campaigns that are intended to attract women to products can cause unwanted controversy, particularly when the products in question either do not need to be gender-specific, or reinforce out-of-touch gender roles. Modern women and girls are wise to marketing ploys and want to feel empowered by marketing campaigns, not patronised.

So what can we do to market products to female consumers more effectively?

With products aimed at children, we see there is no longer a need to rigidly market to just boys or girls when retailers can instead group their products according to age, brand, and type. Major toymakers like Mattel, Hasbro and Lego have taken steps to tear down the pink and blue walls that segregate children by doing just this. And the ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ movement, launched in 2012, reported that by the end of 2014 there had been a 46% drop in the proportion of online stores using gender to categorise toys [Source: Marketing Week].

It is an important move towards inclusivity, sending the message to the developing child that it’s OK for them to be whoever they want to be – and that’s a great message to convey to consumers, no matter what the product is.

So, perhaps the simple answer is to adopt the growing trend of gender-neutral packaging. Regardless of what businesses think about the social responsibility of gender-neutrality, brands need to be increasingly conscious of the potential backlash and negative outcomes that gendered marketing can have. Times and attitudes are changing, boundaries are blurring, and younger generations are increasingly exploring the idea of gender fluidity while becoming less receptive to being labelled or pigeonholed into convenient categories.

Designers and marketers can see this as a positive thing: instead of relying on tired old visual cues, they can be free to focus on functionality, individuality and relevance – designing for the people who buy their products, regardless of gender. With an obvious desire among consumers for more gender-neutral packaging, it is up to both designers and brands to fill that void while effectively promoting gender equality.