Coke Discovers The Hard Way That People Can Taste Color

Coca-Cola

Just recently, to raise money for polar bears (an endangered species), Coca-Cola began selling their flagship Coke in white cans that featured polar bears. This was the first time in over a century that Coca-Cola came in anything but a red can.

Now, to be sure, polar bears have been a symbol Coca-Cola has used for many years during the holiday season and other times as well. In fact, the first use of the polar bear by Coke was back in 1922. More recently, the polar bear theme became popular in the 1990s, and has remained so ever since. So one can see how the folks at Coca-Cola thought using the polar bear theme in white cans would not be much of an issue. However, Coke fans weren’t buying it. After a lot of confusion (is it regular Coke? Diet?) and pushback from customers, Coke decided to stop producing the white cans four months earlier than planned, replacing them instead with cans in the classic Coke red.

One reason for the rejection was a rational one: Consumers were confusing the white cans containing regular Coke with those that commonly hold Diet Coke. Not a good deal if you are on a diet or, worse, if you have diabetes and need to manage your sugar intake. But the more interesting reason the white cans fell in disfavor is that some customers said that the Coke sold in the white cans tasted different than the familiar recipe. The Coca-Cola company (with visions of the old “New Coke” fiasco in the back of their minds) stated in no uncertain terms that they had not changed the recipe. So how could this change in taste perception occur?

The perception of a change in taste is due to something called “Sensation Transference,” discovered by Louis Cheskin in the 1930s. Cheskin, a scientist, psychologist and (above all) a great marketer, found that design devices such as colors, logos, and materials on packaging and the product changed the way people experienced the product. He used this knowledge to increase the sales of brands such as Marlboro and categories like margarine. He even helped Walt Disney select the colors for his characters in the movie Fantasia.

The margarine example is particularly relevant to Coke’s polar bear problem. Margarine, when produced, had a white color that consumers found unattractive. By adding an artificial yellow coloring to margarine to replicate the look of butter, Cheskin was able to show through testing that people preferred margarine equally with butter when it had the butter look. This testing was then used in commercials to convince potential buyers that the taste was the same.

Even more related to Coke’s current issue—and something that should have made them more cautious in changing the color of their can—was an experiment Cheskin did with 7-Up. He added 15% more yellow to the color of the can. The result? People thought the recipe had changed to add more lemon!

There has been pushback on the pushback, with some articles decrying peoples' "stupidity" for being fooled by the cans. But the reality is, this is how our brains work. So, if you are responsible for a brand, make sure you do a good bit of thinking about sensation transference when you design your product and your packaging. It might affect your sales a lot more than you think.

[Image: Flickr user seeMidTN.com (aka Brent)]

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