Use color saturation to change product size perceptions

Color saturation can change how much we like a product (e.g. if larger is better), how much we’d pay for it (18.5% more for a suitcase, in an experiment), and how we use it.

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Color saturation can be roughly described as ‘how much white’ is in a color. Fully saturated color is the color at ‘its purest’. Very low saturation appears white (or grey/black in the absence of light).

A product’s color saturation changes our perception of the product. And that can change whether we’ll actually buy it.

P.S.: Last week I asked you what you thought about using emojis in section titles (e.g. 🧠 Why it works). Many of you thought it makes reading better. Great, idea validated!

Not so fast. I then received a message from a sharp reader (Andrew Murphy) that made me question it all: “The responses you received were from existing subscribers who trust Ariyh. Perhaps new subscribers will perceive Ariyh as less credible due to the emojis.”

This is grounded in this previous tip: How emojis increase social media engagement (Ariyh is not social media, but does some of it generalize to it?). Particularly, “messages with emojis can be perceived as less credible, and reduce the amount of information readers process”.

This isn’t what will make or break Ariyh, but it’s a fun example of the types of debates that can happen when we’re applying research in practice.

As to what I’ll do? I’m still thinking about it. Drop a comment if you want to share your take!


Use color saturation to change the size perception of your product

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Product | Image ads | Website | Marketing communications
For: Mostly B2C

Tip type: Existing research (January 2017)
Previous tip: How marketers helped Ugandan entrepreneurs grow 51.7% (All tips here)

📈 Recommendation

Offer or display your product in a more or less saturated color if its size matters in the purchase decision (e.g. a large cup of coffee, a small pocket battery charger)

If large is better, use a highly saturated product color. If small is better, use a low saturation color.

🎓 Effects

  • Objects with high saturation color appear larger than identical objects with the same, low saturation color.

  • For products, saturation affects both purchase intentions and the product’s usage when size is a factor. For example, in experiments:

    • People said they would pay 18.5% more for a low saturation carry-on suitcase if they were looking for one small enough to fit in a plane’s cabin

    • A laptop screen size was estimated 6% bigger when the laptop’s color was highly saturated

    • People served themselves 27% more jellybeans in a highly (vs low) saturated color cup, because they thought it was larger

    • A room seemed 18.4% larger when the central object (an ottoman chair) had low color saturation (see image below)

(The same ottoman chair appears larger when its color has high saturation [left] vs low [right]. Accordingly, the room appears smaller [left] vs larger [right] - Click to zoom in)


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🧠 Why it works

  • Highly saturated color is more arousing and exciting than low saturation color.

  • It also captures more of our attention. When we look at high saturation objects, our pupils dilate more.

    • We don’t know yet whether arousal creates attention or vice versa or they affect each other

    • In the past, attention to intense colors helped us avoid danger (e.g. snakes) and find food (e.g. ripe fruit)

  • When something captures more of our attention, we perceive it to be larger.

    • Larger objects capture more of our attention, but this link works both ways

✋ Limitations

  • While the researchers conducted six different experiments to find and confirm the effects, colors can be perceived differently in various real-world situations (e.g. lighting, screen settings). It’s unclear how much this can make the effect vary.

  • Color has many dimensions and its psychological effects still need to be fully understood. This complexity may add unexpected effects. For example, a highly saturated yellow product is likely to be perceived differently than a highly saturated dark blue (e.g. previous research shows that dark colors look heavier, but feel lighter).

🏢 Companies using this

  • Marketers and designers don’t seem to be aware of color saturation’s link to size.

⚡ Steps to implement

  • Consider the goal of the buyer, or product user, when you choose your color offering(s).

  • If size is an important factor, change your color saturation accordingly.


🔍 Study type

Lab experiments. United States

📖 Research

Hagtvedt, H., & Brasel, S. A. (January 2017). Color saturation increases perceived product size. Journal of Consumer Research, 44(2), 396-413.

[Link to paper]

🏫 Affiliations

Carroll School of Management, Boston College. United States

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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