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What Color Is Fuzzy-Wuzzy Brown? How Color and Flavor Names Affect Consumer Choice

by Elizabeth G. Miller, Barbara Kahn  |  
October 18, 2005

Close examination of the colors in a Crayola crayon box reveals an interesting phenomenon. While the original Crayola box contained six colors (black, blue, brown, green, orange and red), Crayola now offers 120 colors, and the most recent of these (purple heart, razzmatazz, tropical rain forest, fuzzy-wuzzy brown) are increasingly ambiguously named.

Such ambiguous color (and flavor) names have been proliferating and are appearing in all sorts of product categories—from ice cream (Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby) to juice drinks (Gatorade's Glacier Freeze) to nail polish (Hard Candy's Trailer Trash). At least one commentator has concluded, "There is no red."

How do such names impact consumers? Can they influence how consumers perceive products and their likelihood of purchasing them? In our research, we examine such questions and develop a theory to explain how such names impact consumers' choices.

In general, we find that names do have an impact on choices, and that this impact depends on the novelty of the name (is it typical or atypical?), its specificity (is it specific or vague?) and what additional information is available (is a picture of the actual color shade available?).

According to Grice's (1975) theory of "conversational implicature," people adhere to certain rules when they communicate with each other. These rules allow people to understand more than just what was said.

For example, if A asks B where Dave is, and B replies that there is a yellow VW outside of Susan's house, A will assume that (1) Dave drive a yellow VW and therefore is (2) at Susan's house. On a literal level, B's response is a complete non-sequitor. But, because A believes B's response is informative, A can understand the underlying meaning of the communication—that Dave is at Susan's.

Building on Grice's theory, we propose that consumers will react favorably to unusual color or flavor names because they expect marketing messages to convey useful information. If the message is not informative (as is the case for ambiguous names) or does not conform to expectations (as is the case for atypical specific names), consumers search for the reasons for the deviation. This search results in additional (positive) attributions about the product, and thus a more favorable response.

A series of studies back up this theory and suggest the conditions under which these name types will be most preferred.

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Elizabeth teaches at Boston College.Barbara teaches at the Univerity of Pennsylvania.

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