New study suggests color affects ethical judgments of brands

Branding by colors

University of Oregon and University of Cincinnati researchers have found that everyday shoppers make assumptions about brands that use green colors, a finding that holds ethical implications for environmentally friendly branding.

The work was recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics. The UO’s Aparna Sundar, a marketing professor in the Lundquist College of Business, is the lead researcher on the project.

Through a series of studies, Sundar and co-author James Kellaris of UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business uncovered evidence that color shapes opinion about eco-friendliness.

“What we’re finding is that color is one of those things that actually biases the way consumers make ethical judgments,” said Sundar, whose research examines the role of color in identity branding, in this case related to green branding. “Of course green is one of those [colors],” she continued, “but blue is also one of those colors that consumers – individuals, actually – associate with eco-friendliness.”

In one study, the pair worked to pinpoint colors that were highly associated with environmentalism. Shoppers were presented with a fictitious logo that was colored using a color associated with a known brand.

Armed with only an unfamiliar logo, the study found that shoppers consider retailers using Walmart’s blue or Sam’s green in their logos to be more eco-friendly than retailers using Trader Joe’s red.

“Interestingly, blue is ‘greener’ than green in terms of conveying an impression of eco-friendliness, despite the frequent use of the word ‘green’ to convey that idea,” Kellaris said.

Once researchers established a set of eco-friendly colors, they also identified colors perceived to be environmentally unfriendly. Sundar and Kellaris then developed additional studies to test whether the colors impacted perceptions of the retailer’s environmental friendliness.

Respondents were asked to share whether a fictitious retailer, DAVY Grocery Store, acted ethically in various morally ambiguous scenarios, such as when spraying water on produce. Subjects only saw the logo for DAVY, which was presented in either an eco-friendly color or an unfriendly color. The results show that exposure to a more eco-friendly color in a retailer’s logo influenced consumer judgments, and ethically ambiguous business practices seemed more ethical.

In addition to observed biases in situations of ambiguous ethical practices, follow-up studies found that consumers tended to be more critical of a retailer with a logo in an eco-friendly color when faced with a practice that was definitely ethical or definitely unethical.

While individual differences still play a role in this observed effect of color, Sundar’s research suggests that the color used in a logo has far-reaching consequences on consumers’ perceptions of retailers.

By Laura McGinnis, Public Affairs Communications