When considering colors for upcoming models in Toy State’s Road Rippers collection, Will Coleburn, svp at the company, which also makes the Freedom Force and Caterpillar toy vehicle lines, looked to trends in other industries for cues. “I spent a lot of time looking at what the ski industry is doing,” he says. “They’re on the cutting edge of art and decoration and color for teens.” While the main target for Toy State’s products skews much younger—5- to 7-year-old boys—Coleburn figures what attracts the big guys will also appeal to little kids.
Toy State’s vivid orange packaging differentiates it from Tonka’s classic yellow and Matchbox’s darker yellow-and-red brand colors. “We have to create something visually arresting at retail,” says Coleburn. But, while color plays a part in piquing kid interest, it’s the “try me” button function that seals the deal for moms. “You first have to convince the kids that they want the product and then mom that it’s a good purchase,” says Coleburn.
The role color plays in that equation is a subtle yet important one. The first task of any product is to catch the attention of its target, and color can be a powerful tool, particularly when it comes to reaching kids.
“Children are inevitably fascinated by brighter colors from early infancy,” says Leatrice Eiseman, director of Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training and executive director of Pantone Color Institute. “Eye-tracking studies have shown that children’s eyes will be attracted to primary reds, blues and yellows when they reach a maturation level where they can see beyond simple contrast of black and white.”
When kids are about 3, their attraction and awareness of secondary colors like orange increases, adds Eiseman, author of Color: Messages and Meanings and the Pantone Guide to Communicating With Color. Attraction to green and purple come next.
“Just as the food palette becomes more complex over time, so does the color palette,” says Paul Kurnit, clinical professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business and founder of KidShop and Kurnit Communications. “It’s just like the Crayola box of colors:
You first get your fundamental box and then graduate to a box of 64 colors.”
Chuck Kijak, cd at Crayola, explains the 64-color box offers kids a variety of choices, but the predominance of bold, saturated hues is based on the simple fact that kids like bright colors. With its varied product offerings, Crayola’s products are designed for a broad age range—infants to tweens. While color variations evolve over time, one constant Kijak has seen throughout his career (which includes tenures at Tyco and Mattel) is the traditional preference differences between boys and girls. “Pinks and purples attract young females, and blues tend to attract young boys,” he says.
But the classic gender color attribution for girls and boys are more marketing constructs than natural preferences, says Eiseman. “Observation has shown time and again that parents feed into the blue for boys and pink for girls mentality, but testing at early ages does not bear out an instinctive difference between boys and girls preferences,” she notes. “There are no hard-and-fast rules about colors for kids as texture, shape and finish also play into kids’ preferences.”
Achieving a balance between what will appeal to the kids without alienating the parents is a challenge when it comes to selling to 5- to 8-year-olds. “You are going to want something that is both kid appealing and alluring, but also rides that fence of appropriateness for parents,” says Cheryl Swanson, founder and managing partner of Toniq, a New York-based branding firm that has worked for toy and food companies targeting kids, including Kraft.
“The color should attract the kid, but be OK for mom. It can’t be too intently neon or synthetic.”
For example, Jell-O uses color as a call for kids to get moms to buy it, but the brand must make sure the colors don’t appear toxic and that the product looks like it will be nutritious, she explains.
What might look like a perfect color combination to adults may be alienating to a child. Mark Smith, ecd at WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based agency specializing in marketing to children, says that while yellow and black might, for adults, bring taxis to mind, kids will put those colors together and see a bumblebee. “It does frighten the little ones,” he says.
For adults, color is a cognitive cue, says Ann Green, who heads Marketing Solutions for marketing research firm Millward Brown, linking blue to IBM or yellow to Sprint, for example. But for children, she says, color is an emotional play. “It’s about fun and excitement,” she says.
The digital age has added to the color spectrum, bringing more vivid hues into the palette, colors made possible by the light of the projected screen rather than ink on a printed page. “A bit of the Day-Glo principles are coming back,” says John H. Bredenfoerder, color expert and design director at Landor.
Yet while there is a school of thought that ascribes certain moods and emotions to color, going back to the color test devised by Swiss psychologist Max Lüscher in the 1940s, Bredenfoerder says that while brighter colors tell a more energetic story than softer colors, there are no definitives. “It’s really more about how the color is used, not so much the color itself,” he says.