McDonald’s, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Wendy’s, Arby’s, KFC, Dairy Queen, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr.

On the surface, these brands are totally separate entities. Either they’re direct competitors or they serve entirely different types of products with varying success in different regions.

But they all share one thing in common:


This isn’t a coincidence. There’s an entire spectrum of visible colors for marketers and brand experts to choose from, yet the marketing departments of food and drink companies keep coming back to basic packaging truths: studies show red to be a stimulating color that might even affect our appetites.

If that simple color connection works for logos, does it also mean that packaging affects how your product will be perceived by the market?

Why Customers Judge Books by Their Covers

Age-old wisdom tells us not to judge books by their covers. But market analysis suggests that maybe we’re a little more superficial than we’d like to admit.

Let’s say you were to buy a product that cost a hefty $1,000. You might not care about the product packaging itself when you bring out the charge card and make the actual purchase.

But if that product were to arrive at your front door in a shabby cardboard box — if the product itself were in a box held together by duct tape — you would feel like that company doesn’t value your business as much as it should.

You’d even feel a little ripped off, no matter how good the product inside might turn out to be.

It might not be a good idea to judge a book by its cover, but as an entrepreneur, don’t pretend that your potential customers won’t.

Yes, You Judge Books By Their Covers

As tempting as it is to think ourselves rational, logical individuals, the truth is that human beings tend to make snap judgments when it comes to packaging.

And this starts at a young age.

One study found “empirical evidence for a causal relationship between marketing cues on food packaging and different measures of children's preferences of an objectively identical healthy snack product.”

If packaging can affect how consumers perceive food they’ve already tasted, is it really a stretch to imagine that packaging affects how they perceive a product they’ve yet to try?

If you think a children’s study has no relevance to the intelligent adults you and I know ourselves to be, consider this: when researchers looked at how we perceive yogurt packages, they found stark differences that led to clearly-defined groups: tasty, healthy, biological, and cheap.

You can guess the factor that made the difference: packaging. But what the study found was that the packaging element that had the greatest impact wasn’t the texture of the packaging itself — it was the color.

The Psychology of Color

Packaging starts with a basic but powerful visual element: color.

As much as we’d like to think color has no effect on our emotional state, the truth is, color matters much more than you’d think. That’s why McDonald’s and Coca-Cola tend toward red — as do their competitors.

As you market your product or service, you should think about how the color of your brand will affect its perception, too:

Since your packaging will likely reflect your brand, it’s important to think about what you want to communicate to your customers. Which dominant color puts the best foot forward in your industry?

branding color quiz cta

Shape: An Overlooked Packaging Variable

Your packaging’s color is important, but one variable we as consumers tend to forget: shape.

For example, when a beer company created a more angular bottle that appeared to have a thicker neck, it was done with the purpose to be perceived as masculine. This helped the company cater to their target audience — and the packaging worked, boosting sales.

Shape is important for more than just beer bottling. On its list of specific tips for your product packaging, Forbes lists “standing out” as a top priority. Pointing to the sharp cusps in Disney’s advertisements for the film Maleficent that drew the eye and communicated the darkness and fear present in the film’s content itself.

We see instances of shape mattering in marketing all the time, even if we don’t know it. These memorable business cards made use of their limited space by changing up their basic shape, such as including the pull-out likeness of the professional on the card itself. One designer used a cut-out stencil shape to make his card stand out.

Get Your Packaging Right with Psychology

If you want to do packaging right, it starts with understanding psychology. You want to both play to our expectations while finding some small way to stand out.

This means picking a color scheme that suits what your brand needs to communicate. If you’re selling fries, red and yellow make sense. If you’re dropping off an expensive proposal at an upscale business, blacks and blues might suit you better.

The basic lesson? The customer’s interaction with your product doesn’t start once they try it. It starts once they see it. And what they see communicates a lot about your company, including how that product will ultimately be judged. If you want your product to be judged well, start rethinking your approach to packaging.