Posted on March 20, 2018
A man suffering from a bout of heartburn walks into his neighborhood grocery store hoping to find an antacid that will relieve his symptoms. He heads straight for the over-the-counter medication aisle, but he sees that there are almost two dozen different brands of antacid sitting on the shelves. He isn’t sure which one to choose. Should he go with the antacid tablet that is a calming shade of pale pink? Or is the bright green tablet a better choice?
According to research, many customers in this position would pick the pale pink option. In a study published in the International Journal of Biotechnology in 2010, researchers at the SIES College of Management Studies found that people were more likely to perceive a pink medication as sweet and pleasant, whereas they perceived green medication as sour or bitter.1 This may be because many people associated the color green with acidity, which would be unappealing for those suffering from acid reflux.
This study is part of a growing body of evidence showing that color can dramatically impact perception of medication efficacy and overall user experience. As a result, color becomes a significant factor in consumer behavior and, consequently, the commercial success of medications. This phenomenon is particularly relevant for over-the-counter medication manufacturers. Unlike prescription drugs, which are recommended to patients by doctors, over-the-counter (OTC) medications rely heavily on consumer perception for sales. As a result, OTC medication manufacturers must rely on spectrophotometers to ensure that their products are as aesthetically pleasing as they are effective.
The Impact of Color on Customer Perception, Adherence, and Habits
Households in the United States spend an average of $338 per year on OTC medications, and 81% of adults say that they use OTC drugs as a first response to most medical problems.2 However, the OTC drug market is competitive and pharmaceutical manufacturers must take color into consideration when developing their products in order to ensure optimal appeal, as color consistency has a significant impact on consumer behavior. For example, one study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013 found that patients who have epilepsy were less likely to adhere to their to their medication schedules if the color of their medication changed during the course of treatment.3 In fact, patients were 53% less likely to take their medication on time if they were given a different-colored pill than they were used to, potentially compromising treatment outcomes. As such, it’s critical to ensure color consistency in all medication products to facilitate adherence.
Additionally, consumers associate different colors with treatment of different conditions. In a groundbreaking study, psychologist Dr. Max Lüscher examined the connection between drug color and the treatments people associated with them.4 While conducting his famous color psychology test, Lüscher found that people most commonly associate orange or yellow with stimulant drugs, olive green or light brown with laxatives, and cough suppressants with light blue or maroon. As a result, some OTC drug manufacturers choose to create products that align with these color associations; colors act as a kind of visual shorthand for the consumer.
In some cases, drug manufacturers can even reinvent consumer color associations. When Pepto-Bismol first hit the market nearly 100 years ago, it was an unusual shade of pink that consumers hadn’t seen before. The source of the hue was the product’s active ingredient, bismuth subsalicylate, which is naturally pink in color.5 While the pink color became strongly associated with the brand itself, it also came to signify antacid medication as a whole. Today, many antacid manufacturers will go out of their way to dye their products pink, even if they use active ingredients that are a different color. This is because studies have found that using a color other than pink can confuse customers, who have come to so strongly associate pink with antacid medication that they may believe non-pink medication is used to treat a different ailment.
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