Consumers Want Consistency of Color Coding!

This morning I was in early, excited to get the day started, ready to rock and roll. After blowing through my first cup of coffee I went into our break room to make myself another cup of java. I reached into the Keurig K-cup holder and think I’ve picked a winner. I put it into the Keurig and push down the handle. Boom! Ready to rock right? Wrong…

What I realized after putting down the handle and plunging a whole into this innocent K-cup is that it was decaf. Decaf! Decaf? How does that happen? Why do we even have decaf? This is a creative shop, we live on caffein. Decaf? Wow.

So after looking at the K-cup I’m saying to myself “how did this happen?” Well I’ll tell you how it happened. The packaging is so close between regular and decaf that at 7:56 this morning in a dimly lit room I didn’t notice it was decaf. Here is a picture of Donut House’s regular versus decaf. Very similar in scheme, perhaps too similar.


As package designers we’re continuously critiquing packaging. Sometimes they are amazing, sometime adequate, sometimes horrible. This package isn’t horrible, it’s a nice generic “mid tier” brand package, but the lack of contrast between colors makes it difficult to quickly tell the difference. People want color coding to help them quickly determine the difference between models. That’s packaging 101.

“64% of consumers said that they want to see more color-coded packaging to help them quickly identify their favorite brands and product varieties” – Mintel Research Study

This morning dilemma of decaf versus regular made me a little frustrated. To me decaf coffee is always an orange accent, a few times I’ve seen green. I decided to go online and see if my perception was right. I found some really interesting info during these searches. It’s truly interesting to see the evolution of how orange became the color of decaffeinated coffee.

  1. Sanka was the original decaffeinated coffee
  2. Sanka used an orange accent for decaf
  3. Sanka supplied restaurants with coffee carafes using orange accents for decaf

sanka-vintage-packagingSo their you have it, the original decaf coffee developed by Sanka was packaged in orange and it became synonymous with decaf coffee. Ironically through this internet ready I found some statements that green is used for some as a decaf differentiator with unsubstantiated claims stating that green was a movement to avoid orange because Sanka isn’t considered “good coffee” so they companies tried to move away from orange. Wikipedia’s article claims it is because Folgers, Sanka’s competitor, used green and supplied green pots to their rival coffee shops and restaurants. That definitely makes more sense – although Sanka isn’t great coffee (smile).

The intensive American advertising campaigns included the 1927 broadcasts of Sanka After-Dinner Hour (aka Sanka Music, Sanka After-Dinner Music, Sanka Music Hour and Sanka After-Dinner Coffee Hour), heard at 6:30pm Tuesdays on New York’s WEAF. Sanka was a sponsor of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show during their respective runs on CBS television in the 1950s and early 1960s.[4] It was also a sponsor of the The Goldbergs where on many programs Mrs. Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) would address the camera and talk to the TV audience and tell them about Sanka coffee. After the sales pitch she would walk away, usually from the window, and start the show.

With such promotion, Sanka became a nationwide sales success with General Foods Corporation taking over distribution in 1928 as a defensive measure, since Sanka directly competed with its non-caffeine coffee substitute Postum. The bright orange label that made Sanka easily identifiable to consumers found its way into coffee shops around the country in the form of the decaf coffee pot. Coffee pots with a bright orange handle are a direct result of the American public’s association of the color orange with Sanka, no matter which brand of coffee is actually served. Businesses that serve rival Folgers decaffeinated coffee usually have green-handled pots.


Personally I’ve found that consumers want consistency. Universal color schemes help people identify things quickly. For example, red means hot and blue means cold on a faucet, red is right and white is left on RCA style audio cables, and stoplights are red, yellow and green. These consistencies help people cope. They make it more intuitive to understand and you can make quick accurate decisions requiring less focus or attention to detail. After all, who’s used a faucet where the plumber screwed up and connected the hot and cold backwards. Nothing is worse that thinking you’ve turned on the cold and burn your hands. It’s awful.

So the moral of today’s story is use consistent color schemes for your packaging codes. If their is an industry standard use it. It’s always nice to have your own branding but industry standards exist for a reason. Incorporate them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *