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Sensation Transference: The Power Behind Visual Cues

There are a number of factors that have an effect on consumer purchasing choices and behaviours, such as motivation, perception, attitude and beliefs. However, a considerable amount of behaviour is determined by visual product cues. Specifically, colour is one of the most prevalent of such cues.

The psychology of colour examines how various hues influence behavior, with this concept being widely adopted across marketing and advertising industries, in an attempt to induce emotional reactions. According to a study, 84.7% of people claim that the main reason they choose to purchase a product is based on colour and 52% of people state that they do not return to a store if the store aesthetic is not pleasing to them (Morton, 2019).

We make subliminal judgments about others, our surroundings and various products within seconds of exposure and colour plays a large part in this first, unconscious impression. Through the effective use of colour in the design of logos, packaging, signage and advertising, one can influence behaviour and encourage consumers to purchase on impulse or select your brand’s product or service over those of a competitor. Simply put, the effective use of colour can pave the way toward increased sales and market share. .

Sensation transference

Sensation transference can be defined as the unconscious evaluation which people make about a product, based purely on the visual appearance of a product. For example, an attractive person wearing a suit is often perceived as more intelligent compared to a nearby unkempt person dressed in ragged jeans and a hoodie.

This term was formulated by a scientific researcher, clinical psychologist and important marketing innovator, Louis Cheskin. He observed and found that people’s impressions of products were directly altered by the aesthetic design (Clark, 1981).

Sensation transference circumvents consumers’ conscious awareness of what they really like, though it can assist companies in selling their products. The human mind can better identify well-designed packaging as containing a product of higher quality, regardless of whether the formulas and ingredients are identical to that of a product with a simpler and/or less elaborate packaging design.

Coca Cola discovered, the hard way, that people do in fact actually taste colour. In an attempt to raise money for the endangered species, Polar Bears, they sold their showcase Coke in white cans that displayed Polar Bears on them. Consumers began confusing the white cans that contained regular Coke with those that commonly held diet Coke and began to report that the product within the white cans had a different taste to the familiar recipe. This perception of change in taste is due to sensation transference (Smith, 2015).

A further study demonstrated the influence of colour, for 7UP-branded products. It was found that when the yellow hue of the green bottles was increased by fifteen percent, people reported that the beverage tasted a lot more like lime or lemon. The product was the same, but a set of different sensations were transferred from the design of the packaging of the product (Smith, 2015).

How colours affect your perception of food

Our sense of taste is often deceived by our sense of sight – humans have certain presuppositions of what food should actually look like. When the colour of a food differs to what is perceived as normal, our brain forces us to believe that it tastes different as well.

Taste buds play a pivotal role in determining the four basic groups of taste – sweet, salty, sour and bitter. When taste buds come into contact with food, they send signals to your brain to interpret that flavor, however, we look at food before eating it, so our eyes send signals to our brain well before our taste buds get the chance to.

There was a study published in the Journal of Food Science where people confused the flavours of beverages when they were coloured ‘incorrectly’. A cherry flavored beverage altered to be orange in colour was reported to have tasted like an orange flavoured beverage and a cherry flavoured beverage altered to be green in colour was reported to have tasted like lime (Stillman, 1993). The role played by colour in our taste perceptions has been researched by many food manufacturers in an attempt to better understand behaviour.

Colours don’t only have an influence on our perception of flavor, they also seem to affect our appetites. In an infamous study subjects were served what seemed to be a standard looking plate of chips and a steak, however the room was fitted with lighting that altered the colour of how the food appeared. When this lighting was switched off and the lighting of the room returned to normal the participants realised that the steak had actually been dyed blue and the chips were green which resulted in the subjects reporting a loss of appetite and in some instances subjects became ill. However it is important to note that this infamous study has been found to be an amalgamation of numerous recounts of an experiment that never actually took place. Why is it important to note this? Well, it speaks to the unreliability of self reported data, to overcome this risk of unreliable data would be to use implicit measures, having an accurate read on consumer likes and dislikes is imperative in forming successful and effective marketing strategies.

If you’d like to learn more about the implicit measures available, please visit our website and get in touch with us.


Morton, J. (2019) Why Colour Matters. [online]

Clark, A. E., 1981. Louis Cheskin, 72; Studied Motivation and effects of Color. New York Times, 10 October, p. 17.

Stillman, J. A. (1993) “Color Influences Flavor Identification in Fruit-Flavored Beverages,” Journal of Food Science Chicago, 58(4), pp. 810–810.


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