Coloring Consumer Perceptions: AATCC Symposium Analyzes Color Dynamics

By JULIA FEIN AZOULAY — June 01, 2003

The emotion and science of color were the focus of an American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) event held in late March at the New School University in New York.

More than 100 attendees from across the country - representing both manufacturers and retailers - converged at the two-day event, which addressed topics ranging from the psychological impact of color to color management solutions. While industry innovations were the subject at hand, the ongoing power of the consumer was the subtext.

The ultimate goal of industry work on the chemistry, physics and technology of color, observed David Hinks of North Carolina State University, is to "ensure that the customer sees what the product designer intended."

Another guest speaker, Nodie Washington of Procter & Gamble, said: "Given the fact that consumers experience such an emotional reaction to color and often buy an apparel item because of that color, we need to pay attention to it: how it shows up in a retail environment and how long it lasts."

Efforts to attract and satisfy the consumer with color are complex. Hinks pointed out that the typical color control cycle involves seven steps: the color specifier; the color lab; dyeing and finishing; color QC and sorting; cutting and sewing; retailing; and consumer end use. None of these steps can be completely controlled, he said. Everything from lux ranges and lighting type to water temperature during consumer laundering involves a number of variables; yet the consumer's decision to purchase and satisfaction with the purchase are contingent on presupposed color fastness.

The plot thickens when product mix on the retail floor is taken into consideration. Red, yellow and orange may radiate warmth, while blue, green and purple may cool emotions down, for example. But a color's relationship to that of the garments hanging next to it may determine customer perception of the relative warmth or coolness of that particular garment. It is often the undertone of any given shade that affects its "temperature," and these undertones can be amplified or repressed by lighting type and power. Further complicating matters, a shop window may boast a lux range of 1100 to 1200, while a personal living room lux range may plummet to 55 or 65, and it is often in the latter setting that the consumer's satisfaction with her purchase registers.

The changing moods and conditions of society, too, affect the role of color and demand for certain colors. "When times are good, with people working, making money and enjoying what life's pleasures bring them, colors tend to be bright, fun and blatant," noted Tod Schulman, marketing director at Pantone Inc. The subdued tones of the 1940s, the "think pink" era of the 1950s, the bold, psychedelic colors of the "mod" 1960s, the punk blacks and whites of the 1980s and today's defiant hip-hop street fashion tones all reinforce the notion that color trends both express and influence the social mood.

Clariant Corp.'s Bill Sherrill added: "In principle, color management is deceptively simple. In practice, it's often quite difficult and challenging to fully and effectively implement from concept to consumer."

Sherrill proposed that the seven characteristics of a great color standard are that it be: engineered; certified; conditioned; centralized and consistent; digital and physical; right-sized; and quickly distributed.

Related to standardization, Steven Gillespie, CAD designer with Federated Merchandising Group, echoed the perspective of many at the event when he observed: "We spend a lot of time developing our color palettes, and arriving at color standards is an important next step to ensure that we have suitable color standards that enable efficient and accurate lab dips. That's what we need to focus on."

Although countless factors combine to create a wildly fluctuating color playing field, the end-game remains constant. "When you're walking down any aisle in Wal-Mart, the packaging and color is what draws the consumer to any given product," said conference attendee Stephanie Angelo of Milliken & Co.

Get that right, and you're in business.

JULIA FEIN AZOULAY is an Apparel contributing author, based in New York. She may be reached at e-mail: JAzo478796@aol.com.

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