Pick the Right Color for Your Message

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What can make your mailings stand out, create interest and ultimately increase response? My money's on the value of using paper color to break through the clutter. But can using a colored paper really raise your readership, awareness and bottom line? Can red get customers to spend more? Will a yellow flier position your company as energetic and forward-thinking?


The notion of using color to influence human behavior is far from new. One 1920s magazine advised men to paint their kitchens light green - to calm their wives so they'd abandon strange, newfangled ideas such as a woman's right to vote and working outside the home.


Here are general tips for today's marketing professionals, followed by more specific color guidelines:


Heed U.S. Postal Service regulations. A great mailing in the best color still will fail if the post office can't read it. Brilliant colors are not recommended for mass mailings but may be more acceptable for smaller, targeted mailings that are hand-labeled or personalized.


Use color to convey seasonal themes. For example, if you're sending out goods for the fall season, keep in mind shades of taupe and warm brown, hints of orange and red, and naturals or ivories. These colors help evoke this time of year.


Get more bang for your buck with multi-color (duplex) papers. The exterior of the paper is one color, but unfolding it reveals a new, fresh and powerful color.


Time your mailings to drop on a Wednesday or Thursday in January, February, August or October. Historically, these are the best times for a mailing. Response rates tend to be lower when a promotion arrives in the first few days of the month or on a Monday or Friday.


Perform a "reality check." Call your toll-free number. Sign on to your Web site. Fill out your own order form. Ensure your reply devices fit into the return envelope. It may seem like a no-brainer, but this process can be a life-saver.


Think outside the (mail)box. Direct mail thrives on originality, on standing out. Use paper size, weight, texture and finish to distinguish your promotion from other mail. Stickers, questionnaires or games get the pro-spect involved and add the "fun factor." They create interaction and lead to product or service awareness.


Unique envelope sizes also can be prepared to help break through the clutter. But be careful of special postal regulations and costs.


Here are some specific color guidelines:


· Greens. Light green kitchens didn't stop the wheels of progress. But maybe those advice columnists were on to something. Design experts say that green indeed can help us relax. Bright, clear greens such as emerald or forest remind us of nature and subliminally convey images of health or healthfulness. As you might guess, green also makes us think of money, signifying prestige or status. Hence, banks often use it for their collateral.


· Reds. Though red packaging probably won't send customers into a spending frenzy, red has been shown to fuel our appetites for food and for money more than any other color. Studies have found that, when seated under red lights, gamblers spend more money than gamblers seated in blue lighting. Red can symbolize passion, intensity, action and excitement. Which Ferrari would you choose: powder blue or red? My bet is on red.


· Blues. In terms of its effect and symbolism, blue is red's polar opposite. It can represent a range of subdued feelings from tranquil peace to sadness. Blue tends to calm the senses. When it comes to marketing food, it actually may act as an appetite suppressant. So it may not be the best color to use for your next food-related event.


· Yellows. You've probably heard, "If you want to sell your house faster, paint it yellow." Though that adage may be a (sub)urban legend, the advice may apply to the use of paper in other types of marketing situations. Yellow paper is highly visible, and people often associate the color with happiness or warmth (imagine a box of Cheerios).


However, yellow is also the most tiring and draining color to the eyes. Extended exposure has been found to stir feelings of hostility. Anecdotal research suggests that couples argue more in lemon yellow kitchens. Best advice: Don't overdo it with yellow. Occasional splashes of it are great when you want your pieces to stand out.


Other influences. With many colors, different shades have vastly different meanings. People associate green with good luck, according to an ongoing Internet survey of more than 30,000 participants worldwide being conducted by former University of Hawaii "color professor" J.L. Morton. But the same survey found that participants, unsurprisingly, also associate green with nausea.


Age, sex and culture also affect our perception of color. Show 10 people the same blue sales flier and ask how they feel, you'll likely get 10 different responses. So it bears reminding to always consider your audience.


When used strategically, color can be a powerful device that enhances your message. For direct marketing in particular, color is one of the main tools to communicate and inspire. It can be as important as paper texture, weight or size. By selecting a paper color to extend your message, you can take one more step toward your desired effect. You can reach and influence your targeted consumer and receive response levels those "white-only" mailings just can't touch.


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