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Online Food Photos that Make Your Mouth Water: How Color-Saturated Food Images can Boost Sales

Relevant topics Archive, Advertising

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Highly color-saturated food images increase perceived freshness via taste imagery processes in the brain, which in turn increases purchase intention.
  • Application:
    Use highly saturated food images, especially when marketing to solo-diners and when the item on the image is relatively distant.
  • We've probably all been there before. We’re scrolling through our Instagram feed, just to stop and stare at a burger from a local restaurant that looks so good we instantly feel hungry. Maybe we can restrain at first, but a few days later we miraculously find ourselves craving a burger while not even thinking about that post anymore, and we are already planning on going there with a friend. 

    What is it that one photo on Instagram can unconsciously persuade us to go to a food outlet or order something online, while we have no difficulties neglecting another photo? 

    Working part time as a hospitality marketeer, I struggled with that question a lot of times. How can I make these photos so attractive that it gets people in the door? 

    Most of all, I wanted the Instagram feed to look nice and cohesive, hoping that this would persuade people to go to the food outlet or order online. Several Youtube tutorials taught me to do that by using a filter on every image that would give my photos a warm-brownish effect; I thought it looked nice and fitted the atmosphere. 

    But I stopped using that filter as I read the article I am sharing with you today. Because as it turns out; such filters can even decrease the attractiveness of an Instagram feed, leading to less customers 🤯.

    This has everything to do with color saturation. As Liu, Wu, Yo and Huang (2022) point out, color saturation is able to influence perceptions of freshness and tastiness, affecting purchase intention of the customer. Moreover, their study found some interesting practical insights on the effects of visual proximity (placing the object close to the camera or further away) and consumption context (solitary or social), giving us marketeers tools to increase our social media marketing effectiveness. 

    In order to understand these effects, we’ll first dive into the underlying process that facilitates them, and thereafter we’ll get into the practical insights that we can apply immediately to enhance the effectiveness of our marketing. 

    The Sensory Imagery Process

    Sensory Imagery is a form of imagery that engages our senses. It represents mental simulations of sensory experiences, which are based on related prior experiences that are stored in memory (Barlasou, 1999). Therefore, sensory imagery activates the specific brain areas that are in charge of the corresponding sensory perceptions. 

    Clever copywriters make use of sensory imagery; by for example framing an apple as a “crispy, lightly-sweet apple” as opposed to a mundane “apple”, they activate mental simulation, making customers more likely to purchase that apple.  

    But not only words can activate these brain areas; there are more visual cues that can activate such sensory imagery, such as the color saturation of a photo. 

    How Color Saturation can Boost Effectiveness

    Liu et al. (2022) find that highly color-saturated images increase the perceived freshness and tastiness by activating mental simulation, thereby increasing purchase intention. In the example below, you’ll clearly see the difference between the less saturated image on the left and the highly saturated image on the right. 

    So, as a marketeer, it is important to not only keep in mind the cohesity of your Instagram feed and personal preferences on filters, but also what associations (potential) customers will have with the photos.

    Important to note is that the effect was more outspoken when the consumption context was solitary. So, when people were planning to eat by themselves, the effect of color saturation on purchase intention was more pronounced. The reason for this is that solo diners pay more attention to taste-related attributes as opposed to social diners (Choi et al., 2020). While solo diners mostly consider personal food interest, social diners must balance their own preferences with other people’s preferences. Moreover, people who are planning to eat with others may have other concerns while making such decisions such as how the activity can fulfill the need for relatedness to others (Reis et al., 2000), leading them to be less likely to participate in sensory imagery.

    The Effect of Visual Distance 

    Another factor that influenced the color saturation effect is the visual distance of the object in the image. Visual distance refers to the distance between the focal object and the camera. Embodied cognition theory shows that physical experience can affect mental experiences. An example of this is that prices that are displayed in a large font are often perceived as higher as opposed to prices displayed in a small font. 

    In a similar fashion, products that are displayed relatively distant to the camera can be perceived further away from the viewer as products that are displayed close to the camera. However, the authors didn’t find such an effect, meaning that the use of proximal images did not lead to significantly higher purchase intention. 

    But interestingly, the color saturation effect was more pronounced for distant images as opposed to proximal images. In other words; proximal images were able to activate sensory imagery even if they had low color saturation, but distant images needed high color saturation in order to do so. 

    To summarize, using highly saturated images increases perceived freshness and tastiness and in turn purchase intention, especially when customers are planning to dine by themselves and when the image is distant. While choosing between photo styles, it is always beneficial to pick one that vibrantly displays the color of the food items promoted.

  • Online Food Photos that Make Your Mouth Water: How Color-Saturated Food Images can Boost Sales
  • Reference:

    Liu, S. Q., Wu, L. L., Yu, X., & Huang, H. (2022). Marketing online food images via color saturation: A sensory imagery perspective. Journal of Business Research, 151, 366-378.


    Further Reading

    • Is Fondness for Roundness a thing? How to increase buying intentions for indulgence foods with a basic shape

      Is Fondness for Roundness a thing? How to increase buying intentions for indulgence foods with a basic shape

      Think about two similar scenarios where you want to treat yourself. One: you just left the gym after a long day. It was a good session. You ate your frog and managed to tick almost everything off your list. You have a hankering for something good to say “You did well today”.

      Two: you just left the office, it’s late in the evening and you want a little pick me up. Another day at the office, a lot of overtime with little moments of reflection. You rarely have time for yourself, but you are the best at your job, and you love it. You want something good to ease your relaxation and end the day.

      What do you pick in each of them? A chocolate cheesecake sounds just as good as a pack of graham crackers. You will say: “My choice can come down to many things! My plans for the evening, the package and its colors, how, and if it smells. Should I go on?”. Well, yes and no.

    • A Surprisingly Simple Way To Make Food Packaging More Appealing

      A Surprisingly Simple Way To Make Food Packaging More Appealing

      In their battle for customer attention, food packaging designers are eager to implement techniques from psychology. It gives them an edge over their competitors in grabbing customer attention and increasing sales.

      Especially in the aisles containing your typical vice products, most purchases are unplanned. This leaves a major role for on-pack visuals and claims to determine which products end up in our shopping baskets. 

      Over the years, consumer psychologists have unearthed many of these design techniques, which are often quite eloquent and subtle, such as:

      • Getting the typography right (did you know that round fonts reinforce our perception of sweetness?)
      • Cleverly arranging the various visual elements (did you know that bottom-heavy pack designs increases our perception of the amount of product we’ll be getting)
      • Using nature’s principles of beauty (did you know that designs following the golden ratio are regarded more beautiful?)

      As we focus on ever-more subtle design techniques, we may be overlooking the most powerful weapons of influence that are in front of our faces all along. A recent study by Huang et al., (2022) has thrown the spotlight on one such factors: image size.

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