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Why is Black Friday Black?

Color names can provide a powerful influence over brand identity--an influence that is often counter-intuitive.

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You can’t surf the web, listen to the radio or watch TV today without hearing some reference to Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving here in the States and one of the busiest shopping days in the holiday season. Shoppers love Black Friday because there is an opportunity to find massive discounts. That’s why people are willing to line up in front of stores the night before.

But how is it that Black was chosen as the name for this annual discount ritual? Conventional wisdom says its because the one-day sales hit from this day can put a retailer “into the black.” But that seems an odd reason to attract shoppers. You’d half expect them to react to Red Friday, a day when you’d expect prices to be slashed. Then again, red has perhaps some negative connotations of its own. Perhaps Red Friday is better suited to a massive discount on Stephen King novels. But the color Black doesn’t always conjure a positive association . For example, Black Flag is a line of insecticides. It’s a brand name that earns your purchase because it is guaranteed to kill.

The truth is that our brains do interesting things with color names. When the color in the name easily matches what we expect from the experience (i.e. a Red Tag sale), we don’t give it much thought at all. But when you use a color in a name that isn’t a literal match, we spend a little more time thinking about it. That extra time can lead to positive associations. If we like the unusual idea suggested by the counter-intuitive color name, it might actually stick in our memory and get used more often than a conventional, literal name. Consider Red Bull, The Yellow Pages, The Kelly Blue Book, and Simple Green.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research studied the color brand name question in greater detail. The researchers found this:

…color names impact product decisions due to both the name’s atypicality and its lack of specificity.

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