13th Sep 2018| by Paul Findlay

The Mustard & Ketchup Theory. Learning to taste your brand.

Photo of a hot dog in a bun with mustard and tomato sauce zig zagging across it


Ever driven past those golden arches and felt that undeniable urge for a burger, even though you’re not hungry, hungover or eighteen years old?

Next thing you’re ordering in the drive through, followed a forensic sweep of your car to get rid of any evidence.

You felt great, it was worth it for at least five seconds… but now you feel dirty… real dirty. Pull up a chair and take a deep, deep breath. You are not alone my friends!

McDonalds Brand Mark

Let’s start from the beginning and break this one down, so we can work out how some seemingly innocently branded signage can lead to such guilty indiscretions.

First, it’s good to understand that we generally make a decision within 90 seconds of being engaged with a brand, but one particular study conducted by the University of Winnipeg in Canada that I came across has expanded on this further and shown that up to 60-92% of this assessment is actually based on colour alone.

So there’s the first part of our sensory expedition… let’s explore the idea of colour having such a strong pull on our senses and while we’re at it get a little deep on the psychology of colour.

Red and yellow. Why are you so darn influential?

There are things about yellow and red that most of us already inherently know. Yellow inspires happiness and positivity and red gets you to stop and look (this makes sense as we practice this every day stopping at traffic lights). Red also stimulates and excites us, just like when we are ready to feast on something delicious, our heart rate picks up and neurons fire up in the hypothalamus part of the brain. This explains the stimulation you feel and dare I say it, the ‘fomo’ that hits your belly as your drive past the red and yellow signage.

But there’s another idea within food marketing that I think explains this enigma best. This idea also has a bit more meat to it (pun intended), to the point that you can actually taste it when it’s applied correctly – it’s what’s termed the mustard and ketchup theory.

The mustard and ketchup theory.

Yes, that gloriously nostalgic, yellow and red zig-zag sauce combination that proudly lives on burgers and hotdogs. It not only plays on our minds as a tasty little colour hook, this visual also inspires our tastebuds as a memorable flavour hit. This simple and very stealthful, sensory trigger lures even the best of us helplessly towards the prize like a pack of fast food zombies heading eagerly towards a McBrain Burger.

Photo of a hot dog in a bun with mustard and tomato sauce zig zagging across it

But there is one more very important ingredient of this invisible sinister pie we need to understand before we wrap this up.

We eat with our eyes and ears.

Yes, we eat with our eyes and science has shown us that colour plays an important part with the way we absorb and taste the flavour profiles in the things we eat.

Also keep in mind what the mustard predominately sits on is either a hotdog or a hamburger, both very soft and juicy sounding names – it’s a sensory thing, a sound and a visual showcase as much as it is taste. This theory would fall flat if there was a smattering of natural brown tomato sauce, alongside a drizzle of dirty green mustard.

After understanding the true power of these theories, the way colour, sound and form can play with our brains, there’s no secret as to why a lot of successful fast food chains have developed their global branding, spaces, and signage with a good squirt of bright yellow and red magic in mind.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. This thinking can extend much broader than just fast food, we can use similar theories along with the support of visual languages and exciting sensory cues like sound and smell to further enhance our messaging and give a heightened brand experience to your customers. So, what does your brand taste, smell, sound and feel like?


Retro illustration by nouar of a walking hot dog
By Paul Findlay
Paul is the Creative Director at Brands to life® with over 25 years experience building brands. He has founded two of Melbourne’s most successful independent agencies with many highlights along the way including ‘BRW Fast 100’ and ‘B&T Agency of the Year’. Paul creates memorable and authentic brand experiences through engaging Strategies, Identities, Visual Languages and Brand Stories, whatever it takes to breathe new life into brands.
Artwork: Vintage, hot diggity dog by nouar