Should I Judge a Pill By Its Color?

Does a medication’s design, in this case, color, make a difference? What would the world look like without “that pink stuff” to aid with a bellyache? Within the pharmaceutical space, colors not only signify the type of medication to a consumer, but they can also represent the source of medication. Until the middle of the 1900s, all prescribed medications in pill form were uniformly white and round. This carried over into over-the-counter drugs, which were primarily white or pastel in color.

The ’60s introduced colors into the pill design space, and by the time the late ’70s hit, soft gel capsules that were red, yellow, or bright green in color could be seen in pharmacies. Today, thousands of different tint combinations are available to the pharmaceutical market. Yet, to answer the question of if it matters what color your capsules, tablets, or pills are, we had to put in our due diligence and find out for ourselves.

Our research team rolled up their sleeves and dug into prior findings. We know the importance of color psychology in branding within any industry, but this psychology has a specific place in pharmaceuticals.

Anything that will positively reinforce taking necessary medications is crucial to patient compliance. For example, research has uncovered that differences in the color of prescribed medication can affect whether a patient will stop taking a drug.

  • One study reported that patients who take generic drugs that differ in color are 50% more likely to stop the intake of the drug, producing possible adverse reactions (Sarpatwari et al., 2019).
  • A U.S. study with epileptic patients whose regular prescriptions were refilled with a different pill color observed that 53% were more likely to stop taking the prescribed medication with the color variance (Tuleu, Hughes, Clapham, & Vallet, 2021).
  • A study in the last eight years where a sample of heart attack patients had their pill regimen color changed revealed that 30% of patients were more likely to stop treatment due to pill color changes (Callier et al., 2022).

In other words, an alteration in a patient’s color of medication may contribute to a sudden, unplanned shift in treatment. Furthermore, medication color sends a message about the actual function of the product. To test this theory, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Would you agree that a soft blue capsule will provide a good night’s sleep?

2. Given a choice between a pink or green tablet, towards which would you gravitate to aid with acid reflux?

If you answered yes to the first and pink to the second, congratulations. Most consumers associate light blue with drowsiness or sleep and pink with gastro-intestinal or stomach-related issues. In contrast, green may be associated with sourness or citric acid (think Sour Patch Kid’s) – not what a person needs when their stomach is churning.

So, to answer the question, should I judge a pill by its color. The answer is yes. This may not be the most visible or apparent aspect of brand identity, but it will inevitably play a role in a drug’s brand story and equity. Like any aspect of your brand, you must ensure that it conveys the right message to audiences and, at the very least, that it won’t cause confusion or potential medication error.