Is it time we called off the search for the purple cow

Is it time we called off the hunt for the purple cow?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

For some time now, brands have pursued difference. Spurred on initially by Jack Trout, they’ve positioned, disrupted, innovated … all with that elusive goal in mind. To stand out and stand apart from their competitors. Benefits, positioning, onions, pyramids, strategies … a lot of time and energy has been focused on helping brands achieve difference. Everyone’s been on that quest to become a Purple Cow.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Seth Godin fan and, inspired by that, the call for difference has been a recurrent theme in my own work, but there’s no denying that for the most part marketers have failed to live up to Godin’s call to recolour the livestock. Nigel Hollis has written previously that less than 1 in 5 brands is seen as distinctive by consumers.

One can of course read that as proof that Godin’s call is as relevant as ever. Or one can take it as meaning that the quest for difference is simply not one that works for the majority of marketers.

Three reasons why remarkable difference might be unattainable:

  • Marketers get tempted into pursuing difference for difference’s sake and take their eye off the very people who buy their brands.
  • Difference isn’t a motivation for consumers. People don’t go to the supermarket to buy what’s different. They buy what they know and what appeals to them. They buy what they remember. Different or not.
  • In a world of product parity, increasing regulation, impatient investors and embedded management orthodoxy, meaningful difference is too hard to achieve. Consider this characteristically provocative statement from Mark Ritson: “[True] repositioning is almost always impossible. No matter how attractive it appears or how commonly we use the term in marketing, the actual business of changing a brand’s DNA and being successful is ridiculous … actually changing a brand from black to white … is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred … you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.”

So what’s the alternative? Conformity?


Perhaps a little more latitude – and more focus on the human condition.

A moment’s digression please to make a point. Over coffee the other day some of us got talking about the irony of living in a world filled with technology and connections and ideas yet one that, in so many ways and places, remains unexciting for such long stretches. On reflection, so many of the situations we find ourselves in are routine. Catching a plane is boring once you’ve done it a few times. Commuting is boring. Work cultures are uninspiring. Most of the advertising we see is boring. As Susan Ertz once observed, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

You can read that as reality. Or opportunity.

After all, as human beings, we long for things that catch our eye. We will find time to do things that make our hearts beat faster. We live for what makes us feel alive. We want to be inspired by purpose.

Sometimes a brand delivers that. Most of the time it doesn’t – and neither do any of the brands around it. So as Martin Weigel rightly points out in this fantastic two part post: “Rather than spend all that time noodling brand onions and agonizing over the largely irrelevant nuance of ‘difference’ between our brand and the competition, we should be spending far more time thinking about what people are interested in.”

I loved Weigel’s post because it provoked three very simple and interconnected questions:

1. Why can’t life be more interesting?

2. Why can’t brands have a role to play in that?

3. Isn’t that where their real value (for consumers) should lie?

There will be those who say that this is just difference by another name. Perhaps it is. But then if “difference” isn’t working as a motivation, maybe other words are exactly what is needed.

For me, the search for interesting goes wider and deeper:

  • It’s about what fascinates, surprises and delights, which starts with really knowing what people feel now and is prompted by what they would like to feel, not by presenting them with something that contradicts what they know.
  • It’s not just about the product or service, it’s about the environment that it is delivered in, the manner in which it is delivered or what comes with the product or service – in other words, it’s about how the experience augments the offering. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience is markedly different.
  • There may be a high level of familiarity and/or conformity that some brands must work to because the channel or regulation rules out divergence, so the point of interest may need to be specific and personal.
  • Interest can be generated in a range of ways beyond what the product/service is or how it’s delivered – by opinion; by story; by association; by controversy (planned or otherwise); by endorsement (think about the power of the Oprah factor); by serendipity.

And what about brands that have little room for differentiation? How do you make tea different? How do you make rocks different? In this article on Copyblogger, Sean D’Souza tackles those very issues and suggests that far from resisting the ordinary, we should look for the points of beauty there. “Look for the mundane”, he suggests, and elevate them. I translate that as – find the smallest way to be interesting.

In fact, keep finding them. Because the secret to being interesting lies in one preceding word – continually. Keep shipping ideas, improvements, tweaks, news, ideas that add to what people get in skips rather than bounds. That to me is the secret to success in today’s upgrade culture. I call this “pleasure streaming”.

Let’s kill dull

Derrick Daye made a great point in a conversation we had over the weekend. “Marketers have got into the habit of just marketing what they have or would like to have. But effective brand strategy isn’t about competing for the existing value created by others, it’s about finding ways to create a new sense of value.”

We should stop looking for epic and dramatic “big bang” difference.

And perhaps, in the light of the lack of Purple Cows, that’s about making differences that are more manageable, tangible and practical. Perhaps we should stop looking for epic and dramatic “big bang” difference. More companies should call off the search for their Blue Ocean Strategy – because they’re never going to get through the paperwork to make it happen. Instead, they could direct their energies to finding and delivering small moments of interest wherever and whenever they can; moments of interest that create wonderful little changes.

In the world. In cultures. For customers.

Imagine how competitive your brand would be, and how much more interesting the world might become during the lulls that make so much of life routine might become, if your senior leadership operated from this simple mantra. Kill something dull every day.

I certainly think it’s possible to create value, and indeed meaningful change, with this question. “What are we doing today to be more interesting [to our people and our buyers] than we were yesterday?”

Photo of “Purple Cow” taken by Richard Elzey, sourced from Flickr










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