Apr 04

How My Guernsey Cow Would Kick Seth Godin’s Purple Cow’s Ass

“You’re either a Purple Cow or you’re not. You’re either remarkable or invisible. Make your choice.”

That’s Amazon’s description of “marketing guru” Seth Godin’s 2003 book Purple Cow. The description goes on to say “Cows, after you’ve seen one, or two, or ten, are boring. A Purple Cow, though…now that would be something. Purple Cow describes something phenomenal, something counterintuitive and exciting and flat out unbelievable. Every day, consumers come face to face with a lot of boring stuff-a lot of brown cows-but you can bet they won’t forget a Purple Cow. And it’s not a marketing function that you can slap on to your product or service. Purple Cow is inherent. It’s built right in, or it’s not there. Period.”

Guess what? I don’t need a purple cow. I won’t forget it, sure, but it serves no purpose to me. Marketing isn’t about trying to be exceptional–it is about showing your use to the right people. To the point where they look at your product and say, “Thank you for showing me that. That is exactly what I needed to see at this very moment.”

I used to read Seth Godin’s blog regularly but have since found it to be pretty much common sense. Don’t screw over people. Don’t lie. I’m in marketing, so therefore I’m a scumbag by default. OK, check. Got it. He now has a book called Tribes, which says we need good leaders. Got it. Thanks.

I just don’t get why I should be excited about any of this stuff. We are in a recession and as anyone who has seen the downsizes, people aren’t spending. It’s not because marketers aren’t trying to be exceptional. It’s partially because our culture is segmenting and ads aren’t considering audience and placement to adjust. It doesn’t matter what color your cow is. It matters how useful someone actually finds your cow.

How would my Guernsey cow kick Seth Godin’s purple cow’s ass? I’d make sure to feed it only the best food and I’d take very good care of it. Then I’d make some awesome cheese out of it’s milk. I’d then take my cheese and I’d give a little piece to top chefs and I’d pay them for their opinions. They’d give me feedback on how my cheese could make their food better. Eventually my cheese would be so good, they’d probably use it. Because these top chefs use it, the lesser chefs, wannabes, bloggers, talk shows, and magazines would pay attention. Now look at me. My cow isn’t purple. It’s a boring looking brown and white cow. And it’s kicking your purple cow’s ass because it is useful without being all that different, and it’s in front of the right people at the right time.

Marketing isn’t really about trying to be exceptional. It is about understanding how your product or service will improve someone else’s life experience. The exceptional part comes later. Is that crappy black umbrella you bought in the middle of a rain storm in New York City for $30 really that exceptional initially? No. It’s just what you needed when you needed it, so you paid way too much for it. If I sell incredibly sturdy and beautifully designed umbrellas and decide to sell them in Bibi, Arkanasas, I doubt I could get $30 for them despite their being exceptional.

Maybe this case is a matter of semantics, but hey, isn’t that what writing a book actually is?

  • http://sethgodin.typepad.com seth godin

    Thanks Michelle, I appreciate the feedback. My guess is that you didn't actually read these books, just the descriptions. Boiling a book down into a paragraph is a lot harder than it looks.

    The process you described–making a cheese so good that a chef chooses to use it, and actually is willing to talk about using it–is exactly what Purple Cow is about. If you set out to make a cheese just like Kraft, you'd lose. On the other hand, if you set out to make an exceptional cheese, then by my description, you'd have something purple on your hands.

    As for the umbrella, if you were the only person in NY selling umbrellas during a rainstorm, you can sure bet that people would be finding you via word of mouth. Being purple can certainly be situational.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michellegreer michellegreer


      I didn't read the books. My issue isn't with the books, it is with the analogy of the title. Unless I need to get attention for my farm, I don't really need a purple cow. In fact, I'd be hesitant to even look at a purple cow because I would think the cow's premium would come with its color and not its bloodline.

      If someone reads your books and then decides they'd rather create quality products than outspend the competition with marketing blasts, then more power to you.

  • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

    I *did* read the books.

    The Dip says that to be successful you should be single-minded and work really really hard and not give up. And that to be successful you have to quickly give up when it's a bad idea. But also you can't tell the good ideas from the bad ideas.

    So you should work really hard unless you shouldn't. And you should know which is which. Huh?

    You're right Michelle. I like your point about marketing not just being about "being different" or "making an impression" but accomplishing the root task.

    To defend Seth a little though, his style is to throw out a bunch of "food for thought" for stimulation. Some people might take it too far, and then sure you can find contradictions and simplistic messages and so forth.

    But, if you ask "Would the world be better for consumers if more companies cherry-picked Seth's ideas?" I think the answer is "yes." So in a large, hand-wavy way, Seth is good for us.

    But I totally agree you can't just go word-for-word and take it as gospel!

  • http://www.ferodynamics.com/ Ferodynamics

    You can’t miss his book on the shelf, it’s purple. Then you open it and realize he’s not saying much. These days I read http://businessinsider.com/ and http://techmeme.com/

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/AJ_Kohn AJ_Kohn

    I tend to agree with you Michelle. In the end isn't this about the very rudimentary tenants of marketing: find a need and fill it.

    If there are no competitors then being exceptional might not be necessary. If you're entering a field with competitors the need you're filling is something the others aren't addressing.

    That need could be quality, price, service or some other dimension of the product. One could argue that you're exceptional in this dimension but … again, it seems like standard marketing.

    But lets say the competing products are similar and inherent quality doesn't come into play. Then marketing becomes more important. Or does it?

    I like the taste of Crystal Geyser water over Arrowhead. Now, one could say that the taste of the water is the Purple Cow, but … is it really?

  • Carolan Ross

    I don’t give a rip WHAT color the cow is. I want to know whether I can trust the cow. Lots of people want milk. Lots of cows have the milk we need, and we choose based on personal preferences. Maybe the purple cow has the loudest MOO, but loudmouths are annoying.