Moo Juice

Purple Cow
By Seth Godin
145pp. New York: Portfolio. $19.95.

There seems to be no shortage of people who believe the marketing industry is in trouble. It isn’t so much the economy, these critics believe, but the sorry state of marketing thinking that is to blame. Anyone who turns on a television or flips through a magazine knows they are absolutely right.

Adding his voice to this critical chorus, marketing pillar Seth Godin has written a characteristically provocative book that should stir things up. Starting with the premise that current marketing efforts are generally ineffective, Godin argues there must be something unique about a product itself in order for it to succeed. Looking at herd upon herd of ordinary cows from a car window is boring, Godin reasons, but a purple cow would catch everyone’s attention.

Of course, there are not a lot of purple cows out there. Even companies that start off with unusual, groundbreaking products tend to rest on their laurels after initial success. What began as a purple cow eventually becomes (apologies in advance) a white elephant.

Even more importantly, Godin tells us, it’s not enough just to have a purple cow. People have to know about it. “A brand (or a new product offering) is nothing more than an idea,” Godin writes. “Ideas that spread are more likely to succeed than those that don’t.” These spreadable ideas Godin dubs ideaviruses.

In order to get the word out, there have to be “sneezers” who spread the ideavirus. In other words, the purple cow can’t just stand there and chew the cud, it has to do something. As unappealing as the image of a sneezing ruminant may be, Godin makes a valuable point.

Yet if the fundamental premise of Purple Cow is that marketing can only succeed when the product is special, that begs the larger question: What involvement, if any, do marketers have in the development of new products? Those who have worked on either the agency or client side of the marketing business will know that marketers are typically brought in well after a product has been designed. Only after the widget leaves the factory are marketers summoned to help.

Acknowledging this, Godin stresses marketers must be involved early in the process. “Marketing is the act of inventing the product. The effort of designing it. The craft of producing it. The art of pricing it. The technique of selling it. How can a Purple Cow company not be run by a marketer?” While that will certainly be music to the ears of any marketer, it will also undoubtedly raise eyebrows in the R&D department.

Until that happy day arrives when marketers are in the driver’s seat, or at least get to sit up front with the adults, Godin’s highly erudite prose and clever insights will be invaluable for any business. Above all, Godin reminds us that just staying the course – in business as in life – is risky. It’s time to start looking for that purple cow.

Jonathan Jackson is an independent consultant based in New York City. He has written extensively on internet advertising and email marketing since the inception of the internet. A frequent guest speaker, Jonathan has addressed global audiences on marketing and advertising topics and also teaches marketing at colleges around the world.

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