For years, marketers
have talked about the "five Ps" ( actually, there
are more than five, but everyone picks their favorite handful
): product, pricing, promotion, positioning, publicity, packaging,
pass along, permission. Sound familiar? This has become the
basic marketing checklist, a quick way to make sure that you've
done your job. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but it used
to be that if you dotted your is and paid attention to your
five Ps, then you were more likely than not to succeed.
No longer. It's time to add an exceptionally important new
P to the list: Purple Cow. Weird? Let me explain.
While driving through France a few years ago, my family and
I were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing
in lovely pastures right next to the road. For dozens of kilometers,
we all gazed out the window, marveling at the beauty. Then,
within a few minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new
cows were just like the old cows, and what was once amazing
was now common. Worse than common: It was boring.
Cows, after you've seen them for a while, are boring. They
may be well-bred cows, Six Sigma cows, cows lit by a beautiful
light, but they are still boring. A Purple Cow, though: Now,
that would really stand out. The essence of the Purple Cow
-- the reason it would shine among a crowd of perfectly competent,
even undeniably excellent cows -- is that it would be remarkable.
Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying
attention to. Boring stuff quickly becomes invisible.
The world is full of boring stuff -- brown cows -- which
is why so few people pay attention. Remarkable marketing is
the art of building things worth noticing right into your
product or service. Not just slapping on the marketing function
as a last-minute add-on, but also understanding from the outset
that if your offering itself isn't remarkable, then it's invisible
-- no matter how much you spend on well-crafted advertising.
This is an essay about what it takes to create and sell something
remarkable. It is a manifesto for marketers who want to make
a difference at their company by helping create products and
services that are worth marketing in the first place. It is
a plea for originality, for passion, guts, and daring. Not
just because going through life with passion and guts beats
the alternative ( which it does ), but also because it's the
only way to be successful. Today, the one sure way to fail
is to be boring. Your one chance for success is to be remarkable.
And that means you have to be a leader. You can't be remarkable
by following someone else who's remarkable. One way to figure
out a great theory is to look at what's working in the real
world and determine what the successes have in common. With
marketing, it's puzzling though. What could the Four Seasons
and Motel 6 possibly have in common? Other than the fact that
both companies have experienced extraordinary success and
growth, they couldn't be more different. Or Neiman Marcus
and Wal-Mart, both growing during the same decade? Or Nokia
( bringing out new hardware every 30 days or so ) and Nintendo
( marketing the same Game Boy for 14 years in a row )?
It's like trying to drive looking in the rearview mirror.
Sure, those things worked. But do they help us predict what
will work tomorrow? The thing that all of those companies
have in common is that they have nothing in common. They are
outliers. They're on the fringes. Superfast or superslow.
Very exclusive or very cheap. Extremely big or extremely small.
The reason it's so hard to follow the leader is this: The
leader is the leader precisely because he did something remarkable.
And that remarkable thing is now taken -- so it's no longer
remarkable when you decide to do it.
Stand out from the herd I: Going Up! Elevators aren't a typical
consumer product. They can easily cost more than a million
dollars, they generally get installed when a building is first
constructed, and they're not much use unless the building
is more than three or four stories tall.
How, then, does an elevator company compete? Until recently,
selling involved a lot of golf, dinners, and long-term relationships
with key purchasing agents at major real-estate developers.
No doubt that continues, but Otis Elevator Co. has radically
changed the game by developing a remarkable Purple Cow.
Every elevator ride is basically a local one. The elevator
stops 5, 10, 15 times on the way to your floor. This is a
hassle for you, but it's a huge, expensive problem for the
building. While your elevator is busy stopping at every floor,
the folks in the lobby are getting more and more frustrated.
The building needs more elevators, but there's no money to
buy them and no room to put them. Walk into the Times Square
offices of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, and you're faced
with a fascinating solution to this problem.
Otis's insight? When you approach the elevators, you key
in your floor on a centralized control panel. In return, the
panel tells you which elevator is going to take you to your
floor. With this simple presort, Otis has managed to turn
every elevator into an express. Your elevator takes you immediately
to the 12th floor and races back to the lobby. This means
that buildings can be taller, they need fewer elevators for
a given density of people, the wait is shorter, and the building
can use precious space for people rather than for elevators.
A huge win, implemented at a remarkably low cost.
Is there a significant real-estate developer in the world
who is unaware of this breakthrough? Not likely. And it doesn't
really matter how many ads or how many lunches the competition
sponsors: Otis now gets the benefit of the doubt.
The Sad Truth About Marketing Just About Anything. Forty
years ago, Ron Simek, owner of the Tombstone Tap ( named for
a nearby cemetery ) in Medford, Wisconsin, decided to offer
a frozen version of his pizza to his customers. It caught
on, and before long, Tombstone Pizza was dominating your grocer's
freezer. Kraft eventually bought the brand, advertised it
like crazy, and made serious dough. This was a great American
success story: Invent a good product that everyone wants,
advertise it to the masses, earn billions.
That strategy didn't just work for pizza. It worked for most
everything in your house, including aspirin. Imagine how much
fun it must have been to be the first person to market aspirin.
Here's a product that just about every person on earth needed
and wanted. A product that was inexpensive, easy to try, and
promised huge immediate benefits. Obviously, it was a big
Today, a quick visit to the drugstore turns up lots of aspirin
and aspirinlike products: Advil, Aleve, Alka-Seltzer Morning
Relief, Anacin, Ascriptin, Aspergum, Bayer, Bayer Children's,
Bayer Regimen, Bayer Women's, BC Powder, Bufferin, Cope, Ecotrin,
Excedrin Extra Strength, Goody's, Motrin, Nuprin, St. Joseph,
Tylenol, and, of course, Vanquish. Within each of those brands,
there are variations, sizes, and generics that add up to more
than 100 different products to choose from.
Think it's still easy to be an analgesics marketer today?
If you developed a new kind of pain reliever, even one that
was a little bit better than the ones that I just listed,
what would you do? The obvious answer, if you've got money
and you believe in your product, is to spend everything you've
got to buy tons of national TV and print advertising.
There are a few problems that you'll face, though. First,
you need people who want to buy a pain reliever. While it's
a huge market, it's not for everyone. Once you find people
who buy pain relievers, then you need people who want to buy
a new kind of pain reliever. After all, plenty of people want
the "original" kind, the kind they grew up with.
Finally, you need to find the people who are willing to listen
to what you have to say about your new pain reliever. The
vast majority of folks are just too busy and will ignore you,
regardless of how many ads you buy. So you just went from
an audience of everyone to an audience a fraction of that
size. Not only are these folks hard to find, they're picky
Being first in the frozen-pizza category was a good idea.
Being first in pain relievers was an even better idea. Alas,
they're both taken. Which brings me to the sad truth about
marketing just about anything, whether it's a product or a
service, whether it's marketed to consumers or corporations:
Most people can't buy your product. Either they don't have
the money, they don't have the time, or they don't want it.
And those are serious problems. An audience that doesn't
have the money to buy what you're selling at the price you
need to sell it for is not a market. An audience that doesn't
have the time to listen to and understand your pitch treats
you as if you and your product were invisible. And an audience
that takes the time to hear your pitch and decides that they
don't want it . . . well, you're not going to get very far.
The old rule was this: Create safe products and combine them
with great marketing. Average products for average people.
That's broken. The new rule is: Create remarkable products
that the right people seek out.
As I write this, the top song in France, Germany, Italy,
Spain, and a dozen other countries in Europe is about ketchup.
It's called "Ketchup," and it's by two sisters you've
never heard of. The number-two movie in America is a low-budget
animated film in which talking vegetables act out Bible stories.
Neither is the sort of product you'd expect to come from a
lumbering media behemoth.
Sam Adams beer was remarkable, and it captured a huge slice
of business from Budweiser. Hard Manufacturing introduced
a product that costs 10 times the average ( the $9,945 Doernbecher
crib ) and opened up an entirely new segment of the hospital-crib
market. The electric piano let Yamaha steal an increasingly
larger share of the traditional piano market away from the
entrenched leaders. Vanguard's remarkably low-cost mutual
funds continue to whale away at Fidelity's market dominance.
Bic lost tons of market share to Japanese competitors that
had developed pens that were remarkably fun to write with,
just as Bic had stolen the market away from fountain pens
a generation or two earlier.
Stand out from the herd II: Mail Call Very few organizations
have as timid an audience as the United States Postal Service.
Dominated by a conservative bureaucracy and conservative big
customers, the USPS has an awfully hard time innovating. The
big direct marketers are successful because they've figured
out how to thrive under the current system, and they're in
no mood to see that system change. Most individuals are in
no hurry to change their mailing habits either.
The majority of new-policy initiatives at the USPS are either
ignored or met with nothing but disdain. But "zip + 4"
was a huge success. Within a few years, the USPS was able
to diffuse a new idea, making the change in billions of address
records in thousands of computer databases.
How? First, it was a game-changing innovation. Zip + 4 makes
it far easier for marketers to target neighborhoods and much
faster and easier to deliver the mail. The product was a true
Purple Cow, completely changing the way customers and the
USPS would deal with bulk mail. It offered both dramatically
increased speed in delivery and significantly lower costs
for bulk mailers. That made it worth the time it took for
big mailers to pay attention. The cost of ignoring the innovation
would be felt immediately on the bottom line.
Second, the USPS wisely singled out a few early adopters.
These were organizations that were technically savvy and that
were extremely sensitive to both pricing and speed issues.
These early adopters were also in a position to sneeze the
benefits to other, less astute, mailers.
The lesson here is simple: The more intransigent your market,
the more crowded the marketplace, the busier your customers,
the more you need a Purple Cow. Half-measures will fail. Overhauling
the product with dramatic improvements in things that the
right customers care about, on the other hand, can have an
Why There Are So Few Purple Cows. If being a Purple Cow is
such an effective way to break through the clutter, why doesn't
everyone do it? One reason is that people think the opposite
of remarkable is "bad" or "poorly done."
They're wrong. Not many companies sell things today that are
flat-out lousy. Most sell things that are good enough. That's
why the opposite of remarkable is "very good." Very
good is an everyday occurrence, hardly worth mentioning --
certainly not the basis of breakthrough success. Are you making
very good stuff? How fast can you stop?
Some people would like you to believe that there are too
few great ideas, that their product or their industry or their
company simply can't support a great idea. That, of course,
is absolute nonsense. Another reason the Purple Cow is so
rare is because people are so afraid.
If you're remarkable, then it's likely that some people won't
like you. That's part of the definition of remarkable. Nobody
gets unanimous praise -- ever. The best the timid can hope
for is to be unnoticed. Criticism comes to those who stand
Playing it safe. Following the rules. They seem like the
best ways to avoid failure. Alas, that pattern is awfully
dangerous. The current marketing "rules" will ultimately
lead to failure. In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing.
In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being
In Marketing Outrageously ( Bard Press, 2001 ), author Jon
Spoelstra points out the catch-22 logic of the Purple Cow.
If times are tough, your peers and your boss may very well
point out that you can't afford to be remarkable. There's
not enough room to innovate: We have to conserve, to play
it safe. We don't have the money to make a mistake. In good
times, however, those very same people will tell you to relax,
take it easy. There's not enough need to innovate: We can
afford to be conservative, to play it safe.
So it seems that we face two choices: Either be invisible,
uncriticized, anonymous, and safe or take a chance at true
greatness, uniqueness, and the Purple Cow. The point is simple,
but it bears repeating: Boring always leads to failure. Boring
is always the riskiest strategy. Smart businesspeople realize
this and work to minimize ( but not eliminate ) the risk from
the process. They know that sometimes it's not going to work,
but they accept the fact that that's okay.
Stand out from the herd III: The Color of Money How did Dutch
Boy Paint stir up the paint business? It's so simple, it's
scary. They changed the can. Paint cans are heavy, hard to
carry, hard to close, hard to open, hard to pour, and no fun.
Yet they've been around for a long time, and most people assumed
that there had to be a reason why they were so bad. Dutch
Boy realized that there was no reason. They also realized
that the can was an integral part of the product: People don't
buy paint, they buy painted walls, and the can makes that
process much easier.
Dutch Boy used that insight and introduced an easier-to-carry,
easier-to-pour, easier-to-close paint jug. "Customers
tell us that the new Twist & Pour paint container is a
packaging innovation that was long overdue," says Dennis
Eckols, group vice president of the home division for Fred
Meyer stores. "People wonder why it took so long for
someone to come up with the idea, and they love Dutch Boy
for doing it."
It's an amazing innovation. Worth noticing. Not only did
the new packaging increase sales, but it also got them more
distribution ( at a higher retail price! ).
That is marketing done right. Marketing where the marketer
changes the product, not the ads.
Why It Pays ( Big ) to Be a Purple Cow
As the ability to be remarkable continues to demonstrate its
value in the marketplace, the rewards that follow the Purple
Cow increase. Whether you develop a new insurance policy,
make a hit record, or write a groundbreaking book, the money
and satisfaction that follow are extraordinary. In exchange
for taking the risk, creators of a Purple Cow get a huge upside
when they get it right.
Even better, you don't have to be remarkable all the time
to enjoy the upside. Starbucks was remarkable a few years
ago. Now they're boring. But that burst of innovation and
insight has allowed them to expand to thousands of stores
around the world. Compare that growth in assets to Maxwell
House. Ten years ago, all of the brand value in coffee resided
with them, not with Starbucks. But Maxwell House played it
safe ( they thought ), and now they remain stuck with not
much more than they had a decade ago.
Once you've created something remarkable, the challenge is
to do two things simultaneously: One, milk the Purple Cow
for everything it's worth. Figure out how to extend it and
profit from it for as long as possible. Two, build an environment
where you are likely to invent an entirely new Purple Cow
in time to replace the first one when its benefits inevitably
These are contradictory goals. The creator of a Purple Cow
enjoys the profits, accolades, and feeling of omniscience
that come with a success. None of those outcomes accompany
a failed attempt at a new Cow. Thus, the tempting thing to
do is to coast. Take no chances. Take profits. Fail to reinvest.
AOL, Marriott, Marvel Comics, Palm, Yahoo -- the list goes
on and on. Each company had a breakthrough, built an empire
around it, and then failed to take another risk. It used to
be easy to coast for a long time after a few remarkable successes.
Disney coasted for decades. Milton Berle did too. It's too
easy to decide to sit out the next round, rationalizing that
you're spending the time and energy to build on what you've
got instead of investing in the future. So here's one simple,
tangible suggestion. Create two teams: the inventors and the
milkers. Put them in separate buildings. Hold a formal ceremony
when you move a product from one group to the other. Celebrate
them both, and rotate people around.
Stand out from the herd IV: Chewing my own cud
So, how does an author get his new book to stand out from
all of the other marketing books? By trying to create a remarkable
way to market a book about remarkable marketing. How? By not
selling it in stores. Instead, a copy of the book version
of Purple Cow is available for free to anyone reading this
article. You pay for postage and handling ( $5 ), and Fast
Company will send you one copy of the book-length version
of this article for free ( visit http://www.fastcompany.com/keyword/purplecow67
for details ). How does this pay? Visit the site and I'll
show you my entire marketing plan.
What It Means to Be a Marketer Today
If the Purple Cow is now one of the Ps of marketing, it has
a series of big implications for the enterprise. In fact,
it changes the definition of marketing. It used to be that
engineering invented, manufacturing built, marketing marketed,
sales sold, and the president managed the whole shebang. Marketing,
better called "advertising," was about communicating
the values of a product after it had been developed and manufactured.
That's clearly not a valid strategy in a world where product
attributes ( everything from service to design ) are now at
the heart of what it means to be a marketer. 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?
Companies that create Purple Cows, such as JetBlue Airways,
Hasbro, Poland Spring, and Starbucks, have to be run by marketers.
Turns out that the CEO of JetBlue made a critical decision
on day one: He put the head of marketing in charge of product
design and training as well. It shows. JetBlue sells a time-sensitive
commodity just like American Airlines does, but somehow it
manages to make a profit doing it. All of these companies
are marketers at their very core.
The geniuses who managed to invent 1-800-COLLECT are true
marketers. They didn't figure out how to market an existing
service. Instead, the marketing is built into the product
-- from the easy-to-remember phone number to the very idea
that MCI could steal the collect-call business from the pay-phone
But isn't the same idea true for a local restaurant, a grinding-wheel
company, and Citibank? In a world where anything we need is
good enough and where just about all of the profit comes from
the Purple Cow, we must all be marketers.
You've got a chance to reinvent who you are and what you
do. Your company can reenergize itself around the idea of
involving designers in marketing and marketers in design.
You can stop fighting slow growth with mind-numbing grunt
work and start investing in insight and innovation instead.
If a company is failing, it's the fault of the most senior
management, and the problem is probably this: They are just
running a company, not marketing a product. And today, that's
a remarkably ineffective way to compete.
Sidebar: 10 ways to raise a purple
Making and marketing something remarkable means asking new
questions -- and trying new practices. Here are 10 suggestions.
- Differentiate your customers. Find the group that's most
profitable. Find the group that's most likely to influence
other customers. Figure out how to develop for, advertise
to, or reward either group. Ignore the rest. Cater to the
customers you would choose if you could choose your customers
- If you could pick one underserved niche to target ( and
to dominate ), what would it be? Why not launch a product
to compete with your own that does nothing but appeal to
- Create two teams: the inventors and the milkers. Put them
in separate buildings. Hold a formal ceremony when you move
a product from one group to the other. Celebrate them both,
and rotate people around.
- Do you have the email addresses of the 20% of your customer
base that loves what you do? If not, start getting them.
If you do, what could you make for them that would be superspecial?
- Remarkable isn't always about changing the biggest machine
in your factory. It can be the way you answer the phone,
launch a new brand, or price a revision to your software.
- Getting in the habit of doing the "unsafe" thing
every time you have the opportunity is the best way to see
what's working and what's not. Explore the limits. What
if you're the cheapest, the fastest, the slowest, the hottest,
the coldest, the easiest, the most efficient, the loudest,
the most hated, the copycat, the outsider, the hardest,
the oldest, the newest, or just the most! If there's a limit,
you should ( must ) test it.
- Think small. One vestige of the TV-industrial complex
is a need to think mass. If it doesn't appeal to everyone,
the thinking goes, it's not worth it. No longer. Think of
the smallest conceivable market and describe a product that
overwhelms it with its remarkability. Go from there.
- Find things that are "just not done" in your
industry, and then go ahead and do them. For example, JetBlue
Airways almost instituted a dress code -- for its passengers!
The company is still playing with the idea of giving a free
airline ticket to the best-dressed person on the plane.
A plastic surgeon could offer gift certificates. A book
publisher could put a book on sale for a certain period
of time. Stew Leonard's took the strawberries out of the
little green plastic cages and let the customers pick their
own. Sales doubled.
- Ask, "Why not?" Almost everything you don't
do has no good reason for it. Almost everything you don't
do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack
of someone asking, "Why not?"
- What would happen if you simply told the truth inside
your company and to your customers?
Sidebar: Now That's Remarkable
Otis Elevator Co.
When is a bank of elevators more than a bank of elevators?
When it's smart enough to tell you which elevator will provide
the quickest ride to the floor you need to reach. A product
that smart changes how people move, how buildings get designed
-- and how companies, in this case Otis Elevator Co., market
It's good to be first with an innovation that the world is
hungry for. Ron Simek learned that lesson when he launched
the first successful line of frozen pizza. The product was
a hit. Kraft bought it and advertised like mad. The rest is
history. Of course, 40 years later, introducing another brand
of frozen pizza seems less appetizing. Me-too products lead
to also-ran companies.
U.S. Postal Service
The runaway success of "zip + 4" might give new
meaning to the term "going postal." This simple
innovation makes it quicker for the Postal Service to deliver
mail, easier for marketers to target neighborhoods, and cheaper
for marketers to send bulk mail. But the innovation would
never have taken hold without savvy marketing by an organization
not famous for its savviness.