How to be Remarkable
A flyby Purple Cow field report
This post is the follow-up to the first edition of the Flyby Book Club— Purple Cow by Seth Godin, and is about a 6-minute read. I tried to keep it light and packed with insights, so let me know what you thought using the feedback form below.
Imagine walking past a field with a sea of endless cows grazing into the sunset. Now imagine one of those cows was purple. What would you do? Well, if this was the 90s, you’d probably tell your friends about it and drag them along to see it. Today, in 2023, most people would take their phones out and share a selfie with said cow on social media. That’s what this book is about. Creating a product so remarkable that people want to tell their friends about it.
This doesn’t mean painting a cow purple and drawing people in with gimmicks or hype. It means the cow is actually purple. The purple cow isn’t an afterthought or add-on you come up with at the time of launch. It’s the art of building things worth noticing right into the product. It’s about the substance and having the wow factor built in. It means, simply, creating a product that is worth talking about.
I totally agree with this philosophy. The more outstanding your product is, the less marketing you will have to do. The product itself becomes the marketing, and you end up with a thriving business in the long term. Instead of spending money on expensive ads, you can use those resources to improve the product and create something people will want to share on their own, thus doing the marketing for you. For bootstrapped entrepreneurs with no external funding, this is really the only option, I would say. But even if you do have funding, it can only run so far if the product doesn’t have legs.
In the 90s, product launches were dominated by big-budget commercials and marketing-first style development. An example in the book was Cap’n crunch. The character and ads were developed before the product (which was just a bag of standard, run-of-the-mill sugary corn puffs). This blew my mind (mainly because I was indeed hooked on
these characters cereals). The product didn’t even really matter back then. It was the ads doing all the work. Today, this approach wouldn’t work. Consumers are overloaded with choices and are pickier with where they spend their limited attention and resources. The ads might hook you in, but only a solid product can get you to stay. The better use of resources is to re-target that ad spend into developing a better product, improving the design, or in some way, bringing people genuine value.
If you do just want to get the word out about your product, you can run a few targeted ads. This would mean highly focused marketing to certain “sneezers”— communities of people who are on the cutting edge and will likely tell others about your product. After that, if the product really is remarkable, it should cross the chasm and spread. This means sneezers tell their friends. Their friends agree that this is indeed something cool and not just another random sneeze. The rest of the population starts adopting the product, and you might just end up going viral. After that, how long you stay at the top depends on the specifics of the purple cow. Once it gets old, you’ll have to go back to the innovation drawing board.
And on the other hand, if you aren’t getting any results from your ads, that might mean you need to improve your product instead or re-target who is seeing your ads. Ideally, save the ad budget for when people are spreading your product, and 1+1=3. This is how you ignite network effects. Continuous innovation mixed with a bit of viral marketing. Not continuously running ads no one cares about.
Who are these “sneezers” the book mentions? People with a certain Otaku about a particular industry, i.e., “Something more than a hobby but not quite an obsession.”
A market with otaku already has a high degree of innovators. They’re open to trying new things and telling their friends about them. This includes markets with existing hobbyists or connoisseurs, such as hot sauce, coffee, anime, games (Can you think of a few more?). Targeting communities like these with a remarkable product can make it easier for your product to grow, as there is already an inherent “sneeze factor” in them. I’d say take it a step further and try and have a way to build otaku into whatever product or industry you are in. Make it so that people become fans and get obsessed with the details of the product, however mundane it might seem on the surface.
To do this, you will need a certain level of otaku about your own product and industry as a founder. This is where novel insights come from. The more you actually care about whatever you are working on, the more it will show in the end results and iterations. The best way to do this is by scratching your own itch. But, if you happen to be in a business where you just don’t have the passion, there are two ways to go about it— You can either project yourself into the market mind and try to see things from their perspective and understand their experience. Or you can use the scientific approach of launching your product and getting honest user feedback. Then you can improve based on what your users are suggesting. Combine the two (or three), and you might just end up with a few thousand fans.
But where do you start? Notice the purple cow just has one attribute which is different than a regular cow— the color. The rest of the cow is effectively the same. This is interesting. You only need to exceed in one area to get noticed. This can be the product, customer service, usability (UX), user interface (UI), delivery, packaging, experience (Can you think of a few more?). But, the more attributes you improve, the more likely people will become fans and want to share your product with their friends.
An example in the book was Band-Aid. This was a boring safe product that had been around forever while seemingly having a monopoly over the market. Until a competitor (Curad) came in and put a spin on the concept. They created bandages with characters printed on them, and Boom, suddenly, all the kids (including me) wanted the cool new bandages, and social proof was through the roof. This was just one attribute that was changed (design), which led to the capture of market share from a firmly established market leader.
There was a quote from the book which stood out to me on this topic —
“The best design solves problems, but if you can weld that to the cool factor, then you have a home run,” - Mark Schurman of Herman Miller.
It really does just come down to making things that are cool. If something is cool, then people want to share it. This is valuable to keep in mind when designing and building your product. How can you add an inherent cool factor to whatever it is you are creating?
One way is to study the greats and learn their way. The book gives the example of Lionel Poilane, the “best baker in the world.” Lionel was a French baker who was obsessed with remarkable. According to the book, he kept improving, did extensive research, interviewed over eight thousand! bakers about their technique, acquired a bunch of bread cookbooks and studied them, set his own rules, and changed the game entirely. At the time the book was published, he sold $10 million worth of bread in the year. Apply the same tenacity to your own field, and you’ll soon find yourself in the ranks of the elite. In short— learn, practice, grow, repeat. Side note: This story itself was worth the price of the admission for me. Check it out on page 58. If you did already, then read it again!
Sometimes, if you’ve already been in business for a while, this might even mean asking yourself what you would do differently if you had to start over. Or, as the book says— If you could create a competitor product to your own, what would it be? Having had this newsletter for almost a year now, I can think of many ways to enhance it if I were to start again. I could either create a spin-off newsletter and have it overtake this one or integrate my learnings right back here and keep improving it slowly.
But this doesn’t mean you want to get obsessed with your competitors. That puts you in a reactive state and robs you of your own creativity. As Walmart was quoted saying in the book— “You can’t out-Amazon Amazon.” It’s about taking your own unique voice, product, skillset, features, design and turning that into a purple cow. It’s about learning and improving until you can set your own rules and change the game entirely. It’s about becoming the “best baker in the world” in your own industry. It’s about creating a product or service that will make the world genuinely scream—
If you read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hit reply and let me know. Otherwise, I highly recommend reading it. It’s a quick and fun read, and while the book was written in the early 2000s, the lessons still hold up today. It also has a lot of interesting case studies and examples (I only scratched the surface in the post above).
I’ll get back in the next few days with the next book in the Flyby Book Club. Until then …
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