Welcome to Iconic Digital’s Business and Marketing “SparkNotes” series, where we do the reading for you. If you’re trying to run a business, we know you’ve got things to do packing every corner of your day, and while you want to be as informed as possible about best practices in business and marketing, you might not have time to read all the brilliant books out there that can educate you on the topic. Fortunately, we are delighted to pass the things we read on to you in a digestible form. 


Today, we’d like to share some insights from Seth Godin’s Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. This one’s been out there for a while, but its ideas are so fundamental to modern business and marketing that it almost has to be the first in this series. Godin has written a number of other books including Tribes, The Dip, and All Marketers are Liars. According to the dust jacket of his book, he is “the most influential business blogger in the world.” We like him because he’s knowledgeable, but also for his easy conversational writing style, and his philosophical approach to business.

Godin begins his book by introducing the conceit of the purple cow. He tells the story of driving with his family in rural France, where they were initially fascinated by picturesque farmland populated by beautiful “storybook cows.”  The cows remained novel for about twenty minutes before Godin and his family started ignoring them. Godin’s point is that a cow is just a cow after a while, so matter how perfect or “storybook” they are, the cows become boring, and boring things are easy to ignore.


A purple cow, though. A purple cow might hold attention for more than twenty minutes. 

Godin goes on to explain that in order to survive in the modern business world, a company needs to have a purple cow–that is, a remarkable idea, product, or service that will differentiate them from competitors. Purple cows and remarkable ideas stand out and people talk about them. And getting people to talk about you is crucial to success. 


Creating something remarkable is not just the best way to approach the start of a new business venture; according to Godin, it’s the only way to be successful. Gone are the days when you could build bland products or services, sprinkle a little marketing on them and have them be well-received. This is largely due to the fact that television marketing is dead. Godin explains that the old model of business marketing relied on what he terms the “TV industrial complex,” a system in which businesses could dump a ton of money into television marketing and get product recognition and buyer loyalty regardless of how mundane the product was. Then, any profit they made got dumped back into more marketing, and the brand continued to grow. Proctor and Gamble made their empire on this model: toothpaste and deodorant and detergent, all good-quality, but still completely ordinary products that rose to the top of the heap simply because television commercials put those products in front of people’s faces day in and day out. Sometimes the marketing for a product even preceded the product itself, as was the case with Cap’n Crunch, a product for which the logo, mascot, and ad campaign was created before the cereal even existed. 


This is no longer a viable approach, says Godin. With the existence of the internet and social media, we’re so inundated with messaging about so many different products that the only thing that cuts through this noise is word-of-mouth. Your product only gets noticed if people talk about it, and people only talk about remarkable products. The elusive purple cows.


Godin’s philosophy is basically “go big or go home.” He argues that “safe” ideas are not safe at all–they are boring, and will be ignored like normal-colored cows. Rather, it’s the risky ideas, over-the-top ideas that will get noticed, and have a chance to survive. Godin gives some compelling (and fun) case studies of purple cows. His friend and colleague Chip Conley made a purple cow business idea when he bought a run-down motel in a dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. “He knew that it wasn’t for everyone,” says Godin. But then again Conley only had a few dozen rooms to fill. So he painted the place wild colors and had “a cutting edge artist paint the inside of the pool, and invited up-and-coming rock-and-roll stars to stay at the place.” It ended up a successful rock-and-roll themed hotel at the heart of the city. 


That’s one way to be unique–get a gimmick. Don’t get caught having a gimmick, but have a gimmick.


Another way to be a purple cow is by being the superlative. Wal-Mart is a purple cow because they are the cheapest. Amazon is a purple cow because they are the most convenient. Any time you can be the “mostest” of something you’re closing in on purple cow-dom.




Yet another way is to market to a niche. Godin says to get it out of your brain that you should be coming up with products or services that everyone will want. Rather, you want to create products and services that you can market to small groups of people who are likely to talk about what you offer–Godin calls them “sneezers” (because they spread “ideaviruses”) but he also refers to them asotaku borrowing the Japanese term for a person whose hobby borders on obsession. He talks about Krispy Kreme’s strategy; whenever they move into a city, their stores are first visited by the donut otaku, who are the folks willing to drive twenty miles for a delicious donut. But one they’ve clinched that market, Krispy Kreme starts wheeling and dealing with grocery stores and gas stations. As Godin explains, “They start with people who will drive twenty miles, and finish with people too lazy to cross the street.” Krispy Kreme’s ultimate objective is to convert those lazy folks to otaku. But they start with winning over the small fanbase they already have.


It all goes back to getting people to talk.  

So, let’s review Godin’s recipe for a purple cow. Here are the SparkNotes for the SparkNotes:



  1. Safe is risky
  2. Be the superlative
  3. Target the otaku
  4. Get people to talk



Maybe you’ve come up with your own purple cow at some point. Maybe it hit you while you were driving to work or in the shower; maybe it was truly unique. You probably thought to yourself, “that’s too different” or “only a few people would want that.” You probably wrote it off for that very reason. Seth Godin’s Purple Cow makes a case for the idea that “too-different” ideas that appeal to only a few are exactly the ideas that turn into successful business ventures.


If you think you do have a purple cow idea (whether it be a product or service for an existing organization, or the start of a whole new venture) you’ll need to show people how unique it is, and make contact with the otaku. That’s where modern marketing comes in. 


Modern marketing takes the exact opposite approach to marketing taken by marketing in the hey-day of the TV industrial complex. Instead of spreading your message to as many people as possible, as TV ads did, modern marketing focuses on finding the otaku, and delivering a message that is exactly what those otaku need to hear in order to try your product or service and start sneezing. It’s a whole different strategy!


We hope you’ve enjoyed our thoughts on Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. If you’d like more wisdom from Seth Godin, we’d encourage you follow his blog.  Stay tuned for more business and marketing SparkNotes, and, in the meantime, if you’ve got a purple cow you need to find sneezers for, we’re here to help you find them and get them talking. 


Be Well,

B. Iconic