Seth Godin: Purple Cow

Seth Godin: Purple Cow

Fast Company contributing editor Seth Godin recently published Purple Cow. Previously, he was founder and CEO of Yoyodyne, the industry's leading interactive direct marketing company. Here is a rough transcript of his remarks:

I came to talk about my sneakers, but before I do, I have to tell you a really sad story, a story about a fellow named Otto Rohwedder. Otto Rohwedder thought he had invented the greatest thing because he invented sliced bread. He thought that if he got a patent on sliced bread, he'd be rich. What Otto forgot was to ask a very important two-word question: Who cares? No one knew about sliced bread. No one cared. It wasn't until Wonder Bread came around and marketed it that sliced bread took off. It wasn't the bread that won, it was the packaging and distribution.

Ideas that spread, win. What we've been living through is the greatest culture of spreading ideas that there's ever been. At one level, that's great because it's easier to spread your ideas than ever before. At another, it's harder because we keep raising the bar.

One of the biggest tools in this is television. I'm not just talking about the box, but television thinking. Ads on the radio, ads on the billboards, ads everywhere you go. The important thing is paying attention. Attention is a valuable thing. They want you to pay them your attention. And what do you get? Absolutely nothing. The media companies get everything. There's the military-industrial complex. I like to talk about the TV-industrial complex. Buying ads gets you more distribution, sells more products, makes you more of a profit with which you can buy more ads.

I bet every one of you works for a company that got that way because of this kind of thinking. That's at the heart of the way a lot of these companies think. My favorite one is Captain Crunch. Captain Crunch was a TV ad before three months before it was a breakfast cereal. They went to the guy who invented Rocky and Bullwinkle, Jay Ward, and said, "Make us a TV ad." Then they went and said, "Put something in a box that goes with this."

The TV-industrial complex has been canceled. The model that we can interrupt people whenever we want to is over. I'm not going to give a minute of my time to someone just because they bought an ad. They're invisible. Look at this: Hydrate. A 128-page magazine about water. Arby's. They're in trouble. What's the solution? They're going to run a TV ad featuring a talking oven mitt with the voice of Tom Arnold. 30 years ago they could have said this with a straight face.

What you do for a living, people, is you spam people. You wait until you get someone when they're really enjoying themselves, and you interrupt them. We spam people for a living. I don't want to even talk about how unsolicited email brings brand rage, not brand equity.

That bus is gone. It's not my idea. It's not what I wanted to happen, but it's true. If everything is good enough, consumers are going to just pick the close one and the cheap one. What you need to do is not be close and cheap. Close and cheap is not what they paid for. Your boss hired you so you can be the only pumpkin in the pumpkin patch.

The world revolves around me. Me, me, me. My favorite person: Me. I don't want email from you. I don't want junk mail from you. I want me-mail.

So I'm driving through France with the family. And for the last 12 and a half hours, there's been nothing but a ruckus. Suddenly, it's quiet. My kids are transfixed, looking out the window at these beautiful cows. Then it's a ruckus again. Because cows are boring. If you've seen one cow, you've seen them all. But what if one of the cows were purple?

Purple cows are remarkable. At least for awhile. Remarkable means two things. One, it means cool, neat. Two, it means worth making a remark about. If you make stuff that's worth making a remark about, you're 99% of the way there.

The first time you saw a Hummer, your jaw dropped. How could someone be driving that? The first time you saw a Mini, your jaw dropped. How could someone be driving that? See my sneakers? They're made by Reebok. They weigh nothing. They're sold in Japan. In vending machines. Rolled up like a tennis ball. They're remarkable. They're also fashionable.

What you need to understand is that you're in the fashion business. Things go in and out of fashion. Accounting standards go in and out of fashion. What fashion is about is fads and ephemera and things that come and go because people talk about it. The Aeron chair from Herman Miller is a perfect example. They changed a chair to a fashion statement for white-collar executives.

This is the standard adoption curve. Your boss may want you to go the juicy middle -- the early and late majority. The problem is that these people are professional. They're professional at ignoring you. What you need to do is sell to the geeks and the nerds -- innovators and early adopters -- and give them a way to make remarks about you.

There's a Japanese word I'm borrowing here: otaku. An otaku is a person with an obsession. There are thousands of people who are hot sauce otaku. There are no mustard otaku. Krispy Kreme is another example. In Wichita, Kansas, a Krispy Kreme opened at 3 in the morning. Television stations broadcast simulcast. When you got there, you didn't just buy one, you bought two dozen. What do you do with two-dozen Krispy Kreme? You spread them around. You do the advertising for them. The product spreads.

Sell to people who are listening. Then make it easy for them to tell their friends. Should Apple Computer be out of business? I don't know. Why are they still in business? This ad spot. Pearl Jam. How many live albums in the last two years? That's right: 72. 72 live albums from one band, and they're all profitable. Linux didn't spread because it was free. It spread because it was remarkable and easy to talk about.

Go to HotOrNot.com. You can rate people based on their sexiness. I rank a 3.7. I think it's because it's a black-and-white photo. Two people run it. They make a profit. And every single day, 250,000 different people visit the Web site.

Don't be boring. If you don't have some people who don't like what you're doing, you're not remarkable. You need to have the right audience to spread the word. This is Soap Lake, Washington. If this is nowhere, that's the middle of it. It used to be a tourist town. It's not any more. But they're going to build a giant lava lamp in the center of town. People are going to come from all over the world to see it.

What was going on was we were sending unanticipated, impersonal, and irrelevant messages to people who didn't want them. Now we can send anticipated, personal, and relevant messages. The Web is our tool.

Why aren't your companies built from top to bottom to make people friends before you try to make them into customers? Permission cuts through the clutter. When we were farmers, animals were either dead or really good at hiding. Then we became hunters. Except marketers. Marketers are Neanderthals.

Fireflies in Brazil flash in unison. At different rates, but in unison. Animals are very good at doing thing in unison. If you go to Google and search for "more evil than Satan himself," you'll find sites devoted to Bill Gates. How did that happen? Look at this guy. He said that E=MC2. Everyone knows that, but no one knows what it means. The Macarena spread because you can't do it by yourself. It was made to be spread. Ofoto is changing the idea of photography, changing how you think about what's on film to sharing your photos to other people buying your prints.

Your future is about working the system instead of reaching people who want to ignore you. Make a purple cow. Get people's permission to find out what they really want. Get a subscription so you can solve their problem for years to come. This isn't about word of mouth. This is an ideavirus. You need to find a slot that's not filled. The two-wheeled metal scooter was not filled until Razor filled it. Who came second? No idea. Design rules now. Kmart's in bankruptcy. Target is not.

If you think you're being risky, you're doing the safest thing you can. If you're playing it safe, you're taking a big risk. McDonald's is playing it safe. They need to do things that feel risky. And lastly, being very good is invisible. Being very good is useless. You have to either be horrible in some people's eyes. Or spectacular.

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