On Purple Cows

Andreas Duess, a Toronto-based creative director knocks Seth Godin’s Purple Cow thesis. In a nutshell, Godin says stop worrying about how to market inferior products and services and put everything into making remarkable products or services, or Purple Cows, to use the author’s vernacular.

Does being remarkable guarantee success? We all know that it doesn’t. Take the portable mp3 player as an example. Apple’s iPod is the market leader, with a 75% share of the market. But was Apple the first company to make portable mp3 players? Not at all. Is the iPod the most feature rich player with the best battery life? Not by a long shot. The companies that pioneered the technology are being left behind or are abandoning the market altogether, despite having created a purple cow if ever there was one. Their mistake? Not communicating that fact effectively. Not becoming part of popular culture.
So what’s responsible for the success if the iPod if it’s neither price, nor features? In a word: Marketing. Advertising. Advertising and marketing that is creating an emotional attachement. People choose the products they buy – apart from price – for three reasons, how they see themselves, how they want to see themselves or how they want to be seen.
Successful advertising, in all it’s incarnations, including blogs, including WOM, is all about creating the emotional attachment. It’s about becoming a part of who the customer is, or wants to be, or wants to be seen as. It’s really that simple.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. I don’t know if I would say the iPod wasn’t a Purple Cow. The design and ease of use set it far apart from the competition. The Shuffle and Nano continue to turn heads. It looks like a entire product line of Purple Cows to me.
    I will agree that advertising had a large impact on the promotion of their Purple Cow.

  2. “People choose the products they buy – apart from price – for three reasons, how they see themselves, how they want to see themselves or how they want to be seen.”
    That’s true. But we can boil that down even more: People buy products for two reasons: 1) To solve their problem and 2) to make them feel good.
    We can argue about this all day, but in my opinion the iPod was so successful b/c it’s remarkably designed. The first time you hold that white beauty in your hand and feel the cold, shiny metal surrounding the back casing, you fall in love. Try that with a Rio. It just doesn’t happen. And because of the remarkable design, all the other guys are starting to copy Apple (go figure).

  3. Matt Hulbert says:

    I don’t own an iPod, so I’m not one of those iPod zealots, but I’ve got to comment.
    The iPod is where it is because people love the UI. What makes it ‘remarkable’ is how it works. I’ve read this in comments from all over the web — even on Slashdot where cryptic UIs are often celebrated!
    It’s remarkable because people love how it works (I suppose iTunes is part of this, too). And no other MP3 player is as smooth to use. Some have better battery power, some are bigger, but everyone says that they are clunky.
    This ‘smoothness’ made it cool .. made it the MP3 player to have. At this point it has the cache and it becomes a social phenom.
    So the experience came first. The experience was remarkable, from the packaging to the scroll wheel to iTunes. People loved the experience and its popularity made it a status symbol.
    It is indeed a Purple Cow.

  4. So let’s see. What can we glean from this discourse?
    That Godin oversimplifies with the best of ’em.
    That Andreas Duess is right to want to help people bond with brands, for it is his job, if not his duty.
    And that Mr. Duess picked a bad example in the iPod, which is, by consensus, a Purple Cow.

  5. if the iPod isn’t a purple cow on the strength of its design, i’m not sure what would count as one.
    nonetheless, it’s true that many a purple cow has been betrayed by poor communications. can’t argue with that.

  6. Robin, let me just say that I never claimed that the iPod wasn’t remarkable. Of course it is. Like most everything Apple does, it works on may levels, design, UI, you name it.
    However, it is also fair to say that the iPod is but an imitation of a purple cow. Son, or calf, of purple cow, if you like. When the first mp3 players appeared on the market I was impressed. Here was something genuinely new. A box the size of a pack of cigarettes could hold my entire CD collection. I was one of the few geeks who saw the potential in this, ripped their CDs to mp3, paid a plethora of shareware fees to other geeks and started spreading the word. Heck, I even bought bad music from mp3.com because I thought the concept was cool.
    Then Steve Jobs decided to go after the portable music player market. He saw what was available, then took what was there and improved on it. The result was the first iPod.
    However, and I stand by this, I am convinced that the iPod would have faded into obscurity if it hadn’t been for the magic of Apple. Apple has a fanatically loyal following, myself probably included. If it comes from Apple, it can’t be bad.
    What needs to be understood is that product design, packaging, look and feel of the UI are all part of the marketing effort. Everything you do as a company that touches the consumer in any way is marketing. Why? Because it can, and will, make the difference between ‘buy’ and ‘ignore’.

  7. Well, I think the issue you raise is pretty semantic. And I kind of think you really don’t disagree with Seth.
    See, Seth’s definition of “remarkable” is NOT a statement about quality or innovation, but rather of consumer engagement. That is, give someone a reason to remark about you or your product. You yourself say that Steve Jobs figured out how to take what a few techies loved and capture the imagination of a nation at large. So, by Seth’s definitions, the iPod was the Purple Cow of the category. It stood out from the rest. It was remarkable. People said, “Hey! What is that cool thing? What does it do? Where can I get one?” Starbucks didn’t invent the coffee shop or the latte. But the are the Purple Cow. They are the ones that engaged the consumer.