Note: This article is an expansion on the below Marketing Monday (#ICoMM) video regarding Seth Godin’s concept of the Purple Cow and how businesses can shine among their competition. 

What color is a cow? Black and white is the general response that comes to mind, and brown might even be thought of. But purple? A purple cow is one that would turn heads.

And that is the thought that crossed Seth Godin‘s mind during a cross country road trip. While driving through dairy country, Godin marveled at the first few herds of beautiful black and white cows he saw. They stood majestically and dominated the landscape. A few hours into the trip, however, he tired of seeing dairy farm after dairy farm of the same black and white cows. They were no longer majestic. They became boring. He wished he would just spot one purple cow among the sea of black and white.

This experience sparked the basis for his bestselling book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, which tackles the topic of setting yourself apart in a sea of competitors. In almost every industry, the majority of players only evolve insofar as to monitor what the others are doing and try to do the same things in a slightly better manner. Very few businesses actually innovate.

Watching the competition
Monitoring your competition is important, but what I see on a daily basis is that business owners believe that simply doing things slightly differently will help them shine. It doesn’t. What it does is create an industry of interchangeable brands causing everyone to lose. When consumers don’t see much difference between brands, any brand will do.

Years ago when I worked in the consumer goods personal care industry, Beauty Week was an annual event at Carrefour and marked an important promotional milestone for all multinationals. This was the week that separated the big dogs from the scraggly puppies. Who the consumers chose to purchase from during this week showed who was doing things right and who was missing the mark.

Every year, our marketing team would pick up samples of all the competitors’ promotional packs and fawn over every idea and packaging design, lamenting the fact that we didn’t think of them first. The following year, we would slyly incorporate a lot of those ideas into our promotions only to find that our competitors were hitting the shelves with altered versions of our promos from the year before! This happened every year without fail. We were chasing each other in circles, and the consumers were losing out on real innovation.

But, shouldn’t I chase my rivals?

When you’re a market challenger, it won’t do you any good to try to catch up to the leader. This is a lost cause and a waste of resources. Consumers aren’t going to choose a newcomer that doesn’t do anything dramatically differently. If customers are satisfied, why would they trust the new guy on the block who looks and talks the same when they can just stick to tried and tested brands?

So if you set up your business with no clear unique selling proposition, you’re going to get desperate. You’re going to start using alternative measures to lure customers away from the leader. This almost always boils down to price and promotion. They are the easiest tools in the arsenal, but they’re always a double edged sword. Unless your business model allows you to provide services or products at a much cheaper rate and this is a key selling point of your business (think Ikea, H&M), then going down the price reduction path is a slippery slope that will drop you in a muddy puddle of low brand loyalty. Who would pay for your products at full price when they know fully well that you often resort to discounting? They’ll simply wait it out until your next promotion.

Forget the chase, be remarkable|
Instead of looking at your competitors, look in a direction that businesses so often forget to: at your consumers. Study their behaviour, ask them questions, and highlight where the gaps are. How are they not being satisfied? How can we tackle the industry issues in a way that no one else has? Whatever you highlight as your key differentiating factor, remember it has to matter. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s going to appeal to your consumer. Forget the gimmicks and dig deep to find a way to make your business different and more useful than your competition.

Do local purple cows really exist?
Careem, a Middle Eastern car booking app, was a first mover in its local market but not globally. While the company had a short period of time to lay the groundwork as a first mover in the region, Uber quickly set up shop in the UAE and brought with it its mammoth brand recognition. Careem quickly realized that it had to set its user experience apart. While offering water bottles and phone chargers during the ride were nice touches, those weren’t enough to overcome Uber’s slick brand and global resources. Thus, the company looked at two key gaps in Uber’s offering: scheduled bookings and child safety options. With the addition of the Later bookings and the Careem Kids service, the homegrown company was able to solve two consumer problems and set itself apart.

The opposite of remarkable
I’ll end this post with one of my favourite quotes from Godin’s book: “the opposite of remarkable is very good.” Let that sink in for a moment. The opposite of being a remarkable company is not being a bad one. It’s being a very good one and settling for being only that.