Recently, I was talking with members of my team about some of the more common and problematic misconceptions people have about marketing. There are plenty out there – and we’ll examine more of them in future blog posts  – but there was one that stuck out to us as especially noteworthy: the myth of the big idea.

Seth Ted Talk

What is Purple Cow Syndrome?

If you haven’t read marketing guru Seth Godin’s 2003 book Purple Cow, you’ve probably at least had someone describe the premise to you in some form or another. If not, here’s the quick summary:

According to Godin, the days in which businesses could advertise their way to success are over. There is now too much competition for consumer attention, which has led to the end of the TV-industrial complex. In today’s world, the only way for brands to be successful is by creating a product or service that is inherently remarkable. If your business is boring and unremarkable, you’re doomed.

(If you’re still wondering about the title: after you drive past a few normal cows, they all start to look the same and you stop noticing them… until you see a purple cow. Or, I’d guess, until you see one with long blonde hair wearing a lab coat and a Richard Nixon mask – but I suppose that makes for a less catchy book title.)

It’s an insightful book and a compelling idea with plenty of merit. The problem is that 12 years after its publication, we’re still seeing lessons from the book being misapplied. This is what I mean by Purple Cow Syndrome.

Disrupt or Die?

Godin’s argument is substantiated to a degree when you look at the ultra-successful global brands in the last couple decades. Google, Netflix, Facebook, Apple, Uber and Airbnb are all prime examples of remarkable products and services that have disrupted their respective industries and built massive success primarily through enthusiastic word of mouth rather than traditional advertising. These are all purple cows.

So, does this mean that all businesses need to follow this same path?

The short answer: no.

For some industries, having a unique and remarkable product or service is absolutely critical and the Purple Cow wisdom is highly applicable. Consumer technology is a clear example. Release a “me-too” app into the marketplace and, unless it’s a significant improvement, no amount of well-placed advertising is going to help you topple the innovator that came out first.

On the other hand, let’s say you’re the owner of a small auto body shop. If your shop doesn’t revolutionize the way we think about having our dents removed, are you doomed to inevitable failure?

Obviously, we’ve all seen auto body shops that do just fine by providing the same predictable, boring old services that mechanics were providing for our grandparents. Brown cows, all. And guess what? The successful shops often advertise.

The danger of Purple Cow Syndrome comes when businesses pass on sound strategies for sustainable growth and assume that the only ideas worth considering are the ones that disrupt, go viral, revolutionize and so on.The auto shop is just one example, but the truth is that for the majority of small businesses, marketing success doesn’t look like lightning in a bottle and doesn’t often come from one Big Idea that changes everything overnight.

Businesses that we work with typically see success coming as a result of a sound strategy, smart tactical execution, careful measurement, iteration… and patience. Given your market, the competitive landscape and the position you’re competing for, traditional advertising may or may not make sense for your business – but to decide that the tactic is obsolete for all businesses is a mistake.

Depending on your service or product, the reality is that there might not be a Purple Cow, nor a need for one. But, while you’re out chasing it, your competitors might just be eating into your market share – one small, tactical bite at a time.