justly criticized for being unprepared, sloppy, or thought-
less? Sure you will. But these errors have nothing at all to
do with the ups and downs you’ll experience as a result of
being associated with the Purple Cow. When you launch a
clunker, the criticism of the failure will be real, but it
won’t be about you–it’ll be about the idea. The greatest
artists, playwrights, car designers, composers, advertising
art directors, authors, and chefs have all had significant
flops– it’s part of what makes their successful work great.
Cadillac’s new CTS, in my humble opinion, is perhaps
the ugliest car ever produced outside the Soviet bloc.
Cadillachas been roundly criticized in car magazines, at
dealerships, and on countless online bulletin boards.
Guess what? These cars are selling. Fast. It’s a rebirth for
a tired brand, the biggest success Cadillac has had in
decades. What difference does it make that the “official”
critics don’t like the car? The people who are buying it love
On the list of most profitable movies of 2002, right next
to Spider-Manand Goldmember, is a surprise: My Big Fat Greek
Wedding. Criticized by Hollywood for being too low-key (and
by the independents for not being original or edgy), this $3
million sleeper succeeded for exactly those two reasons. A
cheap, feel-good date movie was just exceptional enough to
stand out–and the market grabbed it.
Almost forty years ago, Bob Dylan, one of my favorite
Purple Cows, appeared at the Newport Folk Festival. He
was practically burned in effigy. The act of “going electric”
was viewed as treason. He had abandoned the cause, they
said, and they were angry. “They” were also wrong.
In 2001, billionaire Mike Bloomberg ran for mayor of
New York. He was criticized, shunned, booed, and worst
of all, dismissed as a dilettante. But he won. Go figure.
After the failure of the AppleNewton (wonderfully sati-
rized in Doonesburyas a bizarre technological dead end), the
folks who invented the PalmPilot had their work cut out for
them. Early models didn’t work. Early co-ventures failed.
They blew a trademark fight and lost their name to a
Japanese pen company. The easy and smart thing to do
would have been to give up and go do good work at some
R&D lab. But the founders persisted, continuing to make
their device single-minded (when conventional wisdom
demanded multi-purpose devices) and cheap (when con-
ventional wisdom demanded expensive high-tech introduc-
tions). The founders were exceptional, and they won.
Only when Palmtried to play it safe did they start to
stumble. Three years in a row of incremental feature creep
has cost them market share and profit.
Compare these successes to the Buick. The Buickis a
boring car. It’s been boring for almost fifty years. Few
people aspire to own a Buick. The Buickisn’t easy to crit-
icize, but it’s also not very successful, is it?
Drugstore.comis another boring company. They have a
boring Web site, selling boring stuff. (When was the last
time someone got excited about Braunlaunching a new
toothbrush?) Is there much to criticize about the way they
do business? Not really. But there’s no Cow there. As a
result, very few new customers go out of their way to do
business with them.
So how are you going to predict which ideas are going to
backfire and which are guaranteed to be worth the hard
work they take to launch? The short answer: You can’t.
Hey, if it was easy to become a rock star, everyone would
You can’t know if your Purple Cow is guaranteed to
work. You can’t know if it’s remarkable enough or too
risky. That’s the point. It’s the very unpredictability of the
outcome that makes it work.
The lesson is simple– boring always leads to failure.*
Boring is always the most risky strategy. Smart business-
people realize this, and they work to minimize (but not
eliminate) the risk from the process. They know that
sometimes it’s not going to work, but they accept the fact
that that’s okay.
*Except, of course, when being boring is, in and of itself, remarkable.
Follow the Leader
Why do birds fly in formation? Because the birds that fol-
low the leader have an easier flight. The leader breaks the
wind resistance, and the following birds can fly far more
efficiently. Without the triangle formation, Canadian
geese would never have enough energy to make it to the
end of their long migration.
A lot of risk-averse businesspeople believe that they can fol-
low a similar strategy. They think they can wait until a leader
demonstrates a breakthrough idea, and then rush to copy it,
enjoying the break in wind resistance from the leader.
If you watch the flock closely, though, you’ll notice that
the flock doesn’t really fly in formation. Every few minutes,
one of the birds from the back of the flock will break away,
fly to the front, and take over, giving the previous leader a
chance to move to the back and take a break.
The problem with people who would avoid a remarkable
career is that they never end up as the leader. They decide
to work for a big company, intentionally functioning as an
anonymous drone, staying way back to avoid risk and crit-
icism. If they make a mistake and choose the wrong bird to
follow, they lose. When a big company lays off ten thou-
sand people, most of those people probably don’t deserve
to get fired. They were doing what they were told, staying
within the boundaries, and following instructions. Alas,
they picked the wrong lead bird.
Even if you find a flock that’s pretty safe, in our turbu-
lent world, it’s harder and harder to stay in formation,
and we often find ourselves scurrying to find a new flock.
The ability to lead is thus even more important because
when your flock fades away, there may be no other flock
This is true not just for individual careers, of course.
Companies have the same trouble. They follow an indus-
try leader that stumbles. Or they launch a thousand imi-
tations of their first breakthrough product– never realiz-
ing that the market is drying up.
For years, the record business has been dominated by a
few major players, and they work hard to follow each
other’s lead. The labels have similar pricing, merchant
policies, contracts, and packaging. Each label avoids crit-
icism by sticking with the pack.
But when the market changes – when technology reshuf-
fles the deck – the record labels are all in trouble. With no
practice leading, no practice trying the unknown, they’re
trapped, panicked, and in serious trouble. Their trade
organization, the RIAA, is spending millions of dollars
lobbying Congress to get legislation to keep the world just
the way it is. In the long run, of course, they’ll fail. You
can’t keep the world the way it is, even if you buy the influ-
ence of Congress.
The lesson of the Cow is worth repeating: Safe is risky.
What tactics does your firm use that involve fol-
lowing the leader? What if you abandoned them
and did something very different instead? If you
acknowledge that you’ll never catch up by being the
same, make a list of ways you can catch up by being
Case Study: The Aeron Chair
Before Herman Miller, desk chairs were invisible. A desk
chair got spec’ed and acquired by the Purchasing or
Human Resources department gnomes, and unless you
were the CEO, you didn’t get much say in where you sat.
And you might not have even noticed the difference
between one cushy desk chair and another.
The buyers of desk chairs were searching for a safe and
easy choice. The manufacturers listened carefully to the
buyers and made safe and easy choices. This was a dull
market with dull results.
When Herman Miller r introduced the $750 (gasp)
Aeron chair in 1994, they took a radical risk. They
launched a chair that looked different, worked different-
ly, and cost a bunch. It was a Purple Cow. Everyone who
saw it wanted to sit in it, and everyone who sat in it want-
ed to talk about it. The designers at Herman Millerknew
that the chair was expensive enough that it wasn’t a safe
purchase for the ordinary purchasing agent. They also
knew that it was quite likely that they wouldn’t sell many
chairs at all.
Herman Millergot it right, though. Sitting in the Aeron
chair sent a message about what you did and who you were,
and buying the chairs for your company sent a message as
well. Soon after the Aeron came out, Seth Goldstein–
founder of SiteSpecific(the first online direct-marketing
ad agency)– took his very first venture-capital check and
went straight out to buy more than a dozen Aeron chairs.
That got him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
This isn’t a case of inventing some gimmick to create an
example of the much fabled but rarely achieved viral mar-
keting. Instead, it’s about putting the marketing invest-
ment into the product instead of into the media. Millions
of Aeron chairs have been sold since its introduction in
1994, and the chair is now in the permanent collection of
the Museum of Modern Art.
“The best design solves problems, but if you can weld
that to the cool factor, then you have a home run,” says
Mark Schurman of Herman Miller. Another way of saying
that Herman Millerrealized that making a safe chair was
the single riskiest thing they could do.
Projections, Profits, and
the Purple Cow
Mass marketing demands mass products. And mass prod-
ucts beg for mass marketing.
This equation leads to a dangerous catch-22, one with
Part One: Boring Products. . Companies that are built
around mass marketing develop their products according-
ly. These companies round the edges, smooth out the dif-
ferentiating features, and try to make products that are
bland enough to work for the masses. These companies
make spicy food less spicy, and they make insanely great
service a little less great (and a little cheaper). They push
everything–from the price to the performance– to the
center of the market. They listen to the merchandisers at
Kmartand Wal-Martor the purchasing agents at Johnson
& Johnsonand make products that will appeal to every-
After all, if you’re going to launch a huge ad campaign
by direct mail or in trade magazines or in daily newspapers
or on television, you want your ads to have the maximum
possible appeal. What’s the point of advertising to everyone
a product that doesn’t appeal to everyone? By following this
misguided logic, marketers ensure that their products have
the minimum possible chance of success.
Remember, those ads reach two kinds of viewers:
• The highly coveted innovators and adopters who will
be bored by this mass-marketed product and decide
to ignore it.
• The early and late majority who are unlikely to listen
to an ad for any new product, and are unlikely to
buy it if they do.
By targeting the center of the market and designing the
product accordingly, these marketers waste their market-
ing dollars. Exhibit A: The dozens of consumer-focused
dot-com companies who wasted more than a billion (a bil-
lion!) dollars advertising watered-down products to the
mass market. Your grocery store is also a very public grave-
yard for mediocre products designed for the masses.
As we’ve already seen, the only way an idea reaches the
bulk of the market is to move from left to right. You can
no longer reach everyone at once. And if you don’t grab
the attention and enthusiasm of the sneezers, your prod-
Part Two: Scary Budgets.In order to launch a product for
the masses, you need to spend big. It’s not unusual to
spend a million dollars to launch something local, and
spend a hundred times that to do an effective national
rollout. For most of the three hundred major movies
launched by Hollywood every year, the studios spend more
than $20 million on marketing for each movie.
The problem with a scary budget is that you have to make
the ads work, and quickly. If you don’t break through the
clutter, capture imagination and attention, get retailers
excited and stocking your product, and get the factory
unloading its inventory, well, it’s over. You’ve wasted your
shot; you don’t get a second chance, and the product is
The front-loading of the budget does two things to your
• It means you get very few chances to launch new
products because each one is so expensive. Thus,
you won’t make risky bets, and you’ll be even more
likely to introduce boring, me-too products.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested