Thursday 5 February 2009

Snow? When all about you is white – where is the purple cow?

For those that don't know, we've had snow in the UK - and not just a dusting, we've had inches of snow – and inevitably it has made the country grind to a halt with schools closing and roads un-passable. Now we're told that local authorities are running out of grit and salt for keeping the roads clear. We're simply not used to having severe weather in Britain – everything is normally middle of the road – not too hot, not too wet, not too cold, not too windy.

Now generally we're quite happy with middle of the road – it's normal, it's unsurprising, it's comfortable. When the weather does change though we get excited about it – we like things that are out of the ordinary. When we get snow, the TV news seems to dedicate 90% of their time to it and if it's hot for just a few days the newspapers are full of headlines like "Britain Sizzles in Heat Wave". However, give it a week and everyone is fed up – the snow becomes an inconvenience and we just want things back to normal. When it's too hot we dream of a little cloud just to cool things down a bit and maybe some rain to save the lawn.

Things that are out of the ordinary catch our attention but can then very quickly become everyday and passé – we become comfortable with them and don't even notice they are there.

Marketing guru and blogger Seth Godin discusses this subject in his new book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. He describes a situation where when driving through France they saw field upon field of picturesque cows grazing by the roadside – saying it was like something out of story book. Now ignoring the obvious question this raises about the UK dairy industry and where the heck did all our cows go, he then writes that within 20 minutes this once fascinating scene became common – boring even. You've seen one cow you've seen one hundred – however what would have been interesting he states would have been a Purple Cow.

Now you can almost picture this – driving along seeing field upon field of brown cows and then suddenly a Purple Cow appears – that would capture your attention – it may even make you stop what you're doing. Seth describes this as the new marketing "P". Previously marketers were dealing with Product, Price, Place, Promotion (and a host of other P related words for 5 Ps, 7 Ps, etc.) but he argues that the Purple Cow "P" represents something "Remarkable" – going on to argue that Remarkable Marketing is the art of building things worth noticing into your product or service. He says "Something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. Exceptional. Interesting. New. It's a Purple Cow. Boring stuff is invisible. It's a brown cow."

In a small way I thought I spotted a Purple Cow today. I received an email from UK clothing brand Next with the title "Snowed In? Shop Men's New Arrivals" and this really peaked my interest – it seemed relevant – it was snowing outside and they knew this and had seemed to have quickly made their communication relevant to me. Unfortunately on opening the email it fell down completely – the content was obviously not themed around the title and I very quickly lost interest. Now I know that typically email campaigns are planned weeks ahead and the content needs to be developed and approved before it can finally arrive in my in-box, however what it showed me was that to really peak someone's interest a communication needs to be relevant and quite often relevance will be time related – what is relevant today (a snow related email) will not be relevant next week when it has all melted (I hope).

Slapping a last minute "Snowed in?" at the front of a standard email isn't relevance – it made me open it I grant you – but it actually disappointed me more as it smacked of "lipstick on a pig" – not that their overall email was that bad, it just wasn't what I was expecting and wasn't relevant.

Standing out from the crowd can be a scary prospect though - it may require risky and new approaches - dare I say... innovation - and in these uncertain times this is something many brands are shying away from. Instead they are going with the tried and tested methods they have used before.

Tom Fishburne picked up on this theme in his blog entry "Blend into the herd" where he said that the first projects to get cut are the speculative ones - the innovative ones - as brands attempt to batten down the hatches. Instead though he points out that forward thinking brands should see this as an opportunity - as all around are trying to blend into the herd the ones which can react the quickest and offer something truly unique have the potential to not only survive but to thrive.

If marketers want to gain attention at a time when people are increasingly overwhelmed with information and are filtering out messages more and more then the message needs to be remarkable – it needs to stand out from the crowd – it needs to make me stop what I'm doing - it needs to be a Purple Cow.