People no longer “ooh and ah” as they pass successive pastures of brown cows, according to author Seth Godin. It isn’t that the cows aren’t each adorable. It’s just that once you have seen several, they no longer capture your attention and make you take notice.
On the other hand, if you saw a purple cow, the reaction would be entirely different…so different that you might bring your automobile to a screeching halt to study the phenomenon.
Godin’s book, appropriately called Purple Cow, is about marketing and communication in our current competitive environment and the realization that consumers are so bombarded by ads and communication messages that it takes a purple cow – something remarkable – to break through the consumer’s attention barrier and consideration set.
Godin’s observations are related to the idea of wowing the customer. What he tells us is that we, as retailers, must wow the customer by creating purple cows. Too much of what we do as marketers and communicators just isn’t special and different enough to impact our customers and get them to buy something.
Mind over money
In the flagship store of Toys ’R Us in New York City, there is a multi-story Ferris wheel that attracts customers and creates business for the entire store. Certainly, this is a purple cow, but it also certainly cost millions of dollars. On the other hand, much smaller stores can and do create great purple cows.
It is at least two years since I passed an amazing handbag boutique while riding a bus in New York City. This creative retailer had covered the front windows with hundreds of bright plastic pinwheels, producing an incredible barrage of moving colors as the wind struck the window. The cost to the retailer was probably only a few hundred dollars, but the display was certainly a great purple cow. I still think about it and wish I could have gotten off the bus to visit the store and go shopping there!
Like many forms of creativity in retailing, purple cows are dependent on mind over money. For any type or size of retailer, a purple cow can be based on the product itself, the customer experience, or any marketing communication concerning something remarkable the store does for its customers.
We should remember the longtime advertising concept called AIDA, which says we must take the customer through the stages of Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action. The best purple cows lead the customers through three or four of these stages and don’t just get the customer to say “wow,” which is only the first stage.
We achieve this strength by being relevant to the needs and benefits of our customer. If, for example, we took the idea of purple cow literally and displayed fashions on mannequins resembling purple cows, we might attract a customer and stop her in her tracks. But it is doubtful we would get her interest in looking at the fashions closely, make her want to try them and actually buy them.
On the other hand, if a drugstore hung giant banners from its building offering a free test supply for a high-demand new prescription drug, it is highly likely consumers would respond and buy the product if it proved effective.
Smart retailers recognize that, as it is with any competitive advantage, in most cases competition catches up to your purple cow. Therefore, you must keep evolving, changing, and breeding new cows.
The first gift-with-purchase promotion by a cosmetic company was a purple cow. But the concept got tired as every store started offering gifts that were ordinary and less desirable to customers. Then, about two years ago, Lancôme and Bloomingdale’s created a new purple cow. They gave customers the option of designing their own seven-piece gift-with-purchase from many shades of seven different products. My wife read the ad and headed to Bloomingdales…really!
Despite the title of this article, it is really the retail organization rather than the cow that needs to be fed. Companies that produce purple cows create an internal environment that encourages new ideas and creative thinking.
Like Apple and Google, they encourage interaction among staff members for producing new ideas, achieve a balance between team and individual efforts, and provide stimulating staff events to get people thinking in new directions. Once again, you don’t have to be the size of Apple and Google to think like them and to create purple cows.
Steve Flaster is a retailer, instructor of retailing and marketing at Michigan State University, speaker and consultant. You can reach him by email.
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