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Dissent and Debate
on 4 February 2004
Purple Cow is a very tightly-written, well-paced, enjoyable and thought provoking read. While it develops the ideas introduced in the author's earlier works, Ideavirus and Permission Marketing, it is perfectly readable from scratch. And, even though I dislike Godin's unceasing rubbishing of all other approaches to marketing in defence of his own, I do recommend you read it. Let's be honest, there's so little dissent and debate about the really important questions in marketing, it's easy to forgive the few dissenters for being extremists. Working in this business is a bit like visiting Zurich; the place is so conformist, after a few days you start looking approvingly at the drug addicts and hippies - anything for a bit of variety.
Anyhow, Godin's big thesis is that, for any new product to be successful, it must be intrinsically interesting, like the purple cow of the title, and cannot rely on subsequent marketing efforts to lend it a certain false notability. Even then, for a product merely to be interesting is not enough on its own: it must gain the attention of a particular group of innovators - those who are not merely open to adopting new ideas and products but those who also go on actively to evangelise them among the rest of the population, thereby seeding them among the early majority. Because of this adoption path, Godin avers, mass advertising can actually be counterproductive, as it effectively does the word-of-mouth brigade out of a job. And the innovators in any market, who like to discover products for themselves, are instantly turned off anything that is touted indiscriminately in the mass media.
I think he is generally right on most of this. Most of us in our businesses are naturally inquisitive, and it is healthy for us to be reminded of how tiny the appetite is for innovation among most consumers in most categories. Generally (and Godin is lucky being an American - try fostering innovation among elderly Frenchmen, say) people are not looking for new ways of doing things, not least because the mass market is already rather well catered for by the many established mass market brands. People do not wake every day looking for another formal airline, another refreshing soft drink, yet another breakfast cereal. This surely explains why so many of the successful "launches" (EasyJet, Red Bull, Fruit Winders, texting are four European examples Godin doesn't mention) were not launched at all in the conventional sense. They were adopted by a niche group of innovators, who eventually expanded their use.
Godin is also right in attacking the "TV-industrial complex" and the way it makes the mass media tail wag the NPD dog. Because it's assumed that mass media will launch Product X, it is duly assumed that Product X must be developed to appeal to the mass market of TV viewers. Because there is no instant appetite for new mass products, one launch after another fails. I believe this.
My chief complaint is as follows. In attacking the TV-industrial complex, I think Godin overlloks the fact that the principal use of mass advertising is not the launching of new brands but the maintenance of old ones. And I think he could pay more heed to the remarkable fact that the innovators of the last century (the Fords, the Kelloggs, the Guinnesses, the Amexes) have retained their positions remarkably well. Surely mass media had rather a lot to do with this?
I also know from experience that mass advertising can be vital in preventing a new innovation being stigmatised as something purely for geeky innovators (a risk that imperilled the speedy uptake of broadband for a time).
Lastly, I wish Godin had read the recent Y&R paper "You're Getting Old" before reading this book. A fusion of his idea, and the Y&R insight (that people's brand preferences become frozen in time once they hit 35) would have produced a still better book.
But never mind. All of you can gain one thing from sending bulk copies of this book to your clients. And that's the understanding that NPD might sometimes be better entrusted to the DM agency, with its understanding of segments, than to the Ad agency, with its obsession with mass.