When Purple is the New White: The Art of the Zag


I shout this into the microphone at ballrooms full of bankers in city after city. After I yell, “Whoooooooo’s HOT?” each table of ten goes nuts trying to get my attention. They shout, they whistle, they cheer, they stomp their feet. And when they realize that every other table of ten is also yelling, whistling, cheering, and stomping, what do they do?

They yell, whistle, cheer, and stomp louder.


The point of the exercise is to practice the fine art of commanding attention. We all know—or at least I hope we do—that the old marketing strategy of blending in with your competitors is long dead. Making your bank as much as possible like every other white-columned, green-visored bank may have worked in the 1950s, but it’s certain death in the 21st century.

So what’s the alternative to blending in? STANDING OUT! Seth Godin calls it the “purple cow” concept. See one white heifer, and you’ve seen ’em all. But a purple cow—now there’s something to write home about.

Marketing today is about making yourself as purple as possible by offering a unique product or service and getting attention uniquely and memorably. If instead you simply do the same thing louder, you haven’t made yourself a purple cow—you’ve made yourself a whiter one.

Once in a while, standing on that stage, I indulge in a little fantasy. After giving my usual “Whooooooo’s HOT?” the ballroom begins to rock with the usual yelling, whistling, cheering, and stomping. But gradually, I become aware of something else going on. In the far corner of the ballroom, I hear a low, pulsing, rhythmic chant. I can’t place it at first, but it certainly has my attention. Soon the entire ballroom has turned toward that far table.

OO-gah, OO-gah, OO-gah chaka
OO-gah, OO-gah, OO-gah chaka

It’s the intro to Blue Swede’s “Hooked On a Feeling”—and the purple cow is FINALLY in the house.

When every other table went for random cheering and white noise, they chose something rhythmic and regular. When the whole ballroom was screaming and whistling up in the treble range, these guys went down in the bass. They didn’t do the same thing more loudly—they did something different.

I snap out of my fantasy to the sound of yelling, whistling, cheering, and stomping. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Suppose next time EVERY table did the oogah chaka. Happens all the time in marketing: one company does something different and effective, then everyone imitates it. Then you’ve got yourself a field of purple cows. That’s when it’s time to go white. Or brown. Or zebra-striped. If they zig, you zag.

Is your marketing strategy built on doing the same thing louder than the other guy—or are you finding a new way to stand out in the herd?

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