Purple Cows and Charity Water
“Be Bold or Italic, never Regular” — anonymous
Let’s talk about marketing and differentiation. In his book Purple Cow, Seth Godin tells an intriguing story. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but it goes something like this: He was driving through the countryside of Switzerland, and for miles all he saw on the side of the road, was rows of trees. While beautiful in their own right at first, he quickly got bored. Suddenly, he came across a cow. A standard brown cow. The first one was a novelty, but then came another cow, and another one, and many others. Soon, he pretty much ignored the cows too. But then, all of a sudden, he came across a purple cow. PURPLE! What do you think he did then?
You can imagine: he stopped the car. Took a few selfies with the cow and posted on Instagram with hashtag #purplecow. He then shared it with all his friends and family on Whatsapp, posted about it tagging his friends on Facebook, Snapped it, tweeted about it, uploaded a quick Youtube clip, wrote a Medium post, shared a LinkedIn update (on his profile and various groups), and finally, answered a few questions on Quora, on questions like “what is the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?” and the answer is just his selfie with the said cow.
Too often people create organisations that are brown cows. Yet another one of something that’s been done a thousand times. They play it safe, conform to the norms in terms of mission, design, user experience. As a user, it’s hard to tell the difference between these ‘brown cows’. But when suddenly a ‘purple cow’ comes, it’s novelty can help it overcome competition swiftly. Google was the 8th search engine. Before Facebook existed we had Friendster and MySpace.
The message is simple: be a purple cow. Whatever the organisation (a company, startup, charity, etc) change something and seek differentiation by by breaking the mould and making it better.
I want to call out an organisation, that did an excellent job in this regard and should get more credit. It’s not a startup, it’s a charity, called Charity:Water. Its founder, Scott Harrison, has a very interesting story, but fundamentally, Scott broke the mould he saw in most charities:
- People didn’t trust charities — donors wanted more transparency on where the donations are going.
- Charities are technologically slow — their online presence is dated, and passive.
- Charity brands are forgettable.
In Scott’s words: “Toothpaste is marketed better than all the world’s charities combined”. Corporates apply various methods of the science of marketing. Some charities also do, but the majority wing it. And as a former party promoter, Scott knew how to sell. So he came up with a solution for each of the issues above:
- Transparency: Commitment that 100% of donations to the charity go directly to the projects in the field. In this case the creation of water wells in Africa. The expenses (salaries etc) are a separate company, that gets funding from 117 families who are patrons of Charity:Water.
- Infusing technology: He put every well on a digital map, so donors can see where their money was going. They could see videos, and share the link of their specific projects with their friends.
- Brand: He created a beautiful brand, that elevates the charity above its peers. I’m assuming that there were quite a few water charities in Africa, but you haven’t heard of any before charity water.
When people see their friend involved in a project like this, they feel like the have seen a purple cow. It goes viral.
Still not convinced? watch this video: