Purple Cows, Black Friday, And Green Money

Several years ago, I got a purple and white milk carton in the mail. Inside was Seth Godin’s great book, “Purple Cow.” The premise of the book (and the packaging, for that matter) is simple: Marketing that doesn’t stand out gets ignored. To win in today’s information-overload world, marketing has to wow the customer (not unlike a purple cow among hundreds of regular black-and-white cows).

A couple of weeks ago, REI made the shocking announcement that it was closing its retail stores and giving its employees a day off on Black Friday. As REI’s CEO noted in his message to customers, the store’s hope was that people would spend their time outside instead of in the shopping malls: “We're a different kind of company—and while the rest of the world is fighting it out in the aisles, we’ll be spending our day a little differently. We’re choosing to opt outside, and want you to come with us.”

In perusing the 3.5 million news results on this story, I found that many news outlets attributed REI’s decision to altruism. In several stories I read, the authors emphasized the fact that REI was a co-op and was therefore able to make decisions that a public company could not.



I think all this is true, to an extent. REI does have a history of treating customers and employees differently than your typical business, and the folks who work at REI genuinely love the outdoors. But that’s really only half the story here. The other half is a purple cow. This move was a stroke of marketing brilliance that will no doubt more than pay for the lost sales REI will suffer from being closed on Black Friday.

As I noted, this announcement has been a PR goldmine for REI. I compared interest in REI to some of its competitors – Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and The Sports Authority – on Google Trends. You’ll notice that after this announcement came out, REI broke through the clutter with a massive spike in attention.

Do you think REI stole away a few holiday sales from its competitors over the last few weeks? You bet it did!

And REI didn’t just send out a press release letting folks know the stores were closed; instead, it created a Twitter hashtag (#optoutside) and  landing page that gave people “ways to get involved” in the campaign by – you guessed it – sharing the news on social media.

REI’s Chief Creative Officer, Ben Steele, was asked in an interview whether this was a one-time stunt or a new tradition for REI. He responded: “We will judge the reaction after it all, and if the co-op members say it’s awesome, it’s one thing. If not, then that’s a different conversation.” My translation: if this doesn’t drive sales as high or better than staying open on Black Friday, we ain’t doing it next year.

My point here is not to cynically rain on REI’s parade -- especially since they’ll be outside, and I wouldn’t want them to get wet. I think it is 100% fine that its strategists have come up with a marketing concept that both lives by their ideals as a company and drives bottom-line performance. Indeed, this co-mingling of business, culture, and public relations is a perfect Purple Cow.

Imagine if Walmart tried to do this on Black Friday. It would immediately be labeled a hypocrite (how can you give workers one day off and abuse them the rest of the year and expect us to praise you?). Purple cows need to be different and authentic, not just different.

Online marketing is very efficient these days; it’s practically impossible to find a successful media placement that your competitors haven’t already discovered and are also trying to  buy. Every holiday season, it's certain that Google and Facebook are going to make more money off online retailers, as competition, volume, and clicks increase. Not so certain is whether your retail business is going to grow or even maintain your profit from online advertising in years past.

So trying to come up with your own Purple Cow – something that enables your business to break free from the hand-to-hand combat that is Q4 SEM, for example – is worthy of brainstorming.

And your Purple Cow doesn’t have to be as audacious as REI’s Black Friday stunt. It could be a crazy-good offer (free hand-written notes on all gifts? 45-minute guaranteed delivery on Christmas Eve?), outlandish ad text in an SEM campaign, or ad campaigns in an unexpected location (a diamond ring ad inside a urinal?) Keep it weird and keep it authentic — and you might just find yourself giving your employees a day off and beating the competition at the same time!

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