The Purple Cow: …and The Invisible Purple Gorilla

A year or so after reading Purple Cow, I stumbled across The Invisible Gorilla. This book written neither for nor by marketers. It was written by behavioral psychologists who had been researching a phenomenon they came to call inattentional blindness. Before I explain anything else about the book (if you haven’t heard of it), watch the video below and follow the narrator’s instructions. SERIOUSLY, PLEASE WATCH THE VIDEO BEFORE PROCEEDING!

In showing these study to a large group of students, half of them did not see the gorilla in the film. Why? Because they don’t expect to see it. They are not looking for it. Their focus is elsewhere. Subsequent experimenters doing the same study confirm its findings. Some researchers have even used eye tracking to demonstrate that people who watch the video look directly at the gorilla for at least one second and still half of them still do not see it.

In addition to repeated variations of the invisible gorilla test, Simons and Chabris cite several other studies in behavioral psychology that suggest the notion that standing out doesn’t work.

For example, they discuss how people behave in traffic. In many traffic accidents, people swear that they don’t see the cars that they pull out in front of. Perhaps, the authors suggest, they actually don’t see the cars. They are focusing elsewhere and do not expect to see them, so they literally don’t see them. People are going to pay attention to what they’re already paying attention to and they are not going to notice anything else – no matter how obvious.

So, how do we reconcile these two ideas about how we perceive things in our environment? As entrepreneurs and marketers, should you invest in building differentiation… or does it even really matter? Well, I think there’s a way for us to have our cake and eat it too…

Let’s go back to Seth Godin’s thought experiment. Now, let’s say that this trip is a family vacation. Let’s say Mom is driving –looking back and forth between the GPS and the road ahead of her. Dad is reading a magazine. Little Johnny is in the backseat playing with his iPad. But Little Mpho is staring out the window, looking at the cows. If the family happens to pass a purple cow, who is the one that notices it? It’s Little Mpho, right? “Mommy, Mommy!” She exclaims, “A Purple Cow!” Then, and only then, everyone looks up. Mom from her GPS. Dad from his magazine. Little Johnny from his iPad. And they all turn their attention to where Little Mpho is pointing. Only then do they all see the purple cow.

So, how do you get your product noticed in a world of clutter? Yes, you do it by standing out, but you must stand out within context. You must be remarkable in the context of what people are already paying attention to. Silk stands out, not because it’s a remarkable product, but because it’s a remarkable product in the milk aisle. Seth Godin takes this for granted.

The “invisible gorilla,” metaphorically speaking, is not in the milk aisle. In other words, it is not in the context of what people were already paying attention to. Suppose that the researchers had replaced the basketballs with sacks of potatoes and had asked the participants, “…but did you see the sacks of potatoes?” I would venture to say that nearly %100 of them would say, “Yes.” So, here’s your takeaway:

Focus your marketing efforts on standing out in the context of what people are already paying attention to. And focus on those customers who are paying the closest attention. Market to people who are engaged.

Market to Little Mpho and, if you are amazing enough and standing out enough, she will tell her whole family.

Don’t be a purple cow. Don’t be an invisible gorilla. Be both. Be the Invisible Purple Gorilla. 


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