Lara O'Shea
The Resurgence Of The Purple Cow

Brand building in a digitally-powered world

“Branding”—from the Germanic for “burning, fire”—has been used since ancient Egyptian times to identify livestock ownership by fire-heated markings.[1] For centuries, cattle ranchers used such branding irons to show livestock heritage: “As the cattle moved across the plains…it was easy to determine which ranches they were from because each head of cattle was branded.”[2]  This proclamation of product heritage continues to define a brand. For over a century, packaged-goods behemoths such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola symbolized product authenticity, heritage, and quality by “marking” products with brand names. However, the second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of a concept of branding that came to mean more than simply name and ownership, as American consumer goods companies fought for new ways to differentiate themselves on burgeoning supermarket shelves. They began building brands through positioning, packaging, pricing, promotions, and, of course, highlighting intrinsic product quality.  A brand became, as David Ogilvy said, “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes,” or everything that comes to mind when someone hears your brand name—both factual and emotional.

With the wide-spread adoption of TV, radio, and press media, clients and agencies started to consider communications the foundational tool to build brands. In the “Mad Men” era, it was possible to build nationwide appeal through strong creative and a 60 second media buy. The quality of such communications was sometimes stronger than actual product quality. Talkability was driven through advertising and brands often became famous through advertising alone, exemplified by the ground-breaking Smash mash potatoes advertising of the 1970s.[3]

However, while communications continued to emphasize product superiority, actual quality was sometimes more questionable.  An article from the 1983 archives of Harvard Business Review emphasizes this with findings from a 1981 survey, in which 49% of 7,000 consumers surveyed said U.S. product quality had declined in the past five years. In addition, 59% expected quality to stay down or decline further in the upcoming five years.[4] In a different survey quoted in the same article, half the executives of major American appliance manufacturers said that the reliability of their products had improved in recent years, but only 21% of U.S consumers expressed that same belief.[5] In an era of mass consumerization, product quality itself sometimes got lost behind its own advertising. Beyond pure communications, building a stand-out product of exceptional quality and talkability has often fallen short as a classic approach to brand-building. Even Byron Sharp’s seven rules for brand growth from his ground-breaking book, How Brands Grow[6], seemingly avoid focusing on intrinsic product quality.

As the 20th century drew to a close, media options continued to grow. A deregulatory environment for cable operating and programming companies spurred investment and led to greater access to, and choices in, entertainment.[7] The growth of the internet exacerbated the plethora of media choices, adding new distribution and targeting opportunities. The era of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube brought with it micro influencer power. Amazon and the move to online retail created new ways to reach customers and grow their loyalty. Rather than pushing products, customers started to create their own demand, and we continue to see the growth of search becoming increasingly important—and beginning to move from a power-base of Google to Amazon—with over half of product searches now starting on Amazon.[8]

In this connected and social era, brands need to consider new ways to gain fame— communication alone is not enough. Arguably, the way to create brands in this new marketing paradigm is to turn brand-building on its head and focus on the product and service itself, rather than what is being said about it. It reminds me of a concept I embraced as a young brand manager—Seth Godin’s Purple Cow—or “how to transform your business by being remarkable.”[9]  Godin’s argument is that the key to success is to find a way to stand out from the herd—to be “the purple cow” in a field of monotonous cattle.[10] It’s a concept we hear about from others. In Contagious: Why Things Catch On[11], Jonah Berger demonstrates this with the example of the Blendtec, a product that grew famous through the proliferation of YouTube videos demonstrating seemingly impossible items the blender could pulverize, including glass marbles and golf balls: “In the first week the videos racked up 6 million views…within two years the campaign increased retail blender sales 700 percent.”[12] The concept of the Purple Cow applies both to specific products and entire business models—consider companies like Dollar Shave Club[13] that have gained traction through new business models, such as subscription.

For too long, we have been thinking about brand-building through communicating brand-benefits (be it through advertising, PR, packaging design, and more), rather than focusing explicitly on being a Purple Cow (intrinsic product experience and quality). We’re now in an era when people buy less and focus more on their experience as a customer. Shared ownership prevails, and people are concerned more with value generated than ownership (Zipcar, Airbnb). Constantly-improving algorithms in an era of constant availability enable increasingly personalized experiences to help people make choices more efficiently—consider Spotify and Netflix. In this environment, brands need to focus more on creating superb products that people want to talk about, even if it means less time talking about them.

Brand communications continue to matter. However, we must not forget the important first step to the marketing mix—the ability to generate word-of–mouth (WOM) through creating something exceptional. In the past, WOM tended to be localized within specific communities, but it is now more powerful than ever.  What has changed in recent years is the way digital has empowered WOM to proliferate through a global community. This is primarily through the increasing prevalence and power of reviews, on sites like Amazon, and with tools like Bazaar Voice and Amazon Vine—as well as social media. Product Management grows in importance, and Brand Marketers need to focus intrinsically on the customer experience—what the product does, how it performs, how the customer is being engaged and communicated with. This especially applies to customer service/delivery mechanics. These are the factors that are going to drive talkability and the all-important 5-star review.

How do we create these brands? One shortcut is to look to the likes of Amazon for tools around modern brand building. On Amazon, we see different kinds of brands winning over those that are more traditional. Niche brands are taking leadership roles online, as nimble, digitally-native companies know how to play online, and which levers to pull. For instance, 15% of Amazon’s coffee sales are from the lesser-known ‘San Francisco Bay coffee company’, as opposed to Starbuck’s which holds 15% of in-store single-serve coffee brand sales.[14]  Customer insights are created through actual customer purchase and usage data, rather than implied or reported behavior through focus groups and surveys. Data-driven insights, AI and machine learning are increasingly used in product development and marketing activity. Amazon has also become a huge threat for manufacturers with their massive focus on private labels—constantly innovating leveraging formidable data to launch new lines and standalone brands.[15] With 19 current private label brands, and many more in development, Amazon’s strategy of copying best-selling items, leveraging marketing, and selling for less is paying dividends. They have come from nothing to dominate entire sectors, in a matter of years, or even months. Amazon Basics batteries now has an online market share of about 31%, with Duracell in second with 21%. In baby wipes, Amazon is over 15% of the online market, third in the market in just two and a half years and second only to Huggies and Pampers.[16]

The growth of connected devices will further enable Amazon to own the customer experience. Expected users of Echo products should top 25 million in 2017.[17] In 2022, voice is anticipated to overtake type search, and with Alexa’s strong partnerships and integration, Amazon is expected to remain the market leader. With an eco-system led by voice, Amazon are embedding themselves deep into customers’ lives and removing barriers that may be faced when shopping offline.  Just like in early cattle-branding days, the heritage of a brand and authenticity will continue to prevail.  However, tracking heritage and proving authenticity will now become de-facto as blockchain technologies become increasingly embedded in sourcing and tracking to prove authenticity of products—as it is already happening in finance, food, diamonds, and more.  As we seek new ways to build brands, communications will continue to be relevant. Now, more than ever, brands matter. In a digitally-powered world, they must stand-out and cut through the clutter. As Ogilvy’s John Seifert says, “Brands are not just about saying things in advertising, they are about what the brands do and how do you engage with audiences in a way where the value and service of a brand can really be felt in a very personal way.”[18] In this environment, especially, the power and importance of building a Purple Cow brand through an exceptional product and customer experience becomes all the more greater.


[1] Khan, S.U. and Mufti,O., “The Hot History and Cold Future of Brands,” Journal of Managerial Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2007, p. 76—Wikipedia


[3] Youtube – Smash Mash Potatoes Advertisement

[4] Results of a survey conducted by the American Society for Quality Control and published in The Boston Globe, January 25, 1981

[5] 1981 survey data from Appliance Manufacturer, April 1981







[12] Berger, J., Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Simon & Schuster, 2013, p.5

[13] Youtube – – Our Blades are F***ing Great, March 2012

[14] Kantar Retail—The Store WPP, Amazon Day, London, September 2017

[15] Kantar Retail—The Store WPP, Amazon Day, London, September 2017

[16] Kantar Retail—The Store WPP, Amazon Day, London, September 2017

[17] Amazon Executive Immersion Summit, Seattle, October 2017


    We'd love to hear from you.