Book Report: Seth Godin's Purple Cow

Takeaways for school leaders from the bestselling book on marketing

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: April 15, 2019

Seth Godin is a marketing guru. He speaks at conferences around the world about marketing to customers in the Information Age and has authored eighteen books in total. His most popular book, "Purple Cow", is all about making brands stand out. He presents the idea that the old-school ways of marketing — advertisements, commercials, and magazines—are no longer effective in a world that’s overwhelmed by a constant flood of information. While we think Godin over-exaggerates in saying that traditional marketing is a thing of the past, his book offers a unique perspective on how brands can stand out in a competitive online market.

In the section, "Why You Need The Purple Cow," Godin states that, "There are so many alternatives now that people can no longer be easily reached by mass media." Instead of focusing on print ads or commercials, Godin argues that successful companies put their marketing efforts into building a sensational product—what he refers to as a “purple cow.”

Imagine you’re driving on the interstate and you pass a group of cows grazing in a field. Most of them are brown; some are mostly white with brown spots. Nothing remarkable, right? But imagine seeing a purple cow. A cow that’s purple all over and grazing with the same group of cows mentioned before. There is absolutely no question that you are going to pay attention to that cow.

Following Godin’s advice means focusing more on making your product—educational programs and services—so exceptional that people talk about them on their own, without the help of traditional advertising strategies.

How does this relate to school leaders?

There’s often a misunderstanding about what marketing means. What most people think of — advertising and public relations — are only small portions of the overarching goal of school marketing, which is to influence how people think and feel about the school’s brand. While commercials and billboards can be great for spreading a school’s brand, the best way to influence your audience is by having a great product.

A Purple Cow is an idea or product so uniquely wonderful that it advertises itself.

Seth Godin’s marketing strategy focuses on creating an interesting, unique product that markets your organization by grabbing people’s attention. For school leaders, this means developing innovative or creative programs instead of putting ads in the newspaper. Most school leaders understand this intricacy; the problem comes in learning how to create and share these remarkable programs in order to capitalize on the marketing benefits.

A purple cow strategy in schools means identifying or developing programs within your school organization that set you apart.

Think of Kelly Middleton’s home visit program where he sends teachers to every student’s house before classes start. Creating a new, interesting initiative like the home visit program, ended up gaining the district widespread press. Godin argues, “In exchange for taking the risk, the creator of the purple cow gets a huge upside when they get it right.” Middleton didn’t create the program just to cause a stir; he saw a need in the community and found a creative way to meet that need. By looking around the school for areas to meet students’ needs in innovative ways, school leaders can market their schools in conjunction with improving the student experience; the two go hand in hand.

They’re so fantastic and unique that they market themselves. In this article, we’ll explain how school leaders have identified purple cows in their schools, how to get started on creating your own purple cow, and how to use customer service as a purple cow strategy.

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Identifying a Purple Cow You Already Have

In speaking with thousands of school leaders from across the country, we’ve learned that most have programs in their district that they are proud to offer students, things they desperately wish people would praise at board meetings or share in the press. In these cases, applying the purple cow strategy is more about identifying your purple cow and amplifying the program rather than developing a brand new initiative.

School leaders can start by narrowing down potential purple cows that are already in their schools. Think about your programs, teachers, and staff. What makes your school uniquely capable of meeting your communities’ needs? In what areas has your school grown in the last couple of years? What extracurriculars show innovation? Purple cows don’t need to be complicated, just filling a need in your community.

What do you do now?

Once you’ve identified your purple cow, pinpoint how you can grow the program. Consider the program’s strengths, then organize resources to amplify its positive impacts. Can you include more students, find volunteers in the community to support the program, or redirect funding out of a waning initiative?

If schools don’t have the resources to physically strengthen the cow, then developing strategies to share the program can be a great place to start. Highlight the purple cow in nearly every interaction between the district and the public. You may feel like you’re repeating yourself, but reinforcing the idea shows the power of the program. Talk about the purple cow in your newsletter, press releases, public statements, and social media posts. Share stories of the students who have been impacted by the initiative. Describe what needs were met and the growth that resulted. Keeping this program relevant in the community’s mind helps you get the most out of your investment.

However, when you are doing something special, it’s likely that it won’t be special for very long. The benefits of having a unique program only last until the crowd catches up to you. While reaping the benefits from your initial program, invest time and energy in developing a new purple cow. If you can build an organization where people are rewarded for trying new ideas, you can consistently create new programs that capture your community’s attention. Leaders can explore several innovative ideas, then release the strongest into the pasture. Godin suggests that you “milk the cow for all its worth, and create an environment where you’re likely to invent a brand new purple cow in time to replace our first one.”

Developing a New Purple Cow

If you are struggling to find your purple cow, you can make a priority of developing a new, attention-grabbing program. When planning for the long-term, consider programs that could become purple cows in the future to help guide decision making. For example, if a district nearby is building a fancy new football stadium, and your district decides to follow suit, your schools will merely be catching up. Purple cows are, by nature, unique.

Instead, your district might devote resources into creating an outstanding swimming facility — a feature that will make your district stand out. Your district will then be able to target families who have an interest in swimming or develop programs around the new facilities, perhaps training students in lifeguarding. A school district in the South that focuses on swimming rather than football? Now, that’s a purple cow.

Maine Township High School District in Park Ridge, Illinois used a technology investment as their purple cow. They were one of the first school districts in the state to hand out Chromebooks to each student, provide wireless hotspots for students in need of internet, and move over half of their textbook resources to online platforms. While other schools were still working towards high speed internet, Maine Township was getting attention for their Chromebook program.

Thinking of new initiatives as a way to improve student outcomes in addition to marketing your schools pushes your team to meet student needs in creative ways. Greg Jouriles and Susan Bedford, English and Social Studies teachers at Hillsdale High School in California, created a purple cow when they asked themselves, “What if we could design an academic experience that was as memorable as prom?”

In 1989 they created “The Trial of Human Nature” project, where sophomores at the school prepare a court case every year in which they defend or prosecute William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies. The students play different roles, i.e. judge, witness, or attorney, and travel to an actual courtroom to conduct the trial. This project has continued since 1989 and has become a significant moment in each student's time at the school. By asking themselves how they could impact students’ lives, Jouriles and Bedford created a purple cow that has students excited to learn, creating free press for the school district.

Customer Service as Your Purple Cow

When budgets are tight, plans that involve large capital or personnel investments might be off the table. In these cases, a purple cow can be as simple as providing exceptional customer service.

Godin uses the example of a grocery store that he used to frequent that built its customer base around amazing service. In this case, the store’s purple cow involved real cows.

Stew’s was founded by Stew Leonard in 1969. Instead of opting for the usual “ordinary” dairy shop, Stew embraced the cow. He added a petting zoo to the front of his grocery store, featured unique or unusual products, sold items for reduced prices, and filled his store with robotic mooing cows and a violin-playing chicken.

While the petting zoo was eye-catching, it was the store’s customer service that built their brand. According to Stew’s website, this was all inspired by a run-in with an unhappy customer. A woman once accused Stew of selling sour eggnog, which Stew vehemently denied. After getting her refund on the eggnog, she turned away and exclaimed, “I’m never coming back to this store again!”

When Stew got home, he told his wife about the incident, to which she replied, “I don’t blame her at all, you didn’t listen to her.” This incident made him realize that he could have a fantastic store, but poor customer service would make him lose customers.

From then on, Stew made it a priority to treat every customer with respect. His customer service policy was so important to him that he had it carved in a 6,000 pound block of granite at the front of the store. The policy read:

Rule #1 - The Customer is Always Right
Rule #2 - If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1

Stew firmly believed that “customer service cannot be a sometimes thing. It must be earned and re-earned every day.”

He also placed a suggestion box at the front of the store. If a customer submitted a suggestion, or feedback about their experience in the store, Stew would write a personalized response to their concern.

An amazing level of customer service could be a school leader’s purple cow whether or not a purple cow has been developed before in the district. Customer service always distinguishes a competitor from its competition, and school leaders could apply this same mentality to their district.

Major takeaways:

  • Identify a unique aspect of your district that markets itself to current and prospective families.
  • Keep producing services and techniques so useful, interesting, outrageous, and noteworthy that your community will want to seek them out.
  • Create an environment where you’re likely to invent a brand new purple cow in time to replace your first one.
  • Customer service can be an affordable purple cow.

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