How to Break Through Clutter: Become a Purple Cow

There was a time when TV shows were named after their sponsors, such as Colgate Comedy Hour, Kraft Television Theater, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Families would gather and sit around in the living room, completely captivated by these small, square-shaped boxes with knobs and antennae. Never mind the fact that there were only three channels or that there were no remote controls.

Oh, the horrors.

In the 1950s, you had to get up and switch the channels manually. But one of the most interesting things about the 50s and the advent of television as the new source of entertainment weren’t the TVs themselves, but the institution of advertising agencies as the producers of TV shows. Back then, TV networks simply provided facilities and airtime. The content of what would air, was entirely up to these advertising agencies.

Not only were agencies in full control of the content being aired, but they also had a massive audience. It is estimated that by 1960, 90% of households were being reached. What a time to be alive as an advertiser. You could make soap the star of a show and a large chunk of your target audience would be exposed to your message. The 1950s were the “Golden Age of Television,” not only for consumers, but for advertisers as well.

But as the saying goes: all good things must come to an end.

The Cable TV industry is dying. A slow and painful death.

It turns out, humans like to have control. And options. We like to have control over our options. The fact is, Cable TV started to show symptoms of decay when digital video recorders (DVRs) were introduced in the market. Skipping commercials made TV more enjoyable. And who wouldn’t want to skip commercials? A lot had changed since the 1950s. Consumers grew cynical about advertising, and with good reason: there was a lot of clutter.

For the first time, the tables were being turned.

Now, the tables have turned almost entirely. This has manifested in a shift from “push” to “pull” in the way we digest media messages. Before, advertising was “pushed” to consumers. Force-fed if you will. But now, consumers are in control and they are the ones who “pull” media messages. We get to decide which shows we want to watch on Netflix and Hulu. Even Hulu, which contains commercial interruptions if you don’t choose the ad-free package, has adapted to this new communication environment by incorporating the Ad Selector. The Ad Selector gives users the option of which ad they would want to see. This illustrates the power of choice and how it can directly influence someone’s experiences. Hulu seeks to engage, not interrupt.

Advertising strategies need to address this issue from the get-go, “Is this ad interrupting or engaging the consumer?” Ads that engage will break through the clutter. Much like Greek tragedies, advertisements face the obstacle of ad clutter, which is created by the ads themselves. And let’s be honest: nobody likes ads and nobody reads ads for fun. Have you ever heard someone say, “Well lookie here, a display ad listing the product’s unique selling point, I’m going to buy this!”

This isn’t the demise of advertising. If anything, it’s a good thing. It means we need to be more creative in the strategies we create. It means the bar has been set high, and companies need to be remarkable in order to get noticed.

Seth Godin, author of Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, argues that something is remarkable if it’s something “worth making a remark about.” A purple cow stands out among the rest, so it gets noticed and it gets talked about. Similarly, companies who dare to stand out by doing something remarkable gain a lot of traction and momentum.

Think of REI’s #optoutside campaign surrounding Black Friday in 2015. REI made the decision to close all of its stores on Black Friday, an opportunity many stores wouldn’t dare to miss. REI’s #optoutside campaign proceeded to win nine awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Since then, it has become a rallying cry for pursuing the outdoors. A platform where people are able to share their stories and passions. The campaign had a huge impact and engagement with the public. Why? Because amidst all the stores battling for consumers and trying to out-spend competitors, REI took a step back. It became the purple cow. REI’s #optoutside campaign reflects the shift in the new consumerism- one that seeks to empower, engage, and add value to consumers’ lives.

The days of Colgate Comedy Hour are long gone. The scheme of consumerism has been busted, and consumers now place an emphasis on products or brands that truly add value to their lives. These brands engage them, they do not disrupt. These brands empower, they do not order.

Companies must adapt and find new ways to reach consumers in an authentic way. The companies who dare to stand out and become a purple cow by being remarkable will have an easier time navigating this brave new world.

 

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