“Consumers don’t care about you at all…they’ve got way more choices than they used to, and way less time. And in a world where we have too many choices and too little time, the obvious thing to do is just ignore stuff…”

That is how marketing guru Seth Godin delivers his bomb, five minutes into his TED talk on the new world of advertising and sales: How to Get Your Ideas to Spread. In less than 20 minutes, Godin turns the concept of marketing on its head, revealing to the audience, why the old ways of thinking about marketing are obsolete, and what marketers need to focus on in this rapidly changing world, where rate of adaptation in life and business is faster than it’s ever been in the history of consumerism.

The importance of spreading ideas

Godin begins with an illustration of sliced bread, which was invented in the 1910s by one Otto Rohwedder. Unfortunately for Rohwedder, the idea did not take off for 15 years–when Wonder Bread figured out how to spread the idea and make consumers want the product. In this story, Godin reveals a core concept that most marketers are aware of: you can’t sell something unless people know about it, and you can somehow convince the potential buyer to want it. The key to marketing is getting ideas to spread.


But in a world where consumers are constantly inundated by a flood of information from Google, Facebook, and their own smartphones, no one cares anymore. No one pays attention. Today, according to Godin, we are living in “a century of idea diffusion,” and the people who can spread ideas most effectively are those who will succeed in this new environment.


How marketing used to work

Formerly, advertisers and marketers spread the word about their products by interrupting people. Buying ads on television or in magazines, interrupting people as they watched their favorite program or read an article, was the way to put your product in front of potential customers. Godin calls this the “TV-industrial complex.” This complex was popular and worked quite well a few decades ago, but lately, it hasn’t been performing as it used to.

Formerly, marketers made and marketed average products for average people. In other words, they dealt in mass marketing–trying to reach the largest possible population, and ignoring the geeks and oddballs on the fringes of the “average” population. But Godin says, this no longer works. Instead, Godin advises new marketers not to market to the masses anymore–because the masses have developed the ability to ignore marketing and advertising. Instead, it’s those very oddballs and geeks and people whom marketers ought to pay special attention to.


How marketing works today

Instead of marketing to a generic populace, marketers must start to target people who care about something, who are obsessed with something. They need to find the innovators and first adopters, the people who will listen to an advertising spiel because it speaks to something that resonates with their identity, with something they feel deeply about. And those people will tell their friends, and their friends will tell their friends, and so on and so forth until, hopefully, the idea will snowball and spread to the entire curve.


Otaku culture

Nowadays, Godin states, coming up with a product or idea that does not have a built-in constituency obsessed with that item is nearly impossible. The key is to find a group that cares desperately about what you have to say and make it easy for them to tell their friends. Sell to the people who are already listening, and they will spread the word for you.

To better illustrate this concept, Godin refers to the Japanese term, “otaku,” which describes people who are so obsessed with a particular concept or product, like, say, ramen noodles, that they are willing to drive hours out of their way just to try a new ramen restaurant.

The key is not to create or sell a product that everyone could use, but a product that a key demographic adores. Not everyone loves Krispy Kreme, for instance, but a select group of “otakus” do, and when Krispy Kreme enters a new city, they talk to their fan base first, and that fan base then spreads the word to others who have not heard of or been won over by Krispy Kreme yet.


The concept of the purple cow

How does one achieve that, though? Here, Seth Godin introduces the concept of the “purple cow.”

If someone were driving along a road, he says, that person would not look twice. Because cows are “boring.” But if someone spotted a purple cow one day as they were driving, they would stop and take a second look. Because purple cows are unusual. If all cows were purple, no one would stop for them, but in this world, purple cows are remarkable due to their rarity. Or nonexistence, rather. As Godin points out, “remarkable” does not just mean “unusual,” it means, “worthy of making a remark about.”

A purple cow would catch someone’s attention and be worthy of commenting on because it is out of the ordinary. People notice new and fresh things, whether that’s a purple cow or a new DVD. The only requirement is that the item must be different.


We are all in the fashion business now

According to Godin, no matter what industry you are in, you are in the fashion business. Fashion changes rapidly, cycling through trends faster than people can blink. To succeed in this new business culture, marketers must learn to think like those in the fashion world. It’s no longer about interrupting people in their daily lives but using a whole different thought process to spread ideas.

Godin gives the example of Aeron chairs. Aeron sold its chairs by reconceptualizing chairs as a status symbol rather than merely the piece of furniture upon which people perch their derrieres. Similarly, a Parisian baker named Lionel Poilâne sold ten million dollars’ worth of French bread because his bread was unusual and remarkable. It spread from person to person until it became the official bread of restaurants across Paris.


Closing thoughts

Godin finishes his TED talk with a few final ideas. First, the key to finding those innovators and first adapters and getting them to adopt and champion your product is to figure out what those people really want and then give it to them. Second, design is free when you can scale your idea. And third, the riskiest thing people can do is to play it safe. The safe thing, nowadays, is to be on the fringes and being the best at what you do. Don’t just be very good, Godin advises–because that’s boring. Rather, be remarkable, like a purple cow.

One final illustration Godin mentions is that of Silk soymilk. They created a product that does not need refrigeration and placed it next to the milk in the refrigerated area of the store. This made the product stand out via contrast, as customers noticed something that was NOT milk next to a row of milk. It doesn’t so much matter whether or not people like it (Godin gives the example of a 40-foot-tall dog made of bushes in the middle of New York City, for instance), but it has to be remarkable. It has to be on the fringes.

Then you have to find out who cares, who wants to see what else you will come up with, and give them the fringe item you’ve created, and watch them do the marketing for you.