Be remarkable. Be a Purple Cow.

Last week Radiohead issued a vast collection (1.8 gigabytes) of unreleased tracks from the sessions for their 1997 album OK Computer, after a MiniDisc archive owned by frontman Thom Yorke was hacked, and were reportedly asked for a $150,000 ransom to return the recordings.

Instead of paying the ransom, the band made eighteen MiniDisc recordings, most of them around an hour in length, available on Bandcamp for £18. All proceeds will go to climate activists Extinction Rebellion.

Frontman Thom Yorke described the hours of recordings as not very interesting, and guitarist Jonny Greenwood – who confirmed the hack via Twitter – said: Never intended for public consumption it’s only tangentially interesting, and very, very long. Not a phone download. Rainy out, isn’t it, though?

Yorke and Greenwood are absolutely wrong: the files are a treasure trove. Frankly, a look behind the curtain of one of the most innovative albums of a generation is priceless.  This hoard of private material is an illuminating chronicle of a band reinventing the mainstream. The eighteen tracks have been documented in a Google Doc by fans. If anyone understands the dynamics of content, innovation and the internet, it’s Radiohead.

Radiohead is an English band formed in Oxford in 1985 by five school friends. Initially the band were called On a Friday, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. In late 1991, after a chance meeting between band member Colin Greenwood and EMI’s A&R representative at Our Price, the record shop where Greenwood worked, they signed a six-album recording contract with EMI. At the request of EMI, the band changed their name – Radiohead was taken from the song Radio Head on the Talking Heads album, True Stories.

Since their formation, Radiohead have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Thom Yorke, the essential spark of innovation in the band. Yorke’s somnambulant ramblings and markedly individualistic performances cutting a strangely solitary figure, making him look like a man in the throes of a tortuous titanic confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces. Yorke’s vocals trail through atmospherics with angst and despair of a tortured performer.

Radiohead are in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y but without the ostentatious commerciality driven by a marketing machine. They are a serious band that make serious music, a touchstone for adventurous music, yet you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning.

Just like Joy Division, they are seen by many as morose, gloomy harbingers of doom and introspective sensibilities, purporting monochrome view of the world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for me there are toe tapping and sing-a-long moments a plenty. Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope.

What Radiohead did to counter the hack was remarkable. It reminded me of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, the concept that you’re either remarkable or invisible. In a world that grows noisier by the day, Godin’s challenge has never been more relevant.

Godin evolves the traditional ‘4Ps’ marketing thinking with a new P – the Purple Cow. He identified this when he was with his family driving through France and were enchanted by the hundreds of cows grazing on picturesque pastures. For dozens of kilometres, we gazed out the window, marvelling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common.

Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, brown or black cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.

On a long car drive you may see some cows on a hill, and see many more as the hours pass. Brown cow. Brown cow. Black Cow. Black Cow. There’s nothing remarkable about them, they pretty much look the same. But if you spotted a purple cow, then wow, that would be remarkable. You’d sit up in your seat and take notice; you might even pull the car over, let the kids out, take some pictures and share them with friends on Social Media.

Godin’s book came out in 2003, before the first iPhone, however, it is almost like Steve Jobs took everything Godin mentions in his book and put it into creating the iPhone. The iPhone succeeded wildly as a product everyone wants, and it stood out like a Purple Cow in the field of normal phones.

Tesla, Uber, Airbnb are all Purple Cows. As is Paypal. Banking is probably one of the hardest industry of all to try to disrupt, because the barriers to entry are huge – you need mountains of capital, regulatory approval, and years of building trust with your customers.

Banks’ business models are largely unchanged in hundreds of years, and they’re insanely powerful and almost impossible to displace – as we’re seeing with the Challenger Banks and Open Banking initiatives still to truly disrupt their business model – but for some crazy reason PayPal didn’t seem to care, and became remarkable.

Look at their Purple Cow attributes:

  • PayPal spends less money on technology than even a medium sized bank does. Yet its technology platform is far superior.
  • Consumers trust PayPal as much if not more than they trust their bank. Even though PayPal has been around for a fraction of the time.
  • When a customer buys with their PayPal account, the bank has no clue what the customer actually bought. The transaction appears on the bank statement as ‘PayPal’. That gives PayPal all the power when it comes to data mining.
  • PayPal is quicker to market with just about any kind of payment innovation going.
  • PayPal refuses to partner directly with banks – instead opting to partner with retailers directly.

In a small period of time, PayPal inserted itself as a whole new method of payment to become a real alternative to debit or credit cards. But how did it manage to do it? There are two huge pillars of success to PayPal’s story.

They seized the moment. They got a lucky break when they ‘accidentally’ became the favoured payment provider for eBay transactions. This was followed a few years later by their $1.5bn acquisition by eBay themselves. eBay were smart enough to leave them alone, and their newfound sense of boldness saw them strike a series of deals with other online retailers to try and replicate the success they’d had with eBay.

The second pillar of their success was Partnerships. Banks had always been wary about forming partnerships directly with retailers, instead they relied on their scheme partners Visa/MasterCard to do that for them. They didn’t want the hassle of managing so many different relationships, and were extremely confident about the fact that credit and debit cards would always be at the heart of the financial payment system.

But the problem was that MasterCard themselves were already working on a partnership with PayPal, leaving the banks out in the cold. Today, PayPal has 20% market share of online payments in the US, and 63% of the eWallet space. Almost all of that growth has come from their direct relationships with merchants large and small.

Paypal is a Purple Cow. Making something remarkable means asking new questions and trying new practices, doing the unexpected and creating an offering that is genuinely innovative. Godin identifies some key traits of Purple Cows, for example:

Get into the habit of doing the unsafe thing. Remarkable isn’t always about changing the biggest machine in your factory, it’s about being bold and every time you have the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not. It’s safer to be risky. Use this mindset to go for the truly amazing moon-shot things.

Explore the limits with early adopters. What if you’re the cheapest, the fastest, the slowest, the hottest, the coldest, the easiest, the most efficient, the loudest, the most hated, the copycat, the outsider, the hardest, the oldest, the newest, or just the most? If there’s a limit, you must test it. The early adopters heavily influence the rest of the curve, so persuading them is worth far more than wasting time and effort trying to persuade anyone else.

Target a niche. The way you break through to the mainstream is to target a niche instead of a huge market. With a niche, you can segment off a chunk of the mainstream, and create an ideavirus so focused that it overwhelms that small slice of the market that really and truly will respond to what you offer. The market is small enough that a few wins can get you to the critical mass you need to create an ideavirus.

Think small. One vestige of the social media explosion is a need to think mass. If it doesn’t appeal to everyone, the thinking goes, it’s not worth it. No longer. Think of the smallest conceivable market and describe a product that overwhelms it with its remarkability. Be remarkable by being curated.

Differentiate your customers. From the above two points, find the market segment that wants your product and ‘own your market’. Within this, find the group that’s most likely to influence other customers – cater to the customers you would choose if you could choose your customers. Have the insight and guts to craft a Purple Cow product/service offering that gets the right people to seek them out.

Find things that are ‘just not done’ in your industry. And then go ahead and do them. Ask ‘Why not?’ – almost everything you do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack of someone asking, ‘Why?’ Uber and Airbnb did just that, and what about Tesla – who gave away their IP of their electric batteries.

If you’re remarkable, then it’s likely that some people won’t like you. That’s part of the definition of remarkable. The best the timid can hope for is to be unnoticed. Criticism comes to those who stand out.

Playing it safe. Following the rules. They seem like the best ways to avoid failure. Alas, that pattern is a dangerous and mistaken fallacy. In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible. Boring is always the riskiest strategy. Startups realise this and work to reduce the risk from the process. They know that sometimes it’s not going to work, but they accept the fact that that’s okay, as ultimately, chewing your own cud leads to being remarkable.

Understand the urgency of the situation. Half-measures simply won’t do. Being noticed is not the same as being remarkable. Running down the street naked will get you noticed, but it won’t accomplish much. It’s easy to pull off a stunt, but not useful. Extremism in the pursuit of remarkability is no sin. In fact, it’s practically a requirement. Remarkability lies in the edges. It doesn’t always matter which edge, more that you’re at (or beyond) the edge.

Part of what it takes to do something remarkable is to do something first and best. Roger Bannister was remarkable. The next guy, the guy who broke Bannister’s record wasn’t. He was just faster, but it didn’t matter.

Godin challenges us to be a Purple Cow, crafting something truly exceptional in everything we create or do. Like the Radiohead reaction to being hacked, like Tesla giving away their IP and PayPal did in challenging the status quo, be unexpected, be innovative, standout from the crowd, make people stop in their tracks and think. Be remarkable.