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The Purple Cow in the Waiting Room

By Ron Huxley
Posted Friday, October 29, 2004

A mental health professionals guide to using cutting edge marketing tools to build their practice. If you have had any experiencing in the addiction field you have probably heard of the expression: "The elephant in the living room."This is used to refer to huge secrets in addictive families and challenge codependent behaviors. But I would guess that you have never heard the one about the "Purple Cow in the waiting room" have you?

The Purple Cow is a new marketing slogan used by one of the top marketing guru's Seth Godin. Mr. Godin has written some best-selling books on how to be a successful marketer and his latest concept is the Purple Cow. It has some interesting implications for mental health professionals!

On a vacation in France, Mr. Godin and his family were driving through the countryside and admiring the picturesque cows in the fields. After a while though, the cows were no longer that interesting having become a common sight. A little while longer and the cows actually became very boring. This got him to thinking about what it would take for one of those now boring cows to literally "stand out from the herd" and have him notice them again. A Purple Cow would do it!

In fact, if you did see a purple cow I would guess that you would start telling everyone about your sighting, wouldn't you? You can't keep silent about a purple cow. That is exactly what mental health professionals need to do in order to "stand out" from the herd of countless other mental health professionals and create a buzz of conversation that builds a steady stream of referrals.

The Purple Cow Leads the Way!

Purple cows not only stands out they lead the herd. How do you, as a mental health professional, stand out? In what area are you the leader? What have you done lately, to yourself and your practice, to cause word of mouth marketing to generate a powerful business base? These are the questions we have to answer if we are to be successful in today's difficult economic marketing place.

Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote, in their seminal book "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing", that you have to be the first in a category, in the minds of your consumers, to truly stand out. Their second law is that if you are not first in a category then you have divide (and keep dividing) that category until you are the first. This would make you the Purple Cow!

Back when I was starting out my private practice, I had to find a way to stand out. It wasn't enough to simply say I was Family Therapist. There were three schools in the area, pumping out Family Therapists and various other mental health professionals all doing family therapy work. I had to differentiate myself if I was going to stand out. Since I lived in a stepfamily, I choose to stand out as a"stepfamily therapist." I got lots of referrals from this designation but there was still a lot of "cows" out in the field and I needed to be the "main cow" as it were if I was going to get the number of consumers I needed to survive. Since I was also an avid Christian, I decided to call myself a "Christian Step Family Therapist." There was no one in town that I could locate who did this. To make sure my first position was secure, I also focused on the designation of "Christian Step Family - Parenting" further splitting the category and entrenching myself as the purple cow in this particular field.

As a Christian Step Family Therapist I was able to market myself to clergy in the area and other Christian Therapists who did not work with stepfamilies. Plus, the added value of the word "parenting" opened up even more work than I could handle. Since that time, many more Christian Step Family Parenting Therapists have entered the field but my position stays strong and referrals continue to come in. Frequently I get consumers telling me that so and so told them that they knew someone who works with this Christian Step Family Parenting Therapist and that is how they found my number and knew they had to call me. I am constantly amazed by the route people have taken to find me. They were looking for a certain type of Purple Cow, as it were. I didn't have to go looking for them. The by-product of this is that I got referrals for every other possible spin on this category: "Christian Therapist","Step Parenting Therapist", "Step Children Therapist", etc. I wasn't the purple cow in these categories but it generated enough referrals to help flesh out my growing practice.

Purple Cow Exercise

Take a moment now to take out a sheet of paper and at the top of the page write "therapist." Split this category by drawing two diagonal lines down from the word therapist and write two general areas you specialize in. Split these two words into two more areas underneath each word, giving you four categories at this third level. Keep this up until you are satisfied that you are the Purple Cow in this category.

How do you know if you are the Purple Cow? Check the yellow pages and scan the business parks where therapists have their offices. What designation or specialties do they give themselves? Ask other therapist friend if they know of any specific type of therapists other than you. If they can't come up with an answer, you are on the right track.

Find a Smaller Herd to Stand In

If you discover that you have to go a long way down the paper to find a category that you are first in, you might want to consider standing in a different herd! It is much better to be a small purple cow in a small herd than a small purple cow in a large herd. Too many cows and you can still be lost, purple or not.

One way to do this is to focus on being first in a category that doesn't relate to a mental health specialty at all. You can be first in the area of price, services, and/or location. I know some very successful mental health professionals who make a good living offering low-fee and sliding scale fees, who are the premier group therapists for their category, and who moved to rural geographic areas to build their practices. Take a look at the herd and decide how to stand out. If there are a lot of high-priced therapists, offer a low price. If there are a lot of uptown therapists, move down town.

"Moo" to the World

Once you have found your dominant category or field, it is time to tell everyone. Make sure you moo it up and let people know where you are first on your stationary, business cards, Yellow Pages ad, and web site. Don't just advertise yourself as Joe or Jane Cow Therapist. Tell them why you are the Purple Cow so they can, in turn, tell others. Be sure you let the herders or gatekeepers know. They are the one's directing traffic to you. For myself, letting key clergy leaders know about my specialty ensured a steady flow of referrals. They also lend credibility to your being purple and concretize your position in the field so no one else can push you out.

This isn't merely a "hey look at me" ego kind of thing. Prove to people that you can deliver the quality milk. Offer samples of your skills through a free seminar, 1/2-hour consultation, or report on the category that you have chosen to be first in. The last thing you want to do is start a negative buzz about your lack of ability, follow through, or skill. Get the necessary training to be the type of Purple Cow you want to be. Read the important books (or write one) on your therapeutic specialty. Find Purple Cow mentors to train you on how to be the leader in your field. Attend the conferences and do the presentation to other therapists on your unique topic so that others know you are the Purple Cow. All of this will establish you and cause you to truly stand out!

Purple Cow Copycats

What if you do all these things and there is already a Purple Cow out in the field? If this occurs, go make friends with the Purple Cow. Study him or her. Do what they do. Become a Purple Cow copycat for the sheer purpose of learning how to be your own Purple Cow. Once you have thoroughly studied and emulated your purple role model, find an area of the field that this Purple Cow is not standing on and divide the category or differentiate yourself from him or her. Many times, if the Purple Cow has been one for some time, they will be glad to share their business with you (overflow business is still good business when you are struggling to start up!) and might even desire to pass on their purple spot to you before they retire from the pasture. Even if they don't, you can build some credibility by being the cow next to the Purple Cow but eventually you are going to have to stand out on your own. Be looking for this area. Every Purple Cow has a weak (lighter color?) side. Find out what that is and be it.

Read Seth Godin's Books:

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends into Customers Unleashing the Ideavirus Survival Is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution, and the Future of Your Company

Visit Seth Godin's Web Site:


About the Author

Ron Huxley is the author of the book "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting." Visit his website at ( and get expert advice on anger management, mental health, and parenting issues.


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