For years he has toiled in relative anonymity while keeping us safe. No matter the conditions, no matter the odds, he pursues his mission with relentless zeal. His bark is as big as his bite as he works like a dog fending off the enemies of American aerospace. He asks for little in return. His reward: A pat on the back, and a scratch behind the ears. His name: Piper the Airport K9.
Piper is an 8-year-old Border Collie who helps maintain wildlife control at the Cherry Capital Airport by chasing ducks, geese, owls, foxes and other creatures from runways. It’s said that every dog has its day and Piper, Traverse City’s newest celebrity, has gone viral.
If you live in or near Traverse City, it’s almost certain that you’ve heard of Piper by now. If you live elsewhere you probably have as well. For the last two weeks Piper has been an ubiquitous internet sensation and social media darling.
It all began when someone posted a short video of Piper on Reddit. He’s wearing his signature goggles, a Coast Guard helicopter in the background causing snow to swirl in the frigid air around him. Piper sits calmly, cool and unaffected by his surroundings.
Soon after, Piper was everywhere, from The Huffington Post to ABC News. As with all internet darlings, though, his notoriety will inevitably fade. Earlier this week I heard his owner, airport operations supervisor Brian Edwards, comment on a local radio station that Piper is probably on his 14th minute of his 15 minutes of fame.
While the “What” of this story is no doubt intriguing – a super cool, goggle wearing, bird hunting pooch is irresistible “click bait” – the more interesting and lasting part of the story may be the “Why?”.
Why do some stories go viral and others languish un-clicked in people’s newsfeeds? What makes Piper’s story so special? And what can we learn from Piper’s story that can help us succeed in whatever endeavor – business or personal – that we undertake in life?
The Story of the Purple Cow
In his essential book, The Purple Cow, marketing guru Seth Godin discusses why the old rules of marketing no longer work in today’s marketplace. He argues that, because the market is so saturated with advertising, to succeed and break through the noise businesses and individuals must transform to become something remarkable – like a Purple Cow.
Godin explains that while driving through the French countryside, his family was enchanted by hundreds of cows grazing along the roadside. But after a few minutes, they started ignoring the cows. The cows became commonplace – then boring.
What would not be boring?: A Purple Cow. A Purple Cow would stand out, it would be remarkable. According to Godin, “Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying attention to. Boring stuff quickly becomes invisible.”
The Purple Cow principle is not just relevant to business. Sure it’s important to break through and be remarkable when marketing a product or pitching an idea at work. But it’s more than than that. We all communicate, attempt to persuade, and attempt to motivate in all aspects of our lives. Whether it’s battling to convince your local city council or school board to adopt a policy, or pleading with your kid to change a behavior, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. If you go at the issue with the same old boring approach, you’re likely to get the same old unsatisfactory result. Go at it completely differently, however, and something remarkable may happen.
Piper the Purple Cow
Much like the brown cows of the French countryside, dogs, cats and other adorable fuzzy creatures are all over the internet. Post a picture of a pet and it’s sure to generate some “likes.” But will it spread like wildfire across social and traditional media? Not likely.
So what makes Piper different? What makes Piper remarkable?
I had the chance to discuss the issue with Brian Edwards, Piper’s owner, and get his take. It all boils down to three things: authenticity, originality and visibility.
Lesson 1: Be Authentic
We sometimes get asked by prospective marketing clients if we can help them make something go viral. Our answer: An unequivocal no. No one holds the viral keys except the marketplace. There’s no secret recipe to follow to ensure that an idea spreads and sticks – but there are some commonalities among those that do. The first is authenticity.
People see through phoniness, stagecraft and selling – you can’t try to be something you’re not, or promote a product in an inauthentic way, and expect people to take notice. Take one look at a photo or video of Piper at work and you see the authentic joy on his face when he’s doing his thing. You can’t fake that, it just is. And yes, I know we’re talking about a dog here, but the principle is the same. Passion is infectious, and when we lay ourselves bare, heads turn.
In other words, Edwards could not have created Piper’s celebrity. He simply revealed Piper’s authentic self to the world, and the world took notice in a big way. “We’ve worked hard to build something legitimate. There is no handbook for this. I didn’t buy Piper from a trainer, it was just me and the dude,” said Edwards. “We’re honest, hardworking and have a good time. That resonates with people. It’s about Piper. He’s a badass. Not much more to say other than that.”
Lesson 2: Be Original
Authenticity is critical, but you can’t be authentically boring and expect to make an impact. Originality is required. As Godin writes, “Boring stuff quickly becomes invisible.”
Piper is a true original. “He’s not just an Airport K-9, he is THE Airport K-9,” said Edwards. Not only that, he’s The Airport K9 who wears sleek, reflective glass safety goggles while on the job. “I guarantee you no other border collies used at airports do the things we do,” said Edwards.
A badass working dog that looks this good? That’s why Piper is one-of-a-kind.
Lesson 3: Be Beautiful
While you can’t force a product or idea on the marketplace and expect it to catch on (unless, perhaps, you have a multi-million dollar advertising budget), you need to make it visible. The world is full of authentic, original ideas that languish unseen. An authentic, original idea or product that is well-packaged, however, stands a much greater chance of breaking through.
Godin provides a good example of this lesson in his book:
“In 1912, Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented sliced bread. What a great idea: a simple machine that could take a loaf of bread and…slice it. The machine was a complete failure…It wasn’t until about twenty years later – when a brand called Wonder started marketing sliced bread – that the invention caught on. It was the packaging and the advertising (“build strong bodies in twelve ways”) that worked, not the sheer convenience and innovation of slicing bread.”
Take a look at Piper’s social media accounts. They’re not just filled with photos and videos, they’re filled with beautiful photos and videos. Why is that important? Because, as online entrepreneur Dale Partridge likes to say: People don’t refer ugly. According to Partridge, “Good design is now the norm. The next level is exceptional design. As influencers, we must remember we are creating content that we want people to share.”
Across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, Piper’s videos, photos and written content tell a remarkable story about a remarkable dog. While Piper’s days in the international limelight might be numbered, he’s no one hit wonder. Thanks to Edwards, and the beautiful content that he produces, Piper is sure to have a lasting following – even if ABC News stops calling.
The Three-Legged Stool
You can’t set out with the expectation that your product, idea or message will spread like wildfire. But you stand a better chance of standing out by being authentic, original and beautiful. That’s a three-legged stool of going viral that our four-legged friend Piper has all figured out.
Photo courtesy of airportk9.org.