What Creatives Can Learn From a Four Foot Tall, Inbred Drunk With Syphilis
Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the most amazing commercial artists of the late 1800’s. He was also a four foot tall inbred drunk who consorted with prostitutes and died at the early age of 36 from complications related to syphilis. And he often dressed like a clown. In a 2005 auction at Christie's auction house, his painting of a young laundress sold for $22.4 million and set a new record for a price at auction.
Is that being different enough, Seth Godin? You may have heard about the "purple cow" concept from his book of the same name. Godin's claim is essentially that brands need to be dramatically different from their competitors to stand out from the noisy, overpopulated crowd. Brands should be so unique that people immediately notice them- that is, they should stand out like a purple cow in a herd of boring brown cows. IKEA, for example is a purple cow. The company's assemble-at-home model relies on simple, clever design that puts furniture-making into the hands of the consumer. By transforming redecorating into a LEGO-like game, IKEA ensures that their customers connect with the product and enjoy the process of constructing it. This model also enables them to maintain lower prices than their competitors because they don't have to supply installation labor. The result is a cheaper product that people feel a greater sense of ownership over. Combine this with their extensive branding –including massive retail stores that feel like a country unto themselves, exotic and charming product names, and a crisp, clean Scandinavian design aesthetic –and it's no wonder that IKEA has built remarkable customer loyalty around the world. Krispy Kreme is also a purple cow. They pastry king continues to dominate every other donut company in their niche. How? For one, when they open in a new town, they give away thousands of donuts. They’ve successfully created a mythical buzz about the legend of Krispy Kreme. People come out of the wood work when a store opens in their town. The company expands their reach by making deals at coffee shops, delis, and gas stations. This makes it super easy for anyone to stumble upon one of their heavenly products. Krispy Kreme knows how to build donut mania. Godin says successful brands are built on remarkable products that get talked about:
"Innovative people, not advertising strategy or good distribution, are needed to succeed in marketing today."
Individual Artists and Creatives Now, how does this theory hold up to my "famous artist from yesteryear road test?” When we apply it to Lautrec, it's hard to argue that Godin is wrong. Lautrec is among the best-known painters of the late 1800’s Post-Impressionist period, alongside Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The French illustrator whose immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of Paris allowed him to produce a collection of enticing, elegant and provocative images of the modern, sometimes decadent, life of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec's parents were first cousins and he suffered from congenital health conditions sometimes attributed to a family history of inbreeding. At age 13, he fractured both his femur bones which never healed properly. Afterwards, his legs ceased to grow, so that as an adult he was an extremely short 4 feet 8 inches. He developed an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs. At 18 years of age, while looking for subjects to paint, Lautrec had his first encounter with a prostitute. He was fascinated by their lifestyle and the lifestyle of the "urban underclass" and incorporated those characters into his paintings. As a physical freak and grotesque appearance he found an affinity between his own condition and the moral dilemmas of the prostitute. Because he was often mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, he was led to drown his sorrows in alcohol. To ensure he was never without alcohol, Toulouse-Lautrec hollowed out his cane (which he needed to walk due to his underdeveloped legs) and filled it with liquor. His physical and mental health began to decline rapidly due to alcoholism and syphilis, which he reportedly contracted from Rosa La Rouge, a prostitute who was the subject of several of his paintings. His family had him committed to a mental institution for three months. While here, Lautrec drew 39 circus portraits. On 9 September 1901, he died at the age of 36 at his mother's estate, from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis. A lot of Lautrec's reasons for being remarkable are sad. It’s an extreme form of remarkable-ness. Lautrec had no control over many of the things that made him so different. And the choices he made may be ethically questionable to some. But there’s little room to argue that his uniqueness didn't directly result in being among the best known painters of the Post-Impressionist period. A purple cow is something phenomenal, something counterintuitive and exciting and flat out unbelievable. Every day, we are bombarded with boring brands or - a lot of brown cows. But if you drive by a farm and see a purple cow, I bet you'll never forget it. Remember this is not a marketing gimmick to slap on your product or service. Purple cow is inherent. How I made the artwork:
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