What ZEBRAS can teach us about human motivation and business strategy…

Dr. Jordan Peterson uses an insight from Stanford biologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky about zebras to explain a fundamental aspect of human behavior. Zebras (they are black with white stripes) are not camouflaged against their surrounding environment. Instead, they are camouflaged to blend in with the herd. 

This blending effect makes it difficult for researchers to study individual zebras. You notice something about a zebra and make a note. Then you look up and you can’t tell if it’s the same zebra. 

What can you do?

Peterson shares how researchers would mark the zebra they wanted to study with red paint or a tag on its ear. But they found that once the zebra was marked, it was quickly killed by the lions.


Lions don’t necessarily kill the weakest in the herd, they typically go after those zebras they can identify. 

This helps lions organize their hunt. A small zebra, a zebra with a limp, those with red paint on their hind quarters, or those who stick their head up… they all become targets.

The stripes of a zebra creates a blending effect. It is impossible for an individual zebra to stand out amongst the herd. This is good for safety as lions see the herd as one huge object and won’t attack it. 

But this blending makes standing out and differentiating a non-starter. You can’t add stripes and be different. It’s just more of the same. This is what David Rendall and I call a MATCH strategy in the book “Pink Goldfish 2.0.”

People and brands camouflage themselves to fit into the herd. They keep their stripes on and heads down so the lions don’t get them. The motivation to avoid suffering outweighs the pursuit of success.

Peterson points out the tendency to move into the middle of the herd. The benefit of being in the middle is the protective ring from the lions. 

Sure, you might be successful by standing out, but you also might be dead. So the fundamental human motivation according to Jordan Peterson is to be invisible and left alone. It’s not Survival of the Fittest, rather it’s Survival of the Conformist.

Research shows that only 3% of people and brands have the ability to become extraordinary.

Because there is a real danger in being visible, people and brands are afraid to stand out. Brands are motivated to benchmark the leaders and emulate similar attributes. This isn’t a path to innovation. It’s a recipe for sameness. Most practice R&D as if it stands for… Ripoff & Duplicate.

You can become part of that 3% by deciding to break your industry norms and stand out from the herd. Be less like zebras or cows and more like peacocks and polar bears.

This shift against conformity is the essence of Pink Goldfish strategy. Do MORE of what makes you different or intentionally do LESS of what everyone considers normal in your industry. Do MORE of what your customers value and unapologetically LESS of what they don’t.

Less cow, more cowbell.

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Stan Phelps

Stan Phelps walks the walk. He stands out in the sea of sameness by modeling his own Differentiated Experience (DX) message: Differentiation isn’t just about what you say, it’s about what you do and, more importantly, how and why you do it. Stan leverages his unique collection of 5,000+ case studies on customer, employee, and brand experience to engage audiences with informative learning-based experiences. He believes purposeful DX wins the hearts of employees and customers, and differentiation ultimately boosts loyalty, retention, referrals, and results.

Find Stan’s in-person and virtual keynotes, workshops, and Goldfish tank programs at StanPhelps.com.