On the Power of Being Unique

August 9 2011
Charles Wagner
Charles Wagner

Everybody wants to be different. And everyone wants to do business with a company that stands out from the crowd. That’s why the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, is at the core of every organization’s messaging. It's a simple statement, one or two sentences long, that explains to customers what it is you provide that sets your company apart from your competitors. You can fly for a while on the persuasiveness of your sales force, or by offering price breaks or volume discounts. But until you understand what makes your product or service different from (and hopefully better than) your competition, you’ll be flying blind — and people who fly blind usually wind up hitting a mountain.

That’s no way to run an airline ... or any other business, for that matter.

Truth be told, some business owners are afraid to look for what makes their businesses unique because they’re scared they won’t find it. That’s not really likely. If your organization is even moderately successful, you must have something going for you that other organizations don’t. If you figure out exactly what that “something” is, you can focus your sales and marketing efforts on getting prospects to see where your strengths are.

Sometimes business owners are afraid of finding their USP, because if they do, they’ll have to stand by it. They worry that they’ll lose customers who won’t see their USP as a strength, choosing instead to see it as a limitation. As a result, many small businesses keep trying to be all things to all customers, and end up as just another part of the ground clutter. If you go down this road, no one will be able to tell you apart from your competitors, because you'll all be saying the same thing in the same way to the same people.

Often, a USP is a useful tool to differentiate your company in the face of a well-established competitor. IBM was the leader in selling computers because businesses had been buying other business-related items like typewriters and calculators from the company for years. However, Microsoft's Disk Operating System (DOS) had a bit of a learning curve, making using the machines less accessible.

Apple started out establishing themselves as developing "computers for the rest of us." The Macintosh computer was a single sealed unit with a built-in screen and a keyboard and mouse, so set-up took only a minute or two. And Apple's user interface made using the computer easier by using icons and a graphical metaphor that everyone could understand in the form of an office environment -- desktops, folders, documents, and spreadsheets. As Apple branched out into MP3 players and cellphones, the company's focus on ease-of-use remained. Today, Apple's USP has shifted slightly, but still includes that emphasis on hardware and interface design excellence -- making products people love to use. The customer benefit continues to come first, which explains why customers are so loyal to the brand.

If you do go hunting for the elusive USP, don’t be fooled into going down the road more traveled – the one that leads into “I’m just as different as the next company” territory. For example, when you ask a lot of companies what they think their USP is, they flounder for a few moments, then say, "experience!" Unfortunately, experience alone is not a unique selling point. If you’ve managed to stay in business for a decent amount of time, you have experience. Period.

Experience is only a differentiator if it provides a recognizable benefit for your customer. “Over twenty years of experience” means your company might be doing something right ... or you might just be lucky.  “Over twenty years of experience designing, implementing, and troubleshooting secure networks to government standards” means that you have the skills and expertise a government agency needs to put a secure network in place, backed by two decades of actually doing the job – and doing it well.

And that’s what finding your USP really means -- getting your potential customers to see your strengths, so they know what you have to offer them. You want prospects to see your business as unique (and hopefully better than the competition for whatever it is they need). Your USP should be customer-focused, of course, so the people you need to reach don't have to work to figure out what your company can do for them. But if you lead with your strengths, the prospects who need what you have to offer will become customers.

And that's what marketing is all about, isn't it?

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