Remember that redhead from school? Or that really tall, thin guy you used to see hanging around all the time? They were different. Memorable. Some would say unique. No one remembers “Neville”, that average, kind-of-invisible guy at the back of the class, who now, oddly, is the convener of your matric-reunion Facebook group.
How about your products; are they first-team players or “Nevilles”? It all comes down to just how unique your selling proposition is. A unique selling proposition (USP) is a description of the specific qualities or attributes that make your product or service different, so that customers want to buy it rather than its rivals. Think of it as the elevator pitch for your offering, a succinct way of describing what you have to offer.
A brief history of marketing
In the early days of the modern consumer economy, if you made a half decent product consumers would buy it. Our great grandparents, pleased to even get the opportunity to own the first domestic appliances, were less concerned about branding and marketing puffery than whether the new-fangled device would work.
Take the snappily named Modell A washing machine offered by German manufacturer Miele in 1903, for example. It came complete with “counterweights to simplify working the central agitator”. Untouched by a marketing practitioner, this exciting addition to the 20th century kitchen looked remarkably like the butter churn the company had been touting a couple of years earlier. This production orientation had manufacturers trying to increase product quality and reliability at an acceptable price.
As you can imagine, these happy times couldn’t continue forever. By the mid-1950’s (in western economies) markets were becoming more saturated, consumers had wised up, competition intensified and companies had to take on more of a sales orientation. However, companies still tried to simply sell what they were good at making. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Professor Theodore Levitt (editor of the Harvard Business Review) pointed out to marketers that perhaps they should start off by finding out what consumers actually wanted, before making and trying to sell ill-suited products.
Fast forward to today. Unless you are a rare earth miner (outside of China), you face stiff competition. Your competitors can probably replicate your products relatively easily, patent protection is increasingly difficult and expensive to defend, production technology is often commoditised and “innovation” is increasingly really just incremental product improvement. What you really need is an offering your customers can’t get somewhere else – a unique value (or selling) proposition.
Being unique may lose you some customers
Your uniqueness may lose you some business, but it will gain you far more. The reason many business owners fear having a highly defined value proposition is that that it means that they can no longer try to be “all things to all people”. No one wants to exclude potential customers. But if you can’t define what is unique about your product, you risk becoming irrelevant. Neville from school was neither nerd nor jock. He offended no one, but no one wants to date Mr Average.
If you can’t outline what makes your product different in a couple of sentences, then, sorry, but you don’t have a unique selling proposition. If the difference from your competitors’ offering is so arcane that it requires a lengthy complex explanation, then you don’t have anything unique either.
Of course your product is only really differentiated if the “unique” attribute is important to the market. Just being different for the sake of being different isn’t enough. In business-to-business sales for instance, once your product has achieved the minimum purchasing spec, and is therefore fit for purpose, further differentiation is unlikely to offer the purchaser greater value. It goes back to the good Professor Levitt’s advice: ask the market what they want before you spend time and resources on differentiating on something irrelevant.
How unique do you really need to be?
In the perfect world, you would be able to offer something no competitor can. In today’s markets this is relatively rare, outside patented prescription medicines perhaps. Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, is famously misquoted as saying: “Everything that can be invented has been invented” in the early 1900’s. In reality your uniqueness relies on choosing to develop a specific, different attribute to highlight against those emphasised by a competitor, even though both might share a similar overall set of attributes.
Take Korean car brands in South Africa for instance. A decade ago, these cost-effective vehicles didn’t enjoy the quality reputation of their European competitors. This was exacerbated by the (otherwise attractive) lower price point. Astute marketers appeared to recognise this and introduced an extended guarantee, longer than those offered by European competitors renowned for “quality”. The market recognised that a supplier confident enough to extend a guarantee is unlikely to deliver a product that encourages warrantee claims. This has, in my view, repositioned the vehicles from being “cheap” to “reliable at a reasonable price”; an attractive USP.
How to create a new USP
Product features, how services are delivered, how your staff interacts with customers and your reputation and brand can all be leveraged to create a USP. If you’ve exhausted these opportunities, you may need to relook at your offering; here are a few ideas to get you started:
Highlight benefits rather than features or attributes. Caltex petrol contains a proprietary additive “Techron”. The differentiating benefit that interests consumers is “maximum performance and economy”.
Think about your proposition in a contrarian way. You could do this by offering fewer features. While your opposition are packing in more and more features, consider focusing on simplicity. Take cellphones for young children and senior citizens, for instance, in which fewer features and simplicity are a plus. Or think differently about “quality”. Plastic “brass look” house-numbers (rather than the real, metal thing), are suddenly attractive because they are less attractive to scrap metal thieves.
Focus on style and design. Philippe Starck made the humble lemon squeezer uniquely his own entirely through superb design. His famous “Juicy Salif” squeezer retails for about R750, a significant premium over cheap plastic competitors, while requiring exactly the same lemon squeezing effort from the user.
Conform to a stringent standard. Some products, chemicals for instance, increase significantly in value just by being tested and guaranteeing conformance to a more stringent specification. “Pharmaceutical grade” chemicals sell at a significant premium to “industrial grade”.
Personalise your offering. If you enjoy only a small market share and consequently low volumes, consider offering a customised product or service. Larger competitors will struggle to compete given the size and inflexibility of their production process.
Offer unusual combinations. Consider “WCBO” – the World Chess Boxing organisation. As its name suggest it has combined two very different activities into a truly unique sport!
Every business deserves to have “first team” product and service value propositions that are memorable and stand out from the crowd. They are the foundation of sustainable businesses. The time invested in defining exactly what makes your business unique will doubtless be rewarded through increased market share and profitability.
This article was first published in Your Business Magazine