For years I held the belief that for a business to truly have a strong brand they must have a “unique selling proposition” (USP). It was what I was taught again and again at university, and it was a theory that I carried with me throughout the last decade of my career.
Over the last few months, I struggled with this concept, especially when working with clients on their brand strategies. I was forever pushing them to dig deep and find what is “unique” about their businesses, despite the fact that I myself could not identify something that set them apart and would be hard to replicate. It’s easy to be unique as a first mover in a market, but if that differentiating factor is not difficult to replicate then it’s not really a viable USP. I felt like I was pedaling a falsehood by insisting that my clients should highlight something that was absolutely unique, as the more work I did the more I realized that there is no such thing as “unique” anymore.
In the past, barriers to entry were higher due to the cost of development, country borders, and resource restrictions. With more businesses moving online, the cost of development has significantly reduced and in the era of globalization, barriers that used to exist have vanished. It is now easier than ever to replicate an existing, successful business.
Think about it. Can you name one truly unique business?
I was stuck. If I didn’t believe in USPs anymore, what would we build their brand strategies on? What was going to be the foundation of my clients’ businesses? I grappled with this and finally decided to consult one of my mentors, who is a global brand expert that has worked with some of the world’s strongest brands.
“Steve,” I said, “I can’t sell this idea of uniqueness anymore. I don’t believe in it. How do you help your clients find something that is actually unique?”
“I don’t focus on uniqueness,” he simply replied. “I focus on guiding them to find a proposition they are going to totally own. What is the value proposition that they will be synonymous for in their industry and market? It doesn’t matter if others are competing in that space if you can work to totally dominate the proposition that you’re after.”
I could almost see the light bulb go on above my head.
He went on to provide examples like Dove, which owns “real beauty”. The concept of natural beauty is hardly unique, but the brand has worked tirelessly to own that positioning in the skin care market. HSBC does the same with being a “global, local bank.” It’s not the only international bank with branches around the world, but it dominates that positioning through strategic marketing and advertising.
After this ah-ha moment, I had clarity. I knew that I had to revise the way I worked with clients. Instead of pushing them to establish a unique selling proposition, I had to guide them to develop an “owned selling proposition”. What slice of the industry does this business want to be known for and how is it going to own that?
With this mentality, business owners develop a better perspective when it comes to competition. Instead of freaking out over every new entrant, they can hold steadfast if they have a plan that clearly defines what territory they’re going to dominate and how they’re going to own it. It’s only when you lose sight of that plan or don’t defend your proposition strongly enough that competitors are allowed to encroach on your territory.
So what positioning does your business want to dominate? How do you aim to do that?