“What would you say makes your business so special?” is the first question we ask potential clients, and the answer we invariably get is “We offer a personal service”. If I had a pound for every time I heard that I’d be a rich man.
It’s the first question we ask because it’s the most important. Knowing why customers come to you is the ultimate success formula, sometimes described as a Unique Selling Proposition (USP). That’s the feature of your product or service that sets you apart from the competition.
To say you offer a ‘personal service’ is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. You can go to any tailor for a made-to-measure suit, but why this tailor rather than that one? Why Hugo Boss rather than Moss Bros, for example.
What is a USP?
A USP is, by definition, something exclusive to you. It could be something ‘baked in’ or an extra that only you are offering.
In the ‘baked in’ category you might think of Dyson’s cyclonic vacuum cleaner, Gillette’s twin blade razor or Signal’s mouthwash-in-the-stripe toothpaste. They were all USPs when they were first launched, but USPs of that sort tend to have a limited lifespan, because it doesn’t take long for the competition to come up with a me-too product.
In the added extra category you might think of Marks & Sparks no quibble return and refund policy, or the garage that throws in a free car wash with every service, although again, there’s nothing to stop your competitors filching your ideas. The trick is to stay ahead of them.
From USP to DNA
But there’s another dimension to creating a USP beyond offering innovative product features or services, and that is to create a brand identity for your company. No, not a logo, that’s just a badge. We’re talking about your company’s DNA, which is the coming together of those three essential elements – quality, service and value – in a configuration that is unique to you. This is best illustrated by three historic examples.
John West, the canned fish manufacturer, made their brand synonymous with quality with the line: “It’s the fish John West rejects that makes John West the best” It’s not just a clever line, it’s a declaration of company policy – you don’t get any fish heads or tails in their product, just prime fillet. It’s a policy that invites you to contrast them with other manufacturers who use every scrap to make weight.
Avis, the car hire firm, were only number two in their field, so what could they do to persuade customers to use them rather than Hertz, the market leader? They told them “We try harder” and backed it up with a super efficient service. It was a claim that had the ring of truth about it and implied that their competitors were lazy and complacent. Effectively, they made the words ‘Avis’ and ‘service’ interchangeable.
For many years, John Lewis carried the tagline ‘Never knowingly undersold’. They undertook to match their competitors’ price on any comparable item. They put their money where their mouth was and established beyond doubt that their goods were second to none in value. Again, they were equating good value with John Lewis. You can’t have a better USP than that.
How to create a USP
First of all, if you have a truly innovate product, patent it and exploit it whilst you can. But don’t expect the public to beat a path to your door. Give it the oxygen of publicity. Educate the public. When Apple first launched the iPad it was a solution looking for a problem – neither a smart phone nor a laptop. But perseverance paid off.
Another way to create a USP is to find a market gap and fill it. Whilst waiting at Exeter station and frustrated by the lack of cheap books to read on the train, publisher Allen Lane went on to create Penguin Books, which turned out to be a publishing revolution.
Finally, don’t try and be all things to all men. Know who your customers are and give them what they want. Even if you’re not the only one who can fill their needs, it could be you’re the only one telling them that you can – and that in itself is as good as having a USP.