Friday 14 December 2012

Is there such as thing as a ‘USP’?

In my opinion, too many organisations are told they need to have a USP – a Unique Selling Proposition or Point - and are getting hung up on this concept, spending too much time in the wrong direction - looking inwardly to find something that they can claim to be truly unique.

In today’s fast moving environment I argue USPs no longer serve a purpose as it is rare to be truly unique, and where there is a uniqueness it is more often than not short lived…

Take technology; products are launched by innovators such as Apple only to be followed closely by their competitors, so any USP is short lived because it is copied, adapted or developed in some way.  I have come across USPs in service companies that have also brought something new to the market for the first time, but as soon as the competition gets a whiff of it they match it or try to better it in some way.  That is not to say that finding something that stands out or is different about your product, service or business isn’t important, but should you be thinking about what is BETTER and DIFFERENT, rather than what is UNIQUE?

My concern is that SME’s spend too much time focused on the wrong thing. Is it time to stop chasing the idea of finding or inventing a USP and look for something different to build your brand story upon by looking externally?  A key area I help clients work on is spending time as a customer of their own business, to find out how it looks, sounds, feels to be on the other side of the fence.  What can you do to make an improved difference for your buyer? Virgin for instance uses this strategy when it starts a new business.  They look at the competition and ask themselves, “What is missing from the proposition” or, “What could we do differently to make our buyer’s life happier, easier, more in line with their needs?”. Branson used this approach to great effect when starting his flagship airline and mobile company.  It was only by looking at the business differently that Virgin conceived the first ‘Pay As You Go’ offer; a true USP that was followed so quickly by others in the market that it no longer has much if any association with the Virgin brand. 

Find out what each of your target markets wants, so that you can offer something that will make a real difference to their business. It’s less about what you want to sell and more about what your customers need. How many companies do you know who genuinely look outward and invest time and resources to find out what their customers want?  Many pay lip service to it, but when you scratch below the surface the reality is that the foundation of their marketing plan is based on what they think they want from odd comments made in passing and anecdotal conversations.

Why are companies lazy when it comes to the concept of delivering what the customer wants? I suspect it’s because worthwhile research takes time, resource, effort and sometimes results in having to go back to the drawing board. It can be painful and potentially demoralising to hear that your products or services aren’t valued, useful or helpful to the degree you imagined. It can also be liberating; surely it is better to invest in improvement than to continue doing the same things and get the same results. You only have to look at brands that have disappeared because they didn’t adapt and change to see what happens?

Often it is the simplest thing that makes the difference, but we are too tied up looking for the elusive USP that either doesn’t exist or, if we find one and market it, quickly turns into a competitor’s ‘me too’ offer!  It’s time to think, act and market differently!

My advice is to stop focusing on what you can offer and become more outwardly focused. This in itself will set you apart from your competitors. Is it a USP? It certainly could be, particularly if you back it up with service pledges, KPI’s (key performance indicators), guarantees, etc…. Who knows, putting your money where your mouth might just be the one thing that sets you apart.

The Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, wrote about "the power to see ourselves as others see us".  If you apply this principle to your business – stepping back to see your business as your customers see it, rather than focusing on what your competition is doing, you will get a much clearer view of what should be doing to create customers who are raving fans.