A unique selling proposition, which defines your company’s unique position in the marketplace, is an often overlooked but very important element of creating a business that customers love.
A strong unique selling proposition lets you to stand apart from competitors and actively focus your energy on creating things that cater to your ideal group of customers.
As Seth Godin put it:
"Instead of working so hard to prove the skeptics wrong, it makes a lot more sense to delight the true believers. They deserve it, after all, and they're the ones that are going to spread the word for you.”
In other words, having a unique selling point—even one that ostracizes some prospective customers—is a competitive advantage that allows you to avoid the trap of trying to please everyone.
Today we’ll look at how this advantage works and show you some stellar examples of great unique selling propositions in action.
Why you need a unique selling proposition
It’s likely that many of your prospective customers have difficulty deciding which option in your industry is the one that deserves their time, money and trust.
This selection can be a daunting process for customers that don’t have the experience to know what separates one competitor from another.
That’s why it is your job to assist them by making your unique selling proposition obvious, different and memorable enough that they can see exactly what your business has to offer that the other guys do not.
As Theodore Levitt, author and professor at Harvard Business School, says:
Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.
Levitt’s statement makes sense. In order to be remembered in a crowded marketplace, it helps if your business has a trait that is worth remembering.
While a superior product and outstanding service are the foundation for growing a company that goes the distance, there is an opportunity to use differentiation as a competitive advantage in order to “stand out like a sore thumb.”
Creating a unique selling proposition that works
When it comes to developing a unique point of difference for your business, it’s impossible to give one-size-fits-all advice.
That said, there are certainly some best practices that work across marketplaces and that any business owner can apply to make their unique selling proposition worthwhile.
Below are some of my favorite methods as well as examples of how certain companies put them into practice.
Unabashedly appeal to an ideal customer
Finding your ideal customer often takes quite a bit of legwork. When you’ve finally identified the perfect person to sell to, it makes sense to appeal to them through every aspect of your business.
But would you consider going to the extreme of ostracizing non-customers to spur on brand loyalty? One famous retail chain has adopted this practice in an extreme fashion. Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries identifies their ideal customers as “cool, good-looking people,” and has publicly said the brand refuses to market to anyone outside of that subgroup.
Is this crazy or tactical? In a recent article on A&F’s “perverse brilliance,” author Roger Dooley argues that the backlash from Jeffries’ comments on the brand’s practices may not be as financially detrimental as one would think.
While there’s no argument that Jeffries’ comments were insensitive, the wave of negative responses that followed came mostly from older consumers and it didn’t appear to affect the purchasing patterns of A&F’s younger customers. In fact, retail analyst Gabriella Santaniello points out that this long-term exclusionary strategy has generally worked out for A&F:
"Their brand image has been the same from the beginning and they've been quite successful with it... And you can't be everything to everyone—otherwise, you set yourself up to more risk.”
Would I recommend that you be as callous, rude and insensitive as Jeffries? Absolutely not. Your business can certainly find a far less reprehensible approach for identifying and exclusively selling to your ideal customer. My point here is that this narrow focus is such an effective strategy that even outrageous comments from a disillusioned CEO weren’t able to drastically decrease its impact.
Find personality defects in your industry
It may seem strange to assess an industry on the basis of personality, but hear me out. Certain industries carry an undeserved reputation that distorts how outsiders view them, often for the worse.
For example, the search engine optimization (SEO) industry struggles with a lingering reputation for being nothing more than a group of spammers who pollute the web and ruin the search experience for others in favor of profits. Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, knows that this perception is a disservice to the many technically skilled, hardworking and honest search engine marketers who don’t partake in these practices.
Fishkin has always branded Moz as a business that offers software and community for professional and aspiring SEOs. He’s put a great deal of effort into creating a welcoming brand that is open, accepting and transparent.
The use of Roger, Moz’s lovable robot mascot, is a great example of how the business is working to recreate a positive perception of the SEO industry. With Roger at the helm, the Moz team has sought to become the welcoming entry point for those interested in the SEO community that were skeptical of the “personality defect” characterizing it as a shady industry to get involved in.
Avoid the “superstar sffect” rat race
MIT graduate, author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport has written about the “superstar effect” that pigeonholes many top applicants to prestigious colleges. Instead of trying to stand out, most simply try to be the “best;” but when you’re competing with the best, this often just puts you among the status quo, giving you no opportunity to stand out.
Entrepreneur and marketer Corbett Barr has discussed how this way of thinking seeps into business. Companies often strive to be the best, but the first thing they should do is merely be different.
Think about how you would see this goal if you were a restaurant owner. Given the subjective tastes of an entire city of people, being the “Best Restaurant” in town would be a far less fruitful endeavor (and require far more effort) than becoming the place you must go for X.
The idea is that the competition won’t be as much of a concern if you change the rules of the game. You should first seek to do something better by doing it uniquely (vehicles for hire via your smartphone—who would’ve thought?!) rather than trying to simply be the best in a vague, crowded category.
Both the Help Scout product and our complementary blog were built with this very idea in mind. Customer loyalty advice is available on the Internet in spades, but it’s almost always anecdotal. What if instead the advice given was supported by consumer studies, academic research and specific examples? In lieu of trying to be the best in a sea of other customer service blogs, we want to be different by offering up content that you won’t find elsewhere.
Can a strong personality be incorporated into a company’s unique selling proposition? Absolutely! But proceed with caution.
Stealing from hip-hop mogul Jay Z’s insistence that he’s “not a businessman, he’s a business, man,” businesses (especially small businesses) should realize that a strong personality can go a long way—as long as it aligns with what is being sold.
Consider the case study of George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse. When the company’s board recently fired Zimmer, many analysts were quick to point out that no matter what the dispute was, removing Zimmer from the company was a bad move. Why? He had become a recognizable personality and was beloved by many of the customers and company employees. Mary Buffett wrote in a Huffington Post article:
"Firing George Zimmer from The Men's Warehouse is like benching Warren Buffett over at Berkshire Hathaway. As the pitch-perfect spokesman, losing Zimmer will remove the soul from The Men's Wearhouse brand. I guarantee it.”
How can a single employee (even a founder) cause so many publications to proclaim that a brand will lose its soul when he is ousted? In the case of Zimmer, it’s because his deep, gravelly voice and down-to-earth personality were so often identified with the everyman that he positioned the business around.
Zimmer built a brand that sought to help Average Joes look great in a suit without feeling uncomfortable and without breaking the bank. But the real secret to his marketing success was his embodiment of the person he was selling to. In Zimmer’s 500 hours of recorded footage for Men’s Warehouse commercials, he made a promise that men young and old believed in: “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”
This sort of personality, which so perfectly aligned with what was being sold, is something that is difficult if not impossible to buy. Zimmer himself showcased everything Men’s Warehouse purported to care about, making him an integral part of their unique selling proposition.
5 exceptional examples of unique selling propositions
Learning is often best done by example, so below I’ve highlighted a small selection of brands that use their unique selling proposition to stand out (and succeed) in some tough marketplaces.
1. Man Crates
In a stellar example of machismo made fun again, Man Crates is an online store that ships “stuff guys like” in wooden crates that have to be opened with a crowbar.
While the items themselves make for great gifts (e.g., customized beer mugs, grilling equipment and beef jerky), it’s the unique positioning that really sells this brand.
Man Crates is oozing with personality at every turn, and as a customer myself I had a hearty laugh at the company’s help page, which boldly shows you this:
Few companies could get away with a help section that tells you to try harder, but when it’s guys buying gifts for other guys, not following directions (and not asking for help!) is simply a rite of passage!
The bravado here is welcomed and doesn’t cross over into areas where it doesn’t belong; when I contacted Man Crate’s customer service about a wrong delivery, the representative was quick, helpful and friendly, showing that exceptional service takes priority over their brand’s image.
As previously mentioned, the way you build your product and the values you stand for can be important parts of your unique selling proposition. Everlane apparel stands out from the crowd in this respect.
The company culture wholeheartedly promotes what they call radical transparency; they pride themselves on a diligent, upstanding process for the manufacture of their goods, with the motto, “Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.”
Since Everlane sells what they call “luxury basics,” product differentiation isn’t achieved through flashiness, but through a sincere interest in how the company makes their goods, conducts business, and gives special attention to their craft … down to the last v-neck.
Can a company really make a playing card deck interesting? Ellusionist can. Their whole business is built on selling things that are different—a must given that what they sell are 52-card decks! How do they make these interesting and profitable? By appealing to a highly specific customer: magicians.
One of the cardinal sins of selling physical products online is offering something that consumers can find at any ol’ store. Ellusionist countered this by offering flashy, unique decks of cards that you really can’t find anywhere else.
And since they cater to those interested in showmanship via card tricks (and the occasional extravagant poker player), they’ve cornered a niche market instead of just being another producer of cheap decks of playing cards.
Saddleback Leather’s company tagline is, “They’ll fight over it when you're dead.” Combine this with an “Our Story” webpage that includes a picture of a machine gun, and no one can accuse Saddleback of being a company lacking personality.
One of my favorite pages on the site used to be the “Our Rivals” page, where the owner invited customers to compare products with his biggest competitors:
"I'm so confident that you'll find our classic look and over-engineered durability so hard to resist that I want you to shop around. Go ahead ... the more you shop, the better we look.”
The positioning here wasn’t done for fluff. The company sells expensive leather goods, and to justify these premium prices it makes sense to boldly call out your competitors. The owner wanted you to see the difference in quality to showcase why that bag you covet costs $500.
Hobby stores for geeks are another example of an industry with a lingering reputation for personality defects; they are often characterized as weird and filled with snooty employees who look down on beginners.
ThinkGeek, the online retailer purchased by GameStop in 2015, was, in comparison, all about community, with unique features like customer action shots and an emphasis on novel products that build on already existing communities. (As a guy who still owns a Super Nintendo, their retro gaming section was much appreciated!)
Take a lesson from ThinkGeek’s playbook and closely examine the needs and wants of your ideal customer, asking yourself, “What often stops people from buying?” When you have your answer, you will find your unique selling proposition.
Remember that it’s Still about Selling
Just as relationship marketing is as much about the marketing as is it about the relationships, the same applies for creating a unique selling proposition; it’s a form of differentiation that needs to be built around selling more products and services, not just to make your business into a quirky brand that stands out but can’t get traction.
In the book Reality in Advertising, advertising executive Rosser Reeves lays down three rules that unique selling propositions should follow if they wish to be more than just creative branding:
Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer—not just words, product puffery, or show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: "Buy this product, for this specific benefit."
The proposition must be one the competition cannot or does not offer. It must be unique—either in the brand or in a claim the rest of that particular advertising area does not make.
The proposition must be strong enough to move the masses, i.e., attract new customers.
Make sure you are standing out for the right reasons, and that your brand’s positioning in your marketplace is intended to move what you sell, not just to stand out.