Unique selling points can be powerful, but they come with limitations.
When buying products or services, there are bound to be options. How do we choose between these options?
A typical sales technique is to focus on unique selling points (USPs).
The underlying logic is this: If two products or services are very much alike, a single differentiator between them can tip the scales of many buying decisions.
As such, unique selling points can be powerful communication tools.
USPs for sales and awareness
The anatomy of selling point is rather basic. It’s something that makes the product or service different from other competing offerings in the marketplace.
This is especially prominent when it comes to consumer electronics: The Chinese smartphone Xiaomi Mi Note 10, for example, has five cameras.
Is five cameras better than, say, four? Maybe, maybe not. Does five cameras tip the scales for buying decisions? For some, yes, but not for all.
Unique selling points does, however, drive publicity:
I can’t even recall a single editorial about the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 that didn’t make a fuss about the fact that it has five cameras.
A few years ago, Swedish brand Happy Plugs created a pair of earphones in solid gold:
Whether such earphones are comfortable or enjoy any improvements in sound quality due to the rather exotic choice of materials is beside the point; lots of product journalists and editors ran the story (or rather the pictures) of the gold earphones.
At $14,500, we can venture a guess that not many people actually bought them, but I remember them getting tons of publicity and in doing so, they placed a spotlight on the brand’s overall design esthetic and playfulness.
Now, it’s also important to note that unique selling points, aren’t always about just features and functions. They can be about other things as well, things that might be harder to copy.
Unique selling points might narrow your vision
For products and services, it’s typical to think of a product market as divided into USP segments: Some care deeply about certain features and aspects, others care deeply about other features and aspects.
For a long time, PC manufacturers competed fiercely with each other on the basis of features and functions. More RAM, more screen inches, more CPU power, more storage, and so on.
While this was a fascinating arms race by all counts, it did open up for Apple and the Macintosh computer to focus on entirely different value propositions, such as hardware design, interface design, and proprietary ecosystems.
The sobering realisation here is that while markets can be seen as divided divided into USP segments, many customers doesn’t really care about megapixels and CPU speeds.
Apple were able to differentiate themselves by shifting focus altogether.
The Apple focus was more difficult for their competitors to copy for many years, awarding Apple a larger share of the market. Today, many manufacturers are closing in, but for years, Apple stood quite alone in their niche.
How important are USPs?
Red Bull, for instance, arguably doesn’t taste better, aren’t cheaper, or doesn’t make you more energised than other competing sports drinks on the market. Instead, they focus on active lifestyle choices in the extreme sports community.1
Still, there’s nothing to suggest that Red Bull would be more successful if they focused on differentiating their actual product.
Red Bull is making headway by having a strong “why” — despite not being alone in promoting extreme sports.
Coca-Cola’s sales is probably more dependent on being physically present wherever in the world where you might be able to order a drink. Placement and availability sometimes takes precedence over uniqueness in the marketplace.
Just as Red Bull aren’t the only energy drink sponsoring extreme sports events and athletes, Coca-Cola isn’t the only globally sold soft drink — nor is it the only drink that tastes like … Coca-Cola.
You can always outwork your competition
Some will argue that all businesses are unique. Sure, you’ll find this to be true if you look close enough; Coca-Cola does taste (I think?) a little different than Pepsi. And while their ads look similar in many ways, they aren’t exactly the same.
Or, their CEOs have different hobbies or whatever.
There’s always something “unique” to be found.
However, when it comes to unique selling points, some brands are pushing their perceived uniqueness too hard.
When using a unique selling point as the baseline for your communication, it’s easy to infest your brand with a somewhat sleazy air of sales jargon with a weak connection to reality.
“This is a revolution!”
“We are so very unique!”
“We’re changing the market forever!”
It doesn’t have to be corporate cringe every time, but it’s definitely something to watch out for.
Read more: In Corporational determinism: The new paradigm for launching products, I describe how prominent tech companies are shifting to a narrative-driven approach when launching new products.
Also, there’s the universe of online reviews and word-of-mouth to consider. What good is a unique selling points if there aren’t any social proof to back it up? Or worse, what if the reviews say that the unique selling point is rubbish?
There’s simply a case to be made for being a really good company and having really good products or services.
Peter Thiel: “Competition is for losers”
Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel makes an interesting argument about striving for uniqueness.
Thiel argues that a business shouldn’t strive to be the first in anything (“competition is for losers”), because the real money is to be made in being the last.
Instead, you should find a niche where you can improve upon the existing solutions by at least an order of magnitude — and grow from there while not allowing anyone to catch up — ever. Just like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
A closely related strategy for avoiding competition is the blue ocean strategy.
Use unique selling points wisely
Unique selling points are powerful, but as they aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions, we should always be careful not to make all of a brand’s communication only about them.
There’s also merit to realizing that your business isn’t as unique as you’d like to think. Maybe it’s better to simply outwork your competition? Or — maybe escape competition completely?
Unique selling points are great tools, surely, but never greater than those who decides to use them.
Special mention to Micco Grönholm for valuable feedback on this blog post.