You Don’t Need To Be Unique To Be Different

We’re always talking about finding or creating a USP, a value proposition, or a product benefit that clearly differentiates us from the competition. But do we really need one?
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Have you ever been asked what your unique selling proposition (USP) is?

Or have you ever thought:

The problem we have is that we don’t have a USP…

Well, I’ve got news for you. The fact is that you don’t need one.


The reality is, that being unique is far less of a requisite for marketing purposes than we might think. You don’t need to be different to be successful.

The USP is overrated *gasp*

If you can deliver a benefit that no-one else can copy or mimic… and if that benefit is important to the customer, then sure – you could be onto something big. That’s the ‘sweet spot’; Nirvana for marketing communications.

If you’ve got a genuine USP that’s worth having, then great, use it.

But for most products and services – genuine differentiation is hard to come by. And even if there is differentiation, does the customer really, truly understand what makes one product ‘better’ than another?

Coke versus Pepsi (versus any other cola)? Not a USP in sight.

What’s the real difference between a Dell and a Lenovo? The answer is largely a technical one – only nerds know what makes one computer better than another.

KPMG versus EY versus Deloitte?


How many actual customers genuinely understand the real difference?

Ronseal versus Cuprinol?


Where, exactly?

The differences are too subtle for most of us to see.

It’s all about positioning.

Think about your brain as a series of labelled compartments. In every compartment, there’s enough room for one brand only.

Positioning is the art of owning a specific place or territory (a compartment) in the mind of the customer – the customer associates your product or brand with a particular characteristic. And the point is once you OWN that territory, it’s yours – it takes heaven and earth to change the customer’s mind about it.

Take Volvo as a classic example.

Volvo claimed the territory of ‘safety’ as long ago as 1959, when they invented the three-point safety belt and made it a standard feature on all their cars. Not only that, they made the design patent open – effectively sharing the technology with the entire world.

Volvo ads throughout the 70s were largely focused on safety and following countless innovations in car safety and build quality, the brand became indelibly associated with that word.


Since that time other manufacturers have caught up. The evidence is here:

Volvo might now struggle today with claims to be safer than many other cars. It doesn’t mean they’re not really safe. Far from it. They’re safer than they’ve ever been.

But safety, in reality, is no longer a genuine differentiator for Volvo.

These days ‘safety’ is no more unique to Volvo than a steering wheel and a speedometer.

But when you see a Volvo, the chances are that one of the first words you associate with it will be ‘safe’. If you’re looking for safety in a car, Volvo will almost certainly be the first brand you think of.

No other car will own the territory of ‘safety’ ahead of Volvo.

But it’s not a unique selling point.

It never really was – not for very long anyway. They didn’t even patent their invention of the three-point safety belt.

It’s not about being unique.

It’s not about being different.

You need to own a compartment.

Positioning is about identifying the territory that competitors aren’t talking about – and making a land-grab to own that territory.

It doesn’t have to be something your competitors can’t do. But it should be something they’re not focused on – if you grab that territory and own it, they can never really occupy it.

It’s not reality that matters, its perception.

The compartment in your brain reserved for ‘safe car brand’ has got Volvo in it.

And it works in reverse too.

According to this report, the most reliable car you can buy in the UK is a Skoda.

Now that’s a rational, objective perspective, backed up by data.

It’s factual.

But it doesn’t change long-held perceptions.

Q. How do you double the value of a Skoda?

A. Fill up the tank.

Q. Why do Skodas have heated rear windscreens?

A. To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing.

Q. What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof?

A. A skip.

If we’re being completely objective in our judgement, we’d look at the data, make sensible comparisons and conclude that Skoda, do indeed, produce very reliable cars.

But somewhere in the back of our mind, there’s a nagging doubt. A suppressed giggle maybe? I very much doubt that the ‘reliable car brand’ compartment in our brain has got Skoda in it.

The point is, positioning isn’t always logical. It’s not always based on the truth. It’s not always (in fact, rarely) based on rational thinking. And once your brand occupies a position in someone’s head, it takes a huge effort to change their mind.

Where do you start?

When you’re trying to identify a position you can occupy, it doesn’t always start with an understanding of why you’re better than the competition. It’s not always about a unique selling point.

USPs are hard to find.

If you’re an insurance broker, or a solicitor, or an accountant, financial adviser, or IT consultant – how are you different? I mean, REALLY different.

There might be something a bit different about the way you approach your respective consultancies. But would your customers really understand that? And there are so many choices available, are you telling me that NO OTHER {insert profession} firm does what you do?

Of course not.

The reality is that the vast majority of professional services firms don’t have an identifiable USP.

Our difference is our people.

Wow. If I had a penny for every time I heard that (it would add up to about £1.20 but that’s hardly the point).

Q. So what do you do when your product or service isn’t noticeably different or obviously better than any other?

 A. Substitute the word ‘unique’ for ‘unclaimed.’

Don’t worry about being unique. Find something that’s important to customers, and that no-one else is talking about (much).

Look at Ronseal.

It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Let’s unpick that idea for a second.

Surely ‘it does what it says on the tin’ pre-supposes that other brands of woodstain don’t do what they say on their tins?

Now, I don’t ever remember a time when people were kicking off about Cuprinol – I don’t remember them ever having a problem with customers complaining that their woodstain didn’t stain wood?

But I dare say there was an insight there.

Q. What do you want from your woodstain?

 A. I want it to stain wood.


And you can argue that ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’ suggests that other products somehow don’t do that. Which clearly isn’t true.

I’m no woodstain afficionado, but I’m pretty sure they all do what they say on the tin.

So that’s NOT a unique selling proposition.

It’s an unclaimed selling proposition. Or at least it was. Ronseal have been peddling the same story since 1994.

And you have to say, bloody well played.

Making a virtue out of virtually nothing

And how about The Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices?

It might be a unique recipe, but given no-one knows what it is, and given that nearly all fast food companies have their own unique recipes, it’s hardly a USP.

But by making a big deal of the fact that there’s a SECRET recipe, they’ve claimed a clear position in your mind.

Anyone can do it.

The real trick, the really clever bit, is when you claim a positioning that effectively REPOSITIONS the competition.

This Fisher Price ad is a classic – positioning its skates as ‘safe’, but even better – it effectively repositions the competition as UNSAFE.

The Avis ‘We Try Harder’ campaign used its position in the market (Number 2) to create a positioning for itself – and repositioned the number one car rental company as ‘lazy’ and ‘uncaring’.

And they did it without ever calling out Hertz by name.

‘Avis can’t afford to make you wait’.

Avis not only positioned themselves, they repositioned Hertz by implication.

So, this is the real lesson.

Stop trying to find ‘unique’ differentiators. The chances are you haven’t got one. Or if you do, then it’s unlikely your customers are going to care about it, or even understand it.

Avis had nothing unique to offer. Neither do Ronseal.

Instead of looking for a USP, do this:

  1. Identify things that your brand does well – at least as well as your main competitors.
  2. Identify those things that customers care about – things that are important enough to warrant consideration of your product.
  3. Identify whether any of these things are already owned by or associated with your competitors… and pick something that isn’t.
  4. And then tell a story that implies (perhaps subtly) that your product is the only one that does {insert your thing here} well, properly or even at all.

Think brand positioning, not product differentiation.

Unclaimed selling proposition, not unique selling proposition.