Why Unique Selling Points are harming more businesses than they help

The next big thing in marketing all through the 2010s was the Unique Selling Point (USP). This is supposed to be the thing that only your business does, out of all the businesses in the world. Here’s why your business doesn’t need a unique selling point and why I hope the whole concept falls into the marketing garbage can as soon as possible. I know this is a crazy concept but stay with me here!

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re genuinely innovating, that’s an amazing thing. But most businesses actually want to do the same thing for customers that other businesses do. Think about it. If you’re a customer calling a plumber, do you want that plumber to be able to do what other plumbers do, or do you want him to be able to use special pipes made out of chrome (and charge you more for it)? Most customers call a plumber expecting them to be able to do plumbing. If you’re starting a plumbing business, you don’t need a unique selling point of something preposterous, you need to be good at plumbing.

As another example, let’s say you’re running a soapmaking business. What do people look for in handmade soap? Pretty bars, nice smell, feels good when you wash with it, makes a decent lather. They aren’t looking for a soap that is available in every different scent you can buy in bottles on Brambleberry (or Soap Kitchen in the UK). Your soap needs to stand out for meeting people’s needs really well, not for some cool-seeming, unique gimmick that doesn’t meet anyone’s soap requirements. You could be really good at intricate designs, or have a couple of mouth-watering fragrances, or have the best texture and lather in town and any of these would give you a strong soap business with great market appeal. Putting plastic toys inside your soaps or making them out of glitter that’s an environmental disaster would both be bad ideas.

Maybe you’re a dog trainer, and you think your unique selling point would be to train cats, because you have to be totally unique and different to everyone else. No one is looking for that. Very few people will pay you to do that, compared to the number of people who will throw money at an outstanding dog trainer.

And that’s the thing with the race for businesses to find Unique Selling Points. Usually if your concept is unique out of every other business in your industry, anywhere in the world, it’s because you’ve hit upon a bad idea. Maybe no one else thought of it for a reason.

The same is true if you’re opening a restaurant. There are a billion different types of food out there. All you need to do is choose one (e.g. pizza), then go and make REALLY GOOD PIZZA. Don’t screw your business up by trying to offer six thousand different menu combos.

There’s an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA where the well-respected chef Gordon Ramsay visits a restaurant called Sebastian’s. It could be another episode. This has happened a lot on the show. Basically, the guy thinks his restaurant is amazing because it has a gigantic, confusing menu full of a billion combos which even the staff can’t work out. In the UK version of the show, a parallel can be drawn with the same thing at Curry Lounge, which had a menu of “pick’n’mix curry” (spoiler alert: An extra hot korma isn’t what most people want). It happened at one (at least) of the Spanish restaurants he visited in Costa Del Sol, Spain, too.

If you haven’t seen this TV show (you can find some episodes on YouTube), you should take a look, because the only difference between a lot of successful businesses and failed businesses on the show are whether they have a good menu or a stupid, “unique”, fragmented menu (chicken stuffed with bananas, anyone? Nope? Me neither).

What stands out to me as a recurring lesson on the show is that you don’t need to “get creative” and have a “unique selling point” that’s different to any other restaurant on the planet. You just need to pick something that there aren’t too many businesses already doing in the LOCAL AREA and do that WELL. People want a truly great margherita pizza a lot more than they want a bad extra-hot curry.

This can be applied to all types of businesses. You just need to redefine “local area”. For example, in my author business, “local area” would be the entire romance genre. So I would focus, say, on military romance, and do it well, rather than trying to write Victorian historical one week, sci-fi romance the next, then contemporary western, then BDSM, then clean romance… I did this early on in my career and I didn’t understand why my writing business wasn’t growing as fast as other authors. Doing one thing well is much better than doing lots of things below average.

When designing a brand identity, ditch the concept of “unique selling point” as it is currently being explained. You need to stand out for being good at something PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO BUY. Not something totally unique. Just something you’re good at and which you can sell to people. That’s how you build a successful business.

So how does this fit into the idea of finding a blue ocean for your business? The way I see it, a blue ocean is still an ocean. If you’re trying to fish on dry land, you are not going to catch anything. That wouldn’t be a great plan, right? In this day and age, it is very unlikely that even a blue ocean will be totally empty of other fishing boats. What makes a good selling point for your business is something people really want, but can’t get in their local area.

This might be because the other plumbers are busy so there’s a gap for a plumbing business. Or it might be (redefining local area as your business field) because the other books on dog training don’t cover how to get the dog to stop barking at night.

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