Your unique value proposition sets you apart. It’s the promise you make to your customers and clients to deliver a unique experience.
Find out how to craft one from what you already do well today.
People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
— Simon Sinek, Start With Why
Many of us starting out on our entrepreneurial journeys face this roadblock at one point or another.
“How do I make my business/website/services/product stand out?”
A unique value proposition guides people to you and your services. It keeps you top-of-mind in your target audience’s thoughts. It makes an adoring following possible.
When you have a unique value proposition, it’s easy to stand out among the crowd of undifferentiated offerings.
So how come so many independents and solopreneurs get this wrong?
In this article, you will learn:
- What a value proposition is and what makes one unique
- Why you need a unique value proposition
- And techniques for crafting one
Let’s get started.
What Is a Unique Value Proposition?
Wikipedia has a really solid definition of value proposition that’s worth digging into:
A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered and acknowledged and a belief from the customer that value will be appealed and experienced.
I love the emphasis on the customer’s belief in the value of the proposition, and the promise that you will deliver that value.
The “you” here could be your business, or your website, or your value as an employee. Value propositions are at the core every interaction we make in the marketplace. They’re the reason we exchange cash for goods, buy original art, and sign contracts for services.
Now that we have a common definition of a value proposition, what makes one unique?
A unique value proposition is what differentiates your promise of value delivered from every other similar promise in the same industry. It’s the thing that makes you stand out and earn a special place in your audience’s hearts and minds. It’s what keeps people coming back to YOU in particular, and not merely the cheapest or newest vendor.
It’s NOT unique for uniqueness’ sake. Plenty of starving authors write navel-gazing semi-autobiographical “literary” novels that absolutely no one wants to read (including the author’s own mother). Don’t confuse being different with being unmarketable.
I’ll be referring to unique value propositions in the context of having your own business from here on out, but keep in mind that a strong UVP applies even if you’re not entrepreneur. You might be applying for a new job and need to convince your interviewers what unique value you will deliver to the company. Or you might be an artist or writer on the side trying to build an audience from scratch.
In any case, a unique value proposition answers the question, “Why should I listen to/read/buy from/hire YOU?”
A Word on Unique Selling Propositions
Why don’t I use the more common term unique selling proposition?
It’s because selling is still an icky concept for most people (despite what the insightful author Dan Pink would have you believe) and for good reason.
“Selling” often looks like one party taking advantage of another, either due to an information asymmetry (think a used car buyer purchasing a lemon) or unfair psychological tactics (every sales page ever).
For these reasons and more, I want you to focus on value and not selling. This is not about duping people into giving you their business. Yes, selling and marketing are necessary to a working business, but this article is about your value proposition first and foremost.
A value proposition is about a customer’s beliefs and your promise to deliver. Providing value is something you do every day, whether as an employee, an artist, an entrepreneur, or a freelancer.
Don’t get hung up on selling if that’s not where your strengths lie. Today’s article is about value.
Why You Need a Unique Value Proposition
Think about the last time you had to buy a flat screen television. You either went down to the local electronics store or you began your search online. You taught yourself how to distinguish between 4K, 1080p, and 720p. You looked through all the features and read all the reviews. You learned about the differences between plasma and LED, and imagined each one sitting in your living room.
But you were paralyzed; you couldn’t make a decision. Each black glass panel seemed roughly the same, but you were anxious about making a mistake. What if you picked the “wrong” TV?
In the end, you said f—k it, bought the cheapest (or second cheapest) one, and moved on with your life. Was it a Samsung, Panasonic, or LG panel? Unless you’re sitting right in front of it, you probably can’t be sure. And you definitely won’t remember the next time you buy a TV.
The selection process for any consumer product can be daunting. A sea of undifferentiated products awaits anyone looking for a new toaster, washer/dryer, or television set. These products compete on price and features, but they don’t compete on feels.
Chances are you didn’t experience this analysis paralysis when you were thinking about getting a new phone or a new car. You knew you wanted an iPhone or a Mercedes. You weren’t starting from nothing.
What makes the latter sort of products different from the flat screen example?
Experiences with products and services worth remembering get spread in the marketplace. Recall that a value proposition is both a promise and a belief. When a customer’s beliefs are validated by a product or service, they almost can’t help telling other people.
This is the almost magical power of word of mouth. Marketing and promotion get a whole lot easier when you have a product that spreads itself.
The Part of the Brain That Makes Things Go Viral
Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people. We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that.
– Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA professor of psychology and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
What makes your brain want to spread ideas to others? UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman wanted to find out.
In a study he led, a group of students watched 24 pitches for fake television pilots. These ranged from a reality TV show about pageant queen mothers to supernatural teenage romance with werewolves and vampires.
The students were asked to decide whether they would recommend these pilots to a Hollywood “producer,” also played by students. The recommenders were video-recorded making their assessments.
Did I forget to mention they were under an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine scanning their brains the whole time? The fMRI machine scanned their brains for activity while they were performing the activities.
What the researchers found was that certain students were rated by the “producers” as more persuasive than the others. These “persuaders” had more activity going on in the temporoparietal junctions of their brains, an area of the brain known to be involved in simulating the thoughts and feelings of others.
This is also known as mentalizing, the act of stepping into the mind of another person.
Lieberman theorized that the good pilot ideas turned on the mentalizing system of the brain, which primed the persuaders to want to share the interesting television programs with others.
Here’s how Lieberman characterized the finding (emphasis mine): “At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.”
Your unique value proposition, when done right, will engage the hearts and minds of Lieberman’s persuaders. Having a compelling UVP is like having a team of salespeople who work with enthusiasm and genuine feeling for you—completely for free.
These “evangelists” will go on to spread the word for you to your target market. That sharing leads to more traffic for your website, more referrals for your business, and/or more mentors and allies in your company.
Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal believes in looking after its employees. It’s a part of their UVP: When you shop at Costco, you can rest assured that the workers there aren’t being exploited to keep prices low the way they are at other chains.
As Simon Sinek relates in Start With Why, “Historically, they have paid their people about 40 percent more than those who work at Sam’s Club, the Wal-Mart-owned discount warehouse. And Costco offers above-average benefits, including health coverage for more than 90 percent of their employees. As a result, their turnover is consistently five times lower than Sam’s Club.”
Costco doesn’t spend much on advertising. They have an army of evangelists spreading word of mouth about the company virally. “’Imagine that you have 120,000 loyal ambassadors out there who are constantly saying good things about you,’ quips Sinegal, recognizing the value of trust and loyalty of his employees over advertising and PR.”
Remember, It’s All About Them
Marketing expert and author Simon Sinek lays down the hard truth in Start With Why about competing on the best features, quality, and price:
But consider the companies with the greatest loyalty—they rarely have all those things. If you wanted to buy a custom Harley-Davidson, you used to wait six months for delivery (to give them credit, they’ve got it down from a year). That’s bad service! Apple’s computers are at least 25 percent more expensive than a comparable PC. There is less software available for their operating system. They have fewer peripherals. The machines themselves are sometimes slower than a comparable PC. If people made only rational decisions, and did all the research before making a purchase, no one would ever buy a Mac. But of course people do buy Macs. And some don’t just buy them—they love them, a feeling that comes straight from the heart … In reality, their purchase decision and their loyalty are deeply personal. They don’t really care about Apple; it’s all about them.
Value is in the eye of the beholder. For some, the psychological value of owning Apple products outweighs the inconvenient ecosystem and higher price tag. They believe in the value being delivered.
Your UVP doesn’t need to be as strong as Apple’s or Harley-Davidson’s. But it does need to differentiate you enough that your customers, your clients, and your audience will overlook the drawbacks of working with or buying from you (and there will be, don’t kid yourself)—because they need that special thing that only you can give.
Crafting Your Unique Value Proposition
There are no universals when it comes to creating a unique value proposition. Some techniques focus on the uniqueness of the value delivered (AirBnB, for instance). Others focus on the beliefs of their customers (Whole Foods). The same company can even have multiple unique value propositions.
Consider the case of Apple. They discovered a Blue Ocean (#1 below) with the app store-powered smartphone. They entered a category that had room to improve (#2) with the iPod. And they do everything they can to appeal to their ideal customer (#5), even at the expense of other potential customers (remember those “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads?).
Not at all of us can be Apple. But use the following methods as a starting point to crafting your UVP.
1. Discover a Blue Ocean
Perhaps the best unique value propositions come from finding Blue Oceans—new markets that come into existence only when you create them. That’s the domain of the Adjacent Possible, the uncontested waters of a truly new opportunity. The Blue Ocean Strategy (and the book of the same name) came to us from management thinkers W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, and it’s how ventures as diverse as Apple and Cirque du Soleil found their UVPs.
“Red” oceans are what they sound like—markets where bloody competition has turned the waters red. Blue Oceans, on the other hand, are full of untapped potential.
Kim and Mauborgne identify two main ways to create Blue Oceans: “In a few cases, companies can give rise to completely new industries, as eBay did with the online auction industry. But in most cases, a blue ocean is created from within a red ocean when a company alters the boundaries of an existing industry.”
That’s the Cirque du Soleil case in a nutshell. In the 1980’s, upstart Cirque took on circus giant Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey by reinventing the circus experience. Inspired by the tide of animal rights activism at the time, Cirque eliminated circus animals from their shows. They eschewed star performers in order to build elaborate costumes, sets, and storylines for their legions of acrobats.
As a result, Cirque attracted new types of customers and created an upscale experience that they could charge a premium for.
The way to be #1 in your customer’s mind is to dominate a focused, narrow niche.
The main advantage of finding a Blue Ocean? According to Kim and Mauborgne, “so powerful is blue ocean strategy that a blue ocean strategic move can create brand equity that lasts for decades.” Even after the ocean has turned redder.
2. Find a Category That Has Room to Improve
In Get Big Fast and Do More Good, authors Ido Leffler and Lance Kalish argue that you don’t need Blue Oceans—you only need a market where the competition is poor or lacking.
Leffler and Kalish are the co-founders of Yes To, Inc., makers of the wildly successful natural beauty brand Yes To Carrots. Here’s how they knew the natural beauty category had room to improve:
The best way to build a better business is to find a category that is succeeding in spite of itself. The other brands in our category were succeeding with products that were almost twenty years old; they weren’t bad, but they weren’t reaching their full potential either. They weren’t responding to the fast-changing environment around them.
In other words, the incumbent companies in Yes To Carrots’ target market weren’t nimble, adaptable, or agile.
Leffler and Kalish go on to discuss the legacy airline industry, which also lacked the agility to tackle a newcomer like JetBlue: “JetBlue launched with the newest planes and slickest entertainment and initially focused on a handful of major routes. They created a unique product, built up customer loyalty, and were able to avoid all the problems that drag down legacy carriers.”
The lesson of Yes To Carrots is that you can enter a category that already has one or two dominant players and succeed. But you have to find your niche even within that category:
[O]ne of the biggest lessons was the value of looking for fragmented players. For instance, natural beauty was completely fragmented; there was one player that had 60 percent of the market and after that the next brand had 10 percent. Budding entrepreneurs often assume that they need to create something “completely new and unique,” but those are one-in-a-million ideas, and, frankly, most people are never hit by that bolt of “brilliant idea” lightning. The more useful tactic is to find a business where you can launch with a small percentage of a big market. Being a small, differentiated player in a big market can be an amazing position.
Yes To Carrots was happy to be a “fast follower” in the natural beauty products category, since the demand was there for another competing product:
The natural-beauty market had Burt’s Bees and no clear second-place player. Even Walgreens was looking for a “who’s next?” after their success with Burt’s Bees. And we came along to fill that niche.
Can you find a category that’s looking for who’s next?
3. Use the Side-Door Strategy
Frans Johansson argued the business case for diversity in his first book, The Medici Effect. In it, he says ground-breaking ideas occur at the intersection of different fields, cultures, and industries. Johansson built a lucrative speaking and consulting business talking to executives about how to drive innovation via diversity.
One night, a client leaned over and told Johansson, “Your side-door strategy has been nothing short of brilliant.” He continued, “instead of going to chief innovation officers, heads of strategy, or R&D folks, you targeted chief diversity officers. And through them you got to people like me. Your strategy was to knock on the one door that other innovation thinkers did not.”
It sounded good. But as he relates in The Click Moment, Johansson knew he had implemented no such strategy. It was dumb luck.
The Side-Door Strategy is an effective method of uncovering your UVP because it’s unexpected—even to you. Delighting a customer who’s discovered a connection that even you weren’t aware of can build lasting loyalty and a sense of ownership with your brand.
The key to the Side-Door Strategy is opening yourself to serendipitous opportunities and connections between existing ideas. You might start out thinking that you’re a web designer and discover that you’re really a brand strategist. Or a viral marketer. Or a conversion specialist. You won’t really know until you starting helping your client.
4. Bring Your Personality Front and Center
Are you running a professional services business? Creating artwork? Starting a blog?
In the case of very small businesses i.e. one to five people, your personality alone can be a huge differentiator.
And just in case you think “personality” in this context simply means “loud,” take a look at Pat Flynn, the likable podcaster and affiliate marketer who prominently displays a picture of his kid on the front page of his blog.
The relationship between your personality and your business can (and should) continue even as you grow larger and more successful. As Simon Sinek writes in Start With Why:
When a company is small, it revolves around the personality of the founder. There is no debate that the founder’s personality is the personality of the company. Why then do we think things change just because a company is successful? What’s the difference between Steve Jobs the man and Apple the company? Nothing. What’s the difference between Sir Richard Branson’s personality and Virgin’s personality? Nothing. As a company grows, the CEO’s job is to personify the WHY. To ooze of it. To talk about it. To preach it. To be a symbol of what the company believes. They are the intention and WHAT the company says and does is their voice.
Companies that do this wrong lose their identities. They grow out of touch with their unique value proposition. They’re no longer special and they become every other maker of black glass panels in the electronics aisle.
When your main product is YOU (your advice, your words, your vision), then finding your voice can be synonymous with finding your unique value proposition.
5. Don’t Try to Appeal to Everyone
You can’t be all things to all people. Stop trying. Serve your ideal customer, and do it better than anyone else.
Remember Paul Graham’s lesson about business startup ideas: “When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they’re making–not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently.”
You can be the best in the world at something if the something you choose is very, very narrow. Choosing your unique value proposition is the one time it’s okay to be extremely myopic.
You can also work backwards to the services you should offer once you have your very specific ideal customer in mind. Your UVP will be a result of that process. This is the strategy Michael Port essentially advocates for in Book Yourself Solid, which I highly recommend if you are contemplating a professional services business.
Port suggests developing a “Red Velvet Rope Policy” to let in your ideal clients and keep out everyone else. Will this enrage certain folks? Yes, but non-ideal customers will drain your time and energy, and make your work suffer in the end.
Even product companies like Apple employ a Red Velvet Rope, whether they realize it or not. There’s a reason Apple doesn’t sell to corporate clients the way Dell and HP do—but you can bet nearly every employee of that corporation has an Apple device either in their pocket or at home.
6. Combine Things in New Ways
Everything is a remix. Once you recognize and understand your sources and inspirations, you can find the unique intersections that speak to you. Expand upon those intersections, make them truly yours, and you’re bound to find an audience who’s interested and willing to explore this new space with you.
Austin Kleon—a self-described writer who draws—says in his book, Steal Like an Artist, “You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.” Kleon rose to fame with his blackout poetry, short poems composed by blacking out The New York Times articles with a Sharpie until only the words of his poem remain.
There’s a lot going on here. For one, Kleon’s creativity builds on the creativity of another—he builds the poem out of the words of the journalist who wrote the article. The finished product also has the look of a redacted government document with all the incriminating and interesting bits removed. Except in this case, what remains visible is what matters.
Steal Like an Artist is a treasure trove of insights for the creative entrepreneur, but Kleon’s most applicable advice for creating a UVP is this: “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”
What Do You Got?
Agile Lifestyle is a unique blend of psychology, minimalism, and Agile methodology. It’s all about equipping you with the tools to reach your full potential in a rapidly changing world.
What about you? What does your blog or business do differently? What’s your WHY? Tell me about your unique value proposition in the comments below.