the only sustainable competitive advantage

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

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Arie de Geus – Dutch business strategist <and assumed pot smoker because he is dutch>

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“You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be the only ones who do what you do.”

Jerry Garcia

Grateful Dead lead singer <and assumed pot smoker because he was the lead singer of the Grateful Dead>

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I speak with a lot of business owners. And I can often discern the best of the best with one word <or the words surrounding this one word>.

 

 

Unique.

 

 

I assume there actually have to be some unique products out there in this wide world of ours because over 500,000 patents are filed every year in the good ole USofA.

I admit that I have not run across a whole shitload of these unique products/services in my career although I have met many patent owners.

 

claiming to be uniqueWhich means that having this unique conversation with a patent owner excruciatingly painful … they keep saying “I have a patent therefore it is unique” and you keep saying “yes, sure, and the unique benefit to the buyer is ???”and you often find that this conversation is a deadly doom loop with no conclusion but frustration.

 

 

I imagine the real point is that everyone wants to be the best at whatever it is they elect to do the best.

 

 

Everyone would like to be the only ones who do what you do <assuming what you do is actually of some value to people>.

 

 

Everyone wants their business to be ‘unique’ in some form or fashion.

 

 

And, if you try hard enough, I imagine every business can be ‘unique’ at something.

But I also imagine if you try hard enough you can learn to dance on the head of a pin.

 

Regardless, the point of me writing this is that I believe somewhere along the way something got lost.

 

What do I mean?

 

Well.

 

 

Since the beginning of time (in marketingese) the concept of unique has been important but I believe it was Ted Bates who simplified <dumbed it down> for the rest of the world to grasp in a usable form  by developing what he, and his advertising agency, called the USP <the unique selling proposition>.

 

Excellent idea.

Dumbed it down for anyone and everyone to use.

 

 

Unfortunately it has all gone wrong since then.

 

 

The concept was unique “proposition” not “unique” <all by itself>.

 

 

Their point was  … well … just that simple … proposing to people some kind of proposition that was meaningful and seemingly unique <at minimum creating a perception of uniqueness>.

 

Ah.

 

Please note the nuance. You need not actually be unique in actuality but rather you simply needed to be able to tell people you were unique in some form or fashion.

 

 

The concept implied how you told your proposition was as important as the product-service proposition itself. The brilliance in the concept is that it recognizes most products and services are not truly unique but that didn’t mean you could explain your product-service in a way that wasn’t unique (from a selling perspective).

 

And here is where it all went awry … in our world of:

 

(a)    a lack of desire to use someone else’s idea, even if it is a great idea, and

(b)   the belief, the theory, we should be simplifying even the simplified <oreven the most dumbed down> whereby we lose the nuance

Ultimately … the ‘experts’ started focusing solely on the ‘unique.’

 

 

I envision the conversation went something along these lines … “okay, let me simplify this because it is pretty simply … what makes you unique? Answer that and we can get started.”

 

 

Well.

Here is the deal.

 

A unique selling proposition is rarely a simple process or outcome. And discerning what is truly meaningfully unique is rarely simple.

 

 

The point?

 

There is a big difference between “what is your unique selling proposition?” and “what makes you unique?” Both can be valuable discussions but they are not the same discussions.

 

 

I believe the problem is that somewhere along the way marketing, advertising, brand people forgot the nuanced selling proposition concept and simply focused on some (mostly) unattainable facet – unique.

 

And therein lies the bigger problem.

 

 

Identifying the false unique. Because it is inherent nature <at least in the business world> to find what you seek. If I am told I must find something unique than, dammit, I am sure gonna find something unique … even if I have to quasi make it up.

 

 

However, fooling yourself does not mean fooling others (although it is a common trap) in fact consumers/buyers are rarely fooled … and if they are … just once.

 

 

Therefore ‘unique’ is one of my trap, or test, words in a business discussion. It forces some brutal honesty into a discussion which can set the platform for the type of business relationship you will have.

 

 

Be forewarned <part 1> … many providers of products and/or services misconstrue what is unique. Service or ‘my people’ are not unique.  Well. They are to your company but they aren’t in any discernible way to the outside world. Generalizing … those are features of your company … of any company for that matter … therefore to be truly unique it would have to translate into some discernible benefit <by ‘discernible’ I mean recognizable to the human eye or the average bear>.

 

 

Be forewarned <part 2> … many providers of products and/or services lie to themselves in this discussion but in my experience it is mostly ‘white lie’ in that they are truly seeking a real distinctness. To be fair, I also admit that I like it when a company has some vision of grandeur <even if it is slightly delusional>. I find far too many companies do not aim high enough.

 

 

In the end, the company’s attitude on ‘unique’ may be slightly aggravating in a discussion but it is mostly harmless.

 

 

It is the other side of the table that is what I find harmful and actually quite disappointing. It is the groups of professionals who agree to the white lie, maybe facilitate or encourage the white lie <delusions> or, at the worst, are oblivious to the white lie.

 

 

There are far too many marketing & advertising professionals out there in the business world today who are abusing or are simply oblivious to the reality of unique <the reality thereof as well as the nuance of positioning in a unique way>.  As professionals we should be able to discern between a real uniqueness and a created <perception> uniqueness and should be able to assist a company in understanding it.

 

Not enough marketing/advertising/branding professionals do.

 

 

Regardless of that last mini-rant the best example I have seen in my career of a company who understands this nuance between USP and Unique is Proctor and Gamble.

 

 

For good or bad (like them or dislike them) they constantly, relentlessly, seek a unique formula, unique product, unique benefit or simply a unique product – thru innovation.

 

But that is simply a vision and focus.

 

 

They have the smarts enough so that in lieu of actually having one, i.e.,  they fully recognize when they don’t have one, they are masters at being distinct, i.e., “I may not be truly unique but there will be no doubt what benefit I provide and the value to it.”

 

 

And truth be told … that last description, being distinct, is almost unique in itself in today’s garbled & complex for the sake of being complex marketing world.  P&G wins simply thru focus and clarity (being distinct) … sometimes thru a real uniqueness and sometimes thru creating a perceived uniqueness.

 

Smart company those P&G folk.

 

 

Now, conversely, oddly enough, the worst at this whole uniqueness thing is maybe Apple.

Yeah. Apple.

 

They are solely focused on “unique features” (not benefits).

 

 

By the way … that is bad as a long term strategy.

 

Albeit they are an engineering company and not a marketing one, which explains the focus, but making yourself unique thru features means that your sole vision is to <and forever> constantly make your own features obsolete.

Because the moment you don’t make yourself obsolete you are no longer ‘unique’ but rather a commodity.

 

 

It is a fine line and a dangerously tenuous line.

 

Personally I believe Apple is doomed for eventual failure (albeit if there was ever an industry that could exist on features it would be technology) because all they care about is developing features and marketing the features. But, hey, that’s me.

 

 

Ok.

Back to unique.

 

 

I fully understand everyone wants to be the best at something <which is their uniqueness>.

 

 

I fully understand that there are truly some widgets with some meaningful describable benefits that are unique.

 

 

I fully understand that what most people are construing as ‘unique’ these days is meaningless drivel. At its worst it is simply mental masturbation.

 

 

And I fully understand that there are also a lot of missed opportunities for good meaningful “unique selling propositions’ floating out there in the business universe simply because many people just don’t have it on their radar as a meaningful objective.

 

 

And, yes, positioning <using words to create a perception of uniqueness> is valuable and an opportunity. It is not ‘lying’ to the public to create sales.

 

 

In fact … I would argue it is smart and a reflection of your only true competitive advantage … the ability to learn faster than your competition.

 

 

Why?

Uniqueness is NEVER alone.

 

Standing beside it … hugging it closely is someone called “Benefit.”

 

They are inextricably attached as companions for life. And as you learn more about what the buyer of your product really wants <that Benefit person> your ‘uniqueness’ may actually change … radically or nominally … it doesn’t matter. It may change to meet the needs & wants of the buyer.

 

 

 

Let me close by combining Jerry’s thought and Arie’s thought … and, no, I am not going to suggest you have to smoke pot in order to think your way through all of this …

–          being the best, or the only one to do something, is irrelevant if it has no value or benefit to others

–          unique is rare and often fleeting

However, adaptable ‘best’ and adaptable ‘uniqueness’ is neither fleeting nor useless and if sustained will maintain market leadership <although it is extremely difficult to sustain>. And the key to those is to be to be the only fastest learner in your category.

 

Easy?

No.

 

But, remember, business is often not lived best gently.

 

 

Heck.

 

If you do focus on being the only fastest learner in your category you may actually not only have a unique selling proposition but a unique product/service to offer.

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Written by Bruce