uniqueness, originality and distinctness

 

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“It’s the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one imagines.”

 

The Imitation Game

 

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

 

—-

Arie de Geus – Dutch business strategist

 

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Well.

 

One of my business pet peeves is our unhealthy pursuit of unique. Far too often in our relentless charge toward ‘unique’ we reach a dubious destination … if not a completely false ‘original’ stance.

 

This heinous business tradition almost always begins when some consultant comes in and forces you to sit down and answer the infamous question so what makes you unique?”

 

Oh … how I get tired of this unique or ‘how are you different?’ discussion.

 

If you have been there, you have seen these conversations go round and round dancing on the head of a pin.

 

Invariably you land on one meaningless thing <meaningless to the majority of the world if not the majority of your own employees> or you have a laundry list that the consultant writes on a board and says “okay, great day, you need to figure out which of these is most important to you.”

 

Note to self:

gee. thanks. what makes you think we can resolve that 48 hours from now if we cannot now?”

 

What a bunch of wasted energy.

In my mind distinctness is the key … not uniqueness.

 

Am I suggesting avoiding true product or service differentiation? Heck no. Go for it.

 

I am simply arguing that it is next to impossible in today’s environment to have a ‘unique.’

Ok. A sustainable one.

If people were honest they would agree that most ‘uniques’ in today’s world are short term and not sustainable <and some people just use lots of money to make short term look big>.

 

In service categories sustainable “uniqueness” is … well … pretty much impossible. Unique is very subjective here.

 

Thinking customer first or “we care” is certainly not unique nor what makes you different. That characteristic may represent something the company cares a lot about but most companies to one degree or another feature that characteristic.

 

In the end that means we are often talking about small degrees of separation which makes it difficult to discern the difference <or originality> to the majority. And the amount of energy we expend trying to justify and explain that this incredibly small difference translates into a significantly larger benefit … just isn’t worth the return on that investment <because that small degree of separation is lost to a competitor responder or thru consumer confusion on internet>.

 

Now.

 

What is sustainable? Character and personality.

 

That is certainly distinct.

 

Could it end up looking close to someone else? Maybe <but I would argue 90% of the time the other guy will blink … and ultimately do something that will make people question their character>.

 

But … brand personality/character differentiation topic is another writing of mine.

 

Today is just a rant on uniqueness.

 

Moving on.

 

My go-to books when I am thinking about things are good ole Ralph Waldo Emerson & Montaigne Essays. I had to pull Montaigne off the shelf as I thought about originality & business’s unhealthy relationship with “unique.”

 

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I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

 

—-

Montaigne

 

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Of all social philosophers he seemed to delve into the difference between style & substance. His originality can actually be found in some fairly relentless honesty. A lesson in and of itself to any business seeking unique or ‘original’ claims.

 

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We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.

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“Que sais-je?”

“What do I know?” was what Montaigne consistently said … kind of a “what the hell do I really know?”

 

Which brings me back to uniqueness … or … let’s call it the illusion of uniqueness.

 

It seems like every person, and every business, is born with some innate insane focus on what I would consider a fairly nebulous concept of ‘original.’

 

I speak with a lot of business owners.

 

And I can often discern the best of the best of them just by listening and waiting to see if they use this one word <or the words surrounding this one word>:

 

Unique.

 

And when they do … well … I get a shiver down my back.

 

Ok.

 

I assume there actually has 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. Of course having this conversation with a patent owner is 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 ???” 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.

 

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“There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart a desire of distinction, which inclines every man first to hope, and then to believe, that Nature has given him something peculiar to himself.”

 

Samuel Johnson

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Regardless, the point of me writing this <other than ‘unique’ aggravates me> 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 lack of desire to use someone else’s idea, even if it is a great idea, and

 

  • the belief, the theory, we should be simplifying even the simplified <or even the most dumbed down> whereby we lose the nuance.

 

Ultimately … this translated into the ‘experts’ starting to focus 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 our 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.

 

Look.

 

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. And, no, this 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 the 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 with this thought:

 

  • 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 the key to those is to be to be the only fastest learner in your category.

 

Heck. If you do that you may actually not only have a unique selling proposition but a unique product/service to offer. It will certainly maintain some distinctness <if not relevance in the marketplace>.

 

Regardless.

 

Whenever unique or original comes up I try and convince every business to stop talking about that and, if they were smart, they would be mart about focusing on themselves … who they were and who they wanted to be.

 

Tough to do because it doesn’t exactly match up with the standard “this is how you are supposed to do it” management guides.

 

Anyway.

 

Maybe this is the most important point.

There are a lot, a shitload, of crazy smart business people out there.

 

But there are not a lot of crazy smart business people willing to do something crazy like ignore the business books “plan to success” blueprints.

 

Here is where I put my money.

 

The few.

Those crazy enough to not invest energy in ‘unique seeking’ or ‘false originality’ but rather let distinction and originality simply evolve from who they are, what they think and their vision of what they think they should be.

 

Crazy?

 

Probably.

 

But in a world where the majority of businesses, and new ideas, fail … maybe this isn’t a crazy a thought as it sounds.

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Written by Bruce