Listen. It’s happened to the best of us.
And by "the best of us," I mean “including me.”
We’re filling out a questionnaire. Or writing a business plan. Or talking to a branding professional. And they have the audacity to ask, “What would you say makes your business unique?”
This is what I would call a zig or zag moment.
The zig: Immediate panic.
You know that you’re supposed to have an answer for this. In fact, there’s even an official term for it, “Unique Selling Proposition.” But you have a sinking feeling that somewhere out there someone is doing precisely what you do. Maybe in the same way that you do it. They may even — god forbid, be cheaper.
You finally say something like “we really care about our customers,” or “we’re really passionate about our quality,” and then you proceed to be haunted about this answer for the rest of the week.
The zag: Immediate confidence.
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You know that if someone is going to pluck your business out of a sea of other businesses, you need to stand out. You refuse to be ordinary. There is NO WAY you’re going to stay in your box, because inside the box is where boring brands go to die. Not today. NOT TODAY.
So instead, you say:
“We’re changing the game in our industry. We’re rebels. We’re disrupters.
We’re authentic badasses and bespoke trailblazers who curate an elevated experience in revolutionary and innovative ways.”
If you’re a zig-ger, you didn’t do anything wrong. And we’ll talk about you soon, scout’s honor.
Zag-gers? This is for you.
The trap of chasing “uniqueness” in messaging.
First of all, if your brand actually is a team of rebellious, trailblazing, disruptive innovators? Call me.
But most businesses arrive at this type of messaging because they know that in a saturated market, blending in means that you’ll be overlooked.
Short of taking out a billboard that reads, “I PROMISE WE’RE DIFFERENT” on the side of the highway (which, actually, would be a fantastic billboard) — you’re doing everything you can to capture attention and signal your worth with your messaging.
The problem is? So is everybody else.
When we try and manhandle our brands into uniqueness, we unconsciously use the same techniques, framework, and terminology as everyone else who is fighting tooth and nail to be seen.
In a twisted Catch-22, by trying to be unique, you run the risk of sounding the same.
Or worse — you end up alienating your audience by trying to sound like something that they know, and you know, and you know that they know, you’re really not.
"Unique” is a slippery slope of buzzwords and confusing messaging.
Genuinely unique things are off-putting.
Being 100% unique is impossible. It’s also bad for your brand.
I love a good illustration, so let’s use one.
Pretend you’ve heard a lot of hype about the new ice cream parlor. They say they have the most unique ice cream you’ve ever tasted.
Truly revolutionary. The cutting edge of ice cream. So, you walk into the parlor and order an ice cream cone.
And what you get? Is a sugar cone full of frozen tomato soup.
I guarantee you — you’re holding the most unique ice cream cone of your life. And guess what? You’d probably hate it.
When you try to divorce your marketing from familiar elements in order to stand out, your customers aren’t intrigued. They’re confused. And if they’re confused, they’ve already moved on.
However, if you asked for an ice cream cone, and received a to-go boat with a perfect scoop of lavender bergamot sweet cream gelato on a bed of crushed white chocolate sugar cone? You’d probably tell all your friends about it.
Your audience wants novelty.
But it also desperately craves familiarity.
Novelty captures attention.
Familiarity signals that they're where they belong or want to be.
In a saturated market, strategic familiarity is powerful.
Even the audience for material that is truly innovative (like post-modern art, high fashion, experimental theater) almost always has a background that allows them to appreciate it. They are, in some way, familiar with it.
So don’t aim for unique marketing. Shoot for unexpected marketing.
We sit up and take notice when something WE LOVE appears in an unexpected context.
When Netflix shows up on a Ben n’ Jerry’s carton, we stop to check the ingredient list.
When Zendaya showed up in a superhero movie, we all said “Wait, is that ZENDAYA?” and tapped “unmute” on the trailer.
In marketing, you won't command attention by coming out of left field. Instead, you present familiar elements in unexpected combinations.
When Poo Pourri choose a posh sounding British spokesperson to talk about dropping a scentless 💩, we all cackled.
When Old Spice started marketing to women by putting body wash in dollar-store-romance-novel settings, we quoted the commercials for months.
How to make your messaging delightfully unexpected.
To start with, shun the impulse to borrow “unique-sounding” phrases from someone else. Like an ad-surfing great white shark, your customers can sense one drop of try-hard messaging in a metric ton of water.
Instead, ground your messaging in Brand MESSAGING Strategy.
It’s my cornerstone service, you might have heard of it. Brand Messaging Strategy is the combination to a bank vault full of unexpected associations, because it requires us to get very specific about your audience. Knowing your audience helps you identify what might feel familiar to them.
Like those crappy “has this ever happened to YOU??” infomercials that kids of the 80s and 90s grew up watching.
Or the cultural phenomenon that was the “It’s CORN!” kid from TikTok.
And the incomparable Moira from Schitt’s Creek.
Once you've got your audience narrowed down:
- Decide what feeling you want your brand to evoke.
- Pick a source of inspiration that evokes that feeling. Seize on the first thing that comes to mind.
- Now? Trash your source of inspiration. Dig deeper, and choose something a bit more unconventional. Don't worry -- it's a process.
- Once you've picked your source, borrow language from it. Stories, quotes, sayings, figurative language, and descriptive words.
- Weave your language into your messaging.
All of that is easier bullet-pointed than done -- and if you're looking to bring in some professional expertise, I'm just a couple of clicks away.
But more importantly, let's all agree to send the idea of being "unique" to a farm in upstate New York? With some solid strategy, you can unlock a far more effective, much richer (wait for it) lexicon of your very own.