How to write a kick-ass USP

One of the most important things a financial or real estate professional can do to grow their business is identify what makes them unique in the marketplace.

It’s so important because the market is saturated with financial and real estate professionals and many (dare I say “most”?) offer almost exactly the same service at exactly the same price.

Financial advisors offer guidance that isn’t too different from other financial advisors. Real estate agents help to list or buy a home in a way that isn’t too different from other real estate agents. (There might be some differences, but often it’s not enough for the clients to spot them easily).

CLIENTS DON’T SEE THE DIFFERENCE

There’s no motivation or loyalty among clients because they do not perceive a significant difference between service providers – one financial provider looks very similar to another and one real estate professional looks very similar to another.

When customers don’t perceive a difference, they don’t care who they call and they’ll go with whatever is most convenient for them – whoever happens to have an office closer to their home or whoever happens to be at the top of their mind when they pick up the phone to call.

Take control of your brand and your reputation. Be different than the rest and you’ll glue your name in your customers’ minds for the next time they need your services.

So how DO you demonstrate your difference? How DO you prove to prospects that they should sign with you right now because they’ll never find anyone like you again? How DO you prove to customers that it’s worth driving across town to do business with you even when there are other professionals who are located closer to them?

A USP — “Unique Selling Proposition” — is a way to understand that difference.

INTRODUCING THE USP

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of a USP even if you haven’t identified one for yourself.

A USP is a comprehensive statement about what makes you different than anyone else in your industry. When you state your USP, it should describe you and only you, and it shouldn’t describe anyone else.

A USP is not a slogan or tagline. You might never actually say your USP to people. But the message of your USP should be loud and clear in everything you do. Most importantly (and this is the part that many financial and real estate professionals miss), a USP should describe only you.

When I say it should describe only you, here’s what I mean: Let’s say that you work with a customer once and then years later that customer needs your services again. The problem is that customers might not be able to remember your actual name. But if you have a strong, dynamic USP, there’s a better chance they’ll remember that and it might be enough for them to find you.

So if your USP currently is something like “I care about my customers and wouldn’t recommend that they invest in anything that I wouldn’t invest in myself” or “I’ll sell my client’s homes with the same care and attention that I’d sell my own home” then you don’t have a Unique Selling Proposition. Sorry. All you have is a half-baked statement that doesn’t stand up and call attention to you. It calls attention to just about every professional out there.

A USP should work like this: It should be able to describe you to the point where it excludes almost everyone else who could be a direct competitor. (Sure, there might be a financial advisor in Arkansas who has a similar USP or there might be a real estate agent in Alaska who has exactly the same USP as you, but if you’re doing business anywhere else, they’re not direct competitors).

To borrow USPs from other industries, consider how Apple products are extremely user friendly and owning an Apple product gives users a sense of community. Or, consider how Google “owns” the idea of being the first choice in search, even though there are lots of other search engines out there.

WHEN DO YOU USE YOUR USP?

You may or may not ever state your USP in your marketing. However, you will use your USP as the foundation for everything else in your business – your brand and all of its elements (like your slogan, your logo, your brand colors, your brand attitude, your brand concept, your brand promise, etc.), as well as your marketing and deliverables.

Your USP, therefore is one of the building blocks on which you will create your business and it will enable you to sell more: When your clients are asked by their friends why they chose you to help them, your USP will probably be a key reason.

Think of your USP not as a tagline but as a framework on which you’ll build your brand.

STEP 1: FIGURE OUT WHO YOU ARE

To write create a USP, you need to figure out who you are. Yeah, we’re really going back to basics here but you’ll thank me for it.

Go get a big pile of 3×5 cards. Using the list below, write down at least one thing that describes you in that area. (Preferably, write down several things – one on each card).

  • Education
  • Experience
  • Expertise
  • Skills/Talent
  • Interests
  • Credentials
  • Methodology
  • Deliverables
  • Target market
  • Personality

If possible, write several cards for each topic. I’ve done that, below for myself.

Write down as many descriptions as you can think of for each of the areas listed above. (Note that I’ve included two interests of mine — “beer” and “poker” — along with several other more professional elements like my education and experience).

Spend some time doing this. Don’t try to squeeze the entire exercise into a half hour. Force yourself to go deeper. Education and experience might be easy but the other stuff may prove to be slightly more challenging. When I did this very exercise, I uncovered some compelling ideas I hadn’t considered but it took some digging.

STEP 2: MIX TO DISCOVER POTENTIAL USP’S

Now that you’ve written down who you are on several 3×5 cards, it’s time to figure out how you can be different. In this step, you’re going to select just a few of the elements to highlight in your USP. Just because you highlight a few elements doesn’t eliminate the others. However, it’s good to highlight just a few – it will make your brand development and marketing easier, and it will make you more memorable.

So, shuffle the cards together and select a few at once, laying them out in front of you. Try dealing out 2-5 in a batch and seeing what sticks. You should see one of the following combinations:

  • Groups of cards that don’t make sense together. That’s okay. It happens. Creativity requires a lot of failures.
  • Groups of cards that don’t really make sense but are maybe the start of something. Good! Write down that combination for later!
  • Groups of cards that nicely capture something about what you do in a unique way. Excellent!

On a separate sheet of paper, write down the combination if it seems good or great then reshuffle the cards and deal out another 2-5 cards.

At the end of this part of the exercise you should have dealt out dozens of combinations and you should have a few (hopefully a handful of at least 4-7 card-groups) that you can work with. These are the starting points and you’ll work with them and narrow them down into just one great USP.

Here are some examples:

This is an example of a jazz-loving real estate professional in the Dallas/Fort Worth area:

And here’s an example of a financial advisor who has a combination of interests that seem related:

The examples above show a few “starting points” that a financial advisor and a real estate agent might build from to create their USP.

STEP 3: TAKE IT UP A NOTCH

Now you’re just getting warmed up! The next step is to give these some zing. Turn them into something special by tightening them up a little. You don’t have to polish them perfectly (because you’re only going to choose one from the group you have), but this process helps you to think a little further about them.
To make each one better, try doing some of the following:

  • Try making it more specific rather than just a few words strung together: “I’m the jazz saxophone real estate agent”.
  • Dust off your copywriting skills and compress the group of words down to a tight sentence that nicely summarizes how you are different.
  • Tie your USP in with something familiar. The James-Bond-style USP (pictured as an example earlier) is familiar enough but there might be other things you can use – a famous character or landmark are handy. Just be careful of trademarks.
  • Start your sentence with declaration. For example, “I am the only real estate agent who…” or “I am the only financial advisor who…”. (Hat tip to Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap for this great technique).
  • Identify a group of words that you can “own”. Think of this group of words as a keyword set in Google. So when someone types in those keywords, your name (and ONLY your name) appears in the Google search. (Hat tip to Al Ries and Jack Trout for this technique).
  • Give it an edge. If “real estate agent” is too blasé, see if you can find something that means the same thing but says it in a different way. Will “Home Sale Expert” help to separate you by clearly identify a specific area of expertise? The “Jazz-loving Home Sale Expert” sounds much more dynamic and memorable than “real estate agent”.

You can also add some other elements to help you narrow your USP in different ways. For example, try narrowing your USP by geography…

or try combining one focus with another, like I’ve shown below…

or try narrowing your USP by some other specialty…

Now it’s time to rate each potential USP on a quick-and-dirty scale of “I don’t like it”, “It’s a decent starting point”, and “I really like this”. Get rid of the ones you don’t like. See if you can’t tweak the decent batch. Try to end up with 2-4 USPs that you can move forward with.

Then it’s time to figure out what other people think.

STEP 4: VALIDATE YOUR FINDINGS

Validating your potential USPs will help you to narrow the field even further. The two easiest ways to validate your findings is to validate against competitors and validate with customers.

Validate against competitors: Using a list of local professionals who compete directly with you, compare each of your potential USPs to each competitor. Are they actually Unique (to you) Selling Propositions? If you used them as your USP, would they only describe you or could they describe someone else?

For example, if your USP was something like: “I’m the real estate professional who loves the art of the deal” – well that sounds great but we can make the safe assumption that most of your real estate agent competitors love the art of the deal (or would at least tell their clients that they do). Or, if your USP is “I’m the only financial advisor who acts professionally by wearing a suit to the office” – well that sounds great but probably many financial advisors do that. Those USPs aren’t really “U” so they’ll need to be scrapped.

Compare each of your potential USPs to each of your competitors. This might sound like a long step but it will probably go faster than you realize.

Validate with clients: Validating with customers is a little trickier but not impossible. For example, you can write articles around the specific USP and post them on your website then measure traffic. Or if you have the time and/or financial budget, you can easily test this with Google AdWords. Create one AdWords ad for each USP and run them for a short period of time. Then measure click-through rates to see how people respond.

Or, if you don’t mind just asking your clients then just ask them! That’s easy enough. Say something like: “I’m designing some marketing for the upcoming season and I wondered which of these 5 descriptions really jumps out at you?“, and, “if you had to describe me to your friends, which of these 5 descriptions would most describe me?“. It’s good to ask both questions because the first question separates you from the USP to ask about marketability and memorability, while the second question asks them to identify how congruent you are with the USP.

If you ask your clients, you should ask a few. Don’t base your decision on just one or two clients. And, just because they pick one doesn’t mean you have to choose that one. But their input will be informative. Perhaps they’ll give good advice about one USP that you eventually weave into a different USP.

STEP 5: GUT CHECK. WILL IT WORK FOR YOU?

Now that you’ve done some leg-work in creating and then validating your potential USPs, you should have narrowed your USPs down to just a couple of really strong ones.

Your next question needs to be: Can you support this USP? By that I mean: Will you be able to build a brand and marketing content around this USP? And, can you live with this USP?

In most cases, creating brand and marketing content around a USP should be possible… but you might find a potential USP you really like that doesn’t lend itself well to a brand.

The great challenge, though, will be “can you live with this USP?” In other words, what will your response be if someone calls you up out of the blue and just quotes your USP back to you? For example, “Are you the real estate agent who wears the chicken costume?” What happens if your friends or family find out what your USP is. Can you live with that? I’ve found this question to be quite challenging at times and have scrapped several potential USPs because I realized that I didn’t want to be known as that 5 or 10 years down the road.

STEP 6: NARROW IT DOWN

At this point, you should only have a couple of potential USPs that are really compelling, have been validated against competitors and with clients, and are USPs that you can get excited about. Now it’s time to pick one. If you’re really unsure, it might be worth doing some more testing (maybe using Google AdWords or asking more clients). Do this until you have one. Just one. One big, shiny, happy, awesome, compelling USP that describes you and only you.

WANT AN EXAMPLE?

I wasn’t going to use my own USP as an example because I don’t want it to seem like I’m overly promoting myself here. I don’t want my blog to seem like an ego trip. But I think it’s a good example of a rough-around-the-edges USP that works nicely. So, if you’ll forgive me for talking about myself for a moment, I’ll demonstrate with my own USP.

For the past several years, my USP has remained the same (even though my brand has been tweaked and improved). In general, my USP is this: I’m a (formerly) licensed stockbroker/insurance agent with an MBA who has spent over a decade writing online content for financial and real estate businesses.

It’s not pretty but it’s not supposed to be. It’s an “internal” summary of what makes me unique among freelance writers. And, if you click around my site and other marketing channels, you’ll see that I’ve incorporated elements of it in just about everything – from my tagline to my bios to my About Me page to the stuff I write about.

And it works. That’s why I’ve stuck with it. It gets me business and it is continually validated by clients who say something like “I hired you because you worked in the industry” or “I hired you because your MBA provides you with a bigger picture.”

Okay, enough about me. I’m not here to stroke my ego. I just wanted to show you an example of one that has worked. It’s a framework that I build my entire business off of.

HERE’S WHAT TO DO NEXT

Now that you have your USP, you’re ready to start building your brand and your marketing. Here’s how:

  • Create a slogan or tagline that hints at your USP
  • Revisit your professional photographs to make sure that they reflect your USP
  • Rewrite your bio content and About Me pages to reflect your USP.
  • Make it a point to weave elements of your USP into all of your marketing content, no matter what the channel
  • Identify a keyword or keyphrase that you can “own” in Google that relates to your USP.

From there, continue to incorporate your USP into everything. Make sure that all content that leaves your office communicates at least some aspect of your USP in some way.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! It’s possibly the world’s longest blog post. Hey, do me a favor and put your USP into the comments. I’d love to read it!

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