No USP, no problem

Forget about USPs – here’s how to really differentiate your firm.

“When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” “We’re number two. We try harder.”

Straightforward, meaningful and to the point, the well-known positioning statements above (FedEx and Avis, just in case you didn’t get them) represent brands that have made it their mission, and a successful one at that, to capture that vital piece of brand DNA: the unique selling point (USP). But finding this ‘brand holy grail’ is without doubt an easier proposition when it comes to consumer brands, compared to the world of professional services.

There’s plenty of evidence to support the view that the professional services USP is close to extinction. Take 15 minutes to browse a few professional service firms’ positioning statements and you’ll likely find that defining a clear point of difference between a firm and its competitors can be a futile exercise.Does it matter?

This begs a number of questions. If finding one’s USP becomes laboured, does that mean there isn’t a USP to find? Is the apparent inability to find and use a brand USP necessarily a bad thing? Is the only alternative generic brand marketing messages? As experts in business brand positioning, our answer is, of course, an emphatic No – there’s always another way to effectively position yourself. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, set a great example when he said he wasn’t selling makeup, he was selling hope. While this isn’t a customer-facing tagline, it’s certainly a fantastic platform for a compelling and creative brand positioning.

The usual suspects
We’ve found that many professional services firms tend to fall back on the usual suspects as a source of differentiation: history and heritage (although this is reassuring, it’s rarely unique), a rigorous and professional approach (we sure hope so), and then we get into the area of service excellence, attention to detail and expertise (again, these are qualities offered by many firms).

Let’s take a look at the ways that law firms, for example, attempt to distinguish and appeal to their diverse audiences. Most firms count on one of the following to create a positioning:

Reputation – ‘We’ve been brilliant for generations.’ This is a potentially fragile position that can lead to complacency, but combined with a modern brand flavour can be compelling.

Approachable – ‘The human face of law.’ For many law firms, coming across as approachable or even informal is a key selling point, but it needs to be carefully implemented to ensure that a ‘we don’t wear ties’ attitude isn’t interpreted as frivolous or unprofessional.

Vision and strong leadership – ‘We have loads of experience and insight.’ This is a bold claim that’s open to scrutiny, but with plenty of proof points a position of leading authority can be bold and persuasive.

Social justice and responsibility – ‘We’re a firm of do-gooders.’ This altruistic stance is admirable for the right target audience, but it also needs to sit well with clients who might want to work with a partner that’s ‘no nonsense.

Specific industry sector or practice area expertise – ‘Our team has worked with insert sector here for ages!’ Any claim of niche excellence will be tested; evidence to back up claims of excellence and expertise needs to be easily accessible.

Most firms fit into one of these broad brand positioning strategies and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. All of the stances mentioned are valid claims of brand position. Conversely, there are plenty of firms that don’t try to lay claim to any of the above, and take an approach based on ‘here‘s a list of partners, here’s a list of our practice areas – take your pick.’ Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that position either, it’s putting the onus on the client to make the right connections.

Taking a step back
We’ve found that a successful way to work with clients who are looking for market differentiation is to take a step back and view the brand from their clients’ point of view. An objective viewpoint, preferably from the people who actually buy your services, is absolutely essential for effectively determining your differentiation strategy; you can’t do this on your own. But using the right tools and tailoring them to your business can help you to get to the heart of your brand in an informed and objective way. This gives you the creative ammunition and collective confidence to build a brand story that delivers differentiation and that really fits your business and your clients’ needs, rather than just a superficial exercise in self-reflection.

Free yourself from the USP
So let’s abandon the pursuit of the endangered species that is the USP and look instead to define and articulate the SSP – the strategic selling point. Essentially, this is a brand strategy that works with the business to support and deliver the ambitions of the firm.What are the advantages of an SSP? The obvious one is that a measurable short to medium-term objective can be used, for example: a 20% growth in corporate client revenues over three years for a largely private client firm, or securing a place in the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies rankings within five years. These are concrete business objectives, so the question then is how can the brand help deliver these ambitions? In the examples provided above, the firm would have a clear view of its target audience together with specific stories and proof points to communicate.

Share the load
A crucial population that’s often overlooked during the strategic planning process is your firm’s internal audiences. From partners to support staff, having a clear vision is something that everyone can aim for and measure themselves against. Staff need to be truly involved, with targets and an easy to digest image of what success will look like. Even setting relatively modest ambitions can create an atmosphere of quiet revolution. In the often risk-averse world of professional service, a practical ambition which represents a realistic and tangible change is something that all partners and staff can believe in and feel part of.

It’s time to find your SSP
Locating the almost extinct USP is becoming a huge challenge in professional services, but that doesn’t mean that the only alternative is to do nothing or to just ‘follow the herd.’ Taking the time to include the right people in examining the firm’s purpose and ambition thoroughly helps to develop a brand story which can be interpreted for both internal and external audiences. Finding and capturing the elusive SSP is still no easy feat, but unlike attempting to trap the USP, with the right approach, a skilled team and the best hunting tools, it’s much more attainable and arguably will have a more profound impact on your firm in the long run.

For further information, or to discuss your specific brand or communication challenges and how we can help, talk to us.

See how we put this thinking into practice…