“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
If you run a business long enough, at some point, someone will tell you how you need to find your unique selling proposition. Maybe they’ll call it a value proposition. Maybe they’ll just tell you to find your special snowflake-y-ness in this big, melting puddle of snowflakes.
Whatever it is, it’s inevitable.
And it sounds pretty good, right?
It’s the idea that if you can own your little spot in the universe and set up shop there, just like the pioneers who settled into the plains, you too, can live off the land we know as the marketplace.
So you put pencil to paper, and slowly, the words trickle out. It feels a lot like constipation.
Suddenly, your inner advertiser bursts to life, using words like unique and special and artistry and memories, preservation, authenticity, and did I mention unique? Yes, there’s always unique.
And after awhile, it starts to feel like you’ve written a bad Cadillac commercial or you’re running for president, rife with all that hope-y, change-y stuff. And it sounds an awful lot like everybody else.
Probably because we’ve all been force-fed a steady diet of badly written ad-speak our whole damn lives.
And, invariably, when it’s your turn, what are you going to do?
Barf it all back out.
Here’s one of my attempted USPs from circa 2006:
“I preserve unique, authentic memories of people’s special day.”
Yes. You’re correct.
I was well on track to starving on my little plot of land in the universe. But there’s hope.
See, the problem here, like so many business exercises, is you’re inevitably operating in a vacuum.
It’s like speaking French.
When I was in high school, I took French. I remember very little. But that’s beside the point.
The point is that people would hear that, and they’d say “Oh, you do? Say something in French!”
Stymied, I’d mumble whatever unoriginal thought came to mind. Usually something like “I’m speaking French right now.” In French, of course.
The point is, in a vacuum, we suck (couldn’t resist the pun…so sorry).
The mind starves without input, and being put on the spot to speculate about what we do that no one else does is the surest way to deprive ourselves of oxygen.
But you just need to breathe. To get out of your head and see yourself.
See, what’s really happening, is we’re trying to project. We’re looking for a place on the map to plant our business, when we haven’t gone there yet.
When asked how she built her career in theater and film, the award-winning actress Rosemary Harris said “I’ve never had a career—or rather, I’ve only ever had a career backwards.”
You can’t know what’s coming. You can only see where you’ve been.
But here’s the thing.
Just like a crime scene, there are clues all over that all point to one specific conclusion. Your purpose is there. Your snowflake-y something is there.
It’s in you.
But it’s buried.
So if you’re having trouble projecting, instead of trying to look forward, try looking in and looking back. Look for the clues.
LOOKING BACK TOOK SCHLITZ BEER TO #1
Early in the 20th century, the buzzword of the beer wars was “Pure.” It might be akin to words like authentic or organic or artisan right now.
Schlitz Beer was losing ground to the competition, so they brought on Claude Hopkins, one of the marketing industry’s greatest, to help them recover, and in one fell stroke, Hopkins took Schlitz from #5 to #1 just by using a single strategy.
When he came on board, the first thing he did was take a factory tour. He saw plate glass rooms with beer dripping over pipes, and when he asked about it, they explained that the room was filled with filtered air to cool the beer without impurities.
Finally, he asked why Schlitz didn’t share this information with the public.
They replied “Because every manufacturer does it.”
But Hopkins knew it didn’t matter, because no one knew it.
To the public, this was unique and novel information, and that was how Schlitz won the beer wars, took back the word purity, and came back from the brink.
Just by telling it like it is.
You have a remarkable story. You have a unique benefit. You need to look at the clues.
TAKE A LOOK AT YOURSELF
Instead of trying to speculate and create a piece of fiction that sounds good, take a tour of your own life.
Go gather a bunch of work and write out whatever memories you have of the challenges you faced. Ask yourself how you solved these problems.
Maybe you can pretend you’re a client, seeing the pictures for the first time. What do you see? What is the message? What does your work convey?
Or try putting yourself in an argument. If someone asked you “What’s so special about this?” what would you say? How would you defend yourself? Suppose you put your pictures next to your competitors’, and someone told you “I don’t see how you’re different.” How would you prove to them you are?
Or try to really be the tour guide. Pretend you were speaking to a bunch of people trying to take them behind the scenes, and you wanted to show how you came to be the person you are. What’s your story? What views did they lead to?
You can even look at your inspirations. If you were sharing your bio, you’d want to show the influences, right? What did those people stand for? Did they have something in common? Doesn’t that show something about you?
Or finish off this statement:
“I love what I get to do, because I get to go out and…”
What? What do you really get to go out and do? No corporate speak. No ad speak. You’re at a bar, and you’re telling it to your friend. Now tell me.
You get the idea. Just keep going with it. Put on different hats. Wear different suits. See it from different angles.
But above all, don’t speculate. Get out of the vacuum.
Get real and get detailed. Then, at the end of it, ask yourself again. What do you do that’s different?
And if you’re not there yet, no problem. Come back to it in a couple weeks, and go through it all again.
Keep at it, and you’ll get there.