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USP is much beloved on the Dragon’s Den. Often you’ll hear Peter Jones saying: “I like that, that’s your USP.” USP, of course, stands for unique selling point (or proposition).

To explain USPs, I’ll tell you a personal story. When I started my first business more than 20 years ago, I went on a high-growth, business start-up programme. The guy who was teaching us about marketing was obsessed with USPs.

Problem was, he was trying to apply multi-national corporate thinking to my small start-up. His approach was totally inappropriate. I was going to be doing the selling myself and he wanted to construct a fake sales pitch for me that followed a big business template.

Glasgow approach

If you’ve been to one of these start-up seminars, you’ll know there’s always some bloke or woman standing there telling you how important your USP is. So how do you identify your USP?

Well, today, you’re going to get the Glasgow guide to USPs. In other words, straight forward, no messing around.

Basically, a USP is something that makes your product or service different. It enables you to charge more or sell more because it separates you from the competition. A USP allows you to you make more money as a result of the competitive edge it gives you.

How do you find your USP? There’s only one way – get people to sample your product or service and listen to what they say. In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk – you “conversate”. You talk and you listen. Listen, listen, listen.

Matter of taste

Making cakes was my first business and the guy who was running the start-up course I went on asked me what my USP was. I simply stuck a slice of cake in front of him, he had a bite and replied: “Ooh – that’s delicious”.

My chocolate cake was vastly rich. It was made of pure chocolate, raw cane sugar, good chocolate shavings on the top, no preservatives, no additives and extremely high quality. That tells you that my cake was special, aimed at the top end of the market. It didn’t look perfect, so I stressed its homemade qualities, giving it a sense of authenticity and wholesomeness, both powerful USPs.

When you’re trying to find your USP, you need to identify something that makes your product, service or business distinctive. How do you do it? As I did with my cake, you should take your product or service and shove it in front of people as much and as often as you can. Ask people what they like best about your offer. You might find that certain phrases and words will be repeated. In the case of my chocolate cake, it was, “My God, very rich!” and “Wow – really chocolaty”.

Ever heard of Kobi beef? It’s the world’s most expensive beef – I think it’s looked after by nuns or whatever. Actually, I’m kidding, it comes from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, which is raised strictly by traditional methods. It’s renowned for its flavour, tenderness and fatty, well-marbled texture. Its rarity and great care taken in its rearing are powerful USPs, as well as its flavour and succulence. Its price is another USP (“The world’s most expensive meat”).

In conclusion

Does your business/product/service need a USP? Absolutely. Whether it’s chocolate cake or Japanese beef that you’re selling, if you can come up with something that marks your product and business out as different – as special – you’ve already got an important head start.

Iain Scott, Enterprise Café

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True net gains?

“Small firms should increase their website presence,” urges BBC entrepreneur expert Howard Graham in a new piece on the BBC website.

He cites the well-established business wisdom that growing your firm depends on creating a unique selling proposition (USP) and communicating it to your target market. “The web is simply the best way of doing that,” he argues.

In many cases, he’s right. For example, an independent bookshop selling rare first editions could make invaluable use of a website to make its unique publications known to a wider audience, and of course sell them via an online shop.

But I’m surprised that Graham should believe it’s “extraordinary” that fewer than half of all small businesses have a web presence. Is it really that astounding when, as the Federation of Small Businesses says, “the vast majority of small businesses serve their local markets”?

I spoke to my greengrocer this week. I suggested the very thing Graham is advocating, that he should consider investing in a website. I expected a negative reaction based on likely cost, but I was wrong. He simply replied: “I’m based in Bristol, why do I want someone in Leeds to know who I am? He won’t want to buy from me, and even if he does, by the time he gets to me, the carrots will have rotted!”

My local grocer was more concerned with making sure families down the street know he was open for business. Graham’s firm carried out a survey that backs this claim up: “A recent survey we carried out at Made Simple Group clearly showed that… specifically improving visibility to generate new business was a key concern for many.”

But is a website always the best way to achieve this? How vital is a web presence to a plumber, mobile hairdresser or local newsagent? Surely good old fashioned word-of-mouth, attention-grabbing signage and business cards do the job just as well – if not better – than an expensive website?

This is not to say small businesses should ignore other avenues of online marketing – social networks such as Twitter, Ecademy and Facebook, as well as blogging. All can provide excellent, low-cost exposure for your business. The Start Up Donut has some great videos that provide an introduction to online social networking.

But a purely web-based approach to publicising a small business can be ineffective if not suicidal. Small firms should increase their website presence – but only if there is true value in doing so.

Mark Hook, BHP Information Solutions

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Whether your business is large, small, new or been around the block a few times, every penny in your marketing budget has to work hard and give you a return.  Remember though that doors opened through your marketing now may lead you down a profitable path in the future, but not yield a financial return just yet.

Marketing doesn’t have to cost a fortune and there are many effective marketing activities that you can do that won’t cost a penny yet will point you in the right direction to get your business to where you want it to be.  Here goes …

  1. Put yourself in their shoes – where does your target audience go?  do?  read?  listen to?   Don’t waste time and money being where they are not.
  2. What is your USP? – what makes you different from your competitors?  Don’t just be another face in the crowd.
  3. Be an expert – write articles and get them published.  Register on http://www.expertsources.co.uk and http://www.findatvexpert.com.
  4. Sell the sizzle not the steak – highlight the benefits of what you do and not just explain what you do.
  5. Freebies – offer a free consultation/trial session/product.  Let people experience what you will do for them.
  6. Testimonials – if you have happy customers, shout about them.  Third party endorsements are worth their weight in gold.
  7. Case studies – these are expanded testimonials and allow you to show a problem you helped solve.  The media love these.
  8. Social networking – set up profiles on, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, UKBusinessForums, and start connecting.  They’re free.
  9. Network – people buy from people so get out there and meet people.  There are loads of networking groups out there.
  10. E-mail signature – include your contact details and a short sales message or link to something you want to promote at the end of each e-mail.  This can be automated.

The best thing to reduce your marketing spend is to Stop & Think before you commit any money.  There may be a free or cheaper alternative … effective marketing does not have to cost a fortune.

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