Unique Selling Proposition: Creating Mystique

By Phumulani Mngomezulu

Phumulani Mngomezulu is a Brand Strategist and an award-winning business author whose thought leadership work has been recommended by business, marketing, brand and psychology experts across Africa and from successful brands in Africa. Phumulani’s strategy and thought leadership work focuses on sustainable brand building and branding for purpose-led/impact entrepreneurial development.  

There is a question in my entrepreneurial journey that I have since coined to myself as, “The Inevitable Question”. This is the question, whether I like it or not, I will definitely be asked. This refers to any entrepreneurial setting from engaging a customer, to panellists at pitches and even on-the-road conversations like shop-talking with the Uber driver.

They always ask: “What makes your business unique?” 

For the longest of time I have struggled to answer this question, and it is not struggling because I did not know what makes my business unique, but because I always seemed to change it in some way. I would say one thing to the customer, another thing to the pitch judges and another thing to the Uber driver. I could never clearly explain what makes my brand unique that cannot be found anywhere else, even when I instinctively knew the answer.

I am quite certain that this remains a challenge to many other entrepreneurs. This is a problem because branding is about differentiation and if you cannot clearly communicate your USP, it means you haven’t quite differentiated yet. That is harmful to your brand.

So I will share what I have managed to learn about USP, with the mission to help you answer: The Inevitable Question.

I believe for an entrepreneurial brand to discern USP, two things should be considered:

  • The capabilities of the business or Core Competencies
  • The thought-leadership processes of the business

Capabilities / Core Competencies

Core Competencies or Capabilities, refers to the things that you can do exceptionally well in house. This is a very imperative element of delivering on promise, because it is usually the difference between brands that execute strategy or deliver on their promise and those that do not.

Let’s look at the example here:

Sam Redding is a qualified and talented graphic designer and has a lot of experience working in branding and marketing. He runs a company called SR Branding & Projects. Their brand promise is on producing visually salient designs. However, the big chroma deck sign outside SR Redding read they specialize in the following:

  • Branding
  • Events Management
  • Catering
  • Sound Hire & Chairs
  • Plumbing

The problem with the above example is that Sam, in working on delivering his original promise, is also busy trying to do other things. He has the capability as a designer and has experience in branding & marketing, which he has promised his customers is what he wants to do for them. Now he is also trying to manage events, cater, hire sound and chairs, and be also be a plumber. While it is arguably true that all those services are possible for one company to provide, it is however not productive and it makes the work of turning Sam’s company into a brand in people’s minds much more difficult. It indicates that Sam is not focused and fully committed to execute on his promise to his customers.

Executing your brand promise needs you to focus on – your brand promise.

Sam is a designer and he has experience in branding and marketing. It would make more sense that he should be doing branding. The other services on his list are specialties that Sam will need to invest effort, time, money and resources, in which he should be using to support his original promise. He is making promises to a lot of consumer groups, which affects his focus into growing his business to a respected brand.

As an entrepreneurial brand, the path to finding out the core competencies for your brand is to first find out your own personal core competencies. As an entrepreneur, you are your business. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What can I personally do really well?
  • What do I actually want to achieve personally?
  • What are my personal passions?
  • What are my personal core strengths?

Transfer those strengths into your business. Let your strengths be your fuel as you build your brand. Focusing on anything else that is not your strength is a waste of your consumers’ time and yours. At Persntge, we further define this as Entrepreneurial Sauce, which means to add your entrepreneurial strengths/competencies into your business to create business competency.

Now, once you have answered the above questions and you have figured out your personal competencies, you define that as the activities that your business is going to use to deliver the brand promise. In Sam’s case, he would identify that he has a graphic design strength and skill and he has experience in branding. That would enable him to use his branding service and start playing around with different competencies he can offer, such as design or web. That would create real focus in his brand, it will be fixed in his consumers mind on what he does and specializes in and as a result, with time and effort, that would create a greater probability on him delivering on his promise through the years.

Thought Leadership Processes

I am aware that not many entrepreneurial brands have Intellectual Property (IP) and most are not even thinking about it, especially when you are not selling a new invented product, you do not see a need to protect anything. My aim is to encourage you to start thinking about it. I think part of the reason why entrepreneurial brands are not thinking about IP is because of not being serious about core competencies. When you are clear about your core competencies, you eventually start thinking about developing your own property for what you do.

Think back to the story of Nike. Phil Knight started selling Tigers, the Japanese shoes through his company Blue Ribbon.  He was mainly a reseller at the time but he was always clear that the competency of his company Blue Ribbon would be to resell athletic shoes for runners. As he immersed himself in this competency, we saw that his journey led him to designing and manufacturing his own shoes. As a result of that there was Nike products, which was their IP, and throughout the years Nike started offering more than just shoes as we know today. Phil Knight would not have come to develop his own shoes if he was not immersed in his competency.

This was the same for McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and any other big brand you can think of. The point is that, behind these brands is a sense of mystique that you can get from only that particular brand and they own it. Starbucks is about third space, Nespresso is about the making of coffee and Pampers is about baby health and development.

Starbucks and Nespresso both sell coffee, but at different competencies and that allows you to view the brands with a different lens because even when they both sell coffee, Starbucks wants to make you feel at home and work at the same time and Nespresso wants to empower you with the making of coffee. Same businesses. Different strengths.

Colonel Sanders started experimenting with the 11 herbs and spices at Sander’s Café, his small restaurant outside a petrol station that he owned back in the 1930s, where he served chicken dishes. That allowed him to immerse himself in the competency of taste and frying chicken. The KFC recipe is a result of that.

All big brands have mystique. That mystique is their IP. That IP is a result of competency in a field, skill, method, formula, etc.

The more your entrepreneurial brand is not immersing itself in core competencies, the more you lose a chance to generate that mystique. Mystique is that unknown special quality that comes with what you do, that only you can do. The path to finding your mystique is through tapping into that skill, field, method and formula that you’re good at.

Think about some of the fast food businesses that we see in the townships like the kota/sphahlo business. The people who are selling that use spices, sauces and other condiments that are all the same because they all come from Tiger Brands. They differentiate through ways that can be easily replicated such as how the kota is arranged and presented – someone else can copy that. As a result it has become a problem to scale the kota business. Why are they not thinking of creating their own special sauces or spices and trying them on their kotas?

Imagine if we have a kota that comes with a unique taste from a spice or a sauce that is made by the owner. That is the mystique that we are talking about. That kota business would be unbeatable because the competition would need the formula and ingredients for that special sauce or spice.

It would really set the kota business apart and thereby create unprecedented USP because of this IP or mystique.

Most of the time when asked “The Inevitable Question”, you might be tempted to list things like your pricing, personal service or quality but anyone can say that.

I believe this is the grandest path to USP. Mystique. To be able to defend it and measure it. But that means you have to truly own it. Otherwise, if you do not own what you say makes you unique then are you really unique? How soon will it be before they catch you out and your uniqueness is replicated somewhere else?

Think about it.

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