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Strategic Communications: How To Develop Your USP

 

ApplesEvery company must determine its own unique selling proposition (or "unique selling point" or "USP") or it will have a hard time staying in business. 

Whether it's a quality advantage ("better"), production or workflow advantage ("faster") or price advantage ("cheaper"), there simply has to be one unique factor that resonates with a company's customer base.  It's a basic sales tool (more on that shortly), but the same USP can be leveraged as the focal point for a strategic communications program.

Developing Your USP

To determine what this factor might be, the best starting point for getting to your USP is to develop a SWOT (“Strength Weakness Opportunity Threat”) analysis of the company and its position in the marketplace.  As the public relations agency, it's important to prepare this document to present a studied “outsider’s” perception of the company, and then use it as the basis of a meeting with the company's executives and marketing team to determine the USP.

In order to prepare this document, we research a number of areas:

  • Media coverage – both quantitative and qualitative -- and interview key journalists
  • Analyst coverage, including interviews with key analysts that follow your company
  • Marketplace analysis and positioning of your real and perceived competitors
  • Your own marketing communications and public relations materials, such as sales and promotional literature and company-issued press releases
  • Your web site and an analysis of how it compares to your competitor’s web sites

Designed to focus the meeting and get “everyone on the same page” prior to its start, the SWOT analysis should be distributed well in advance of the meeting to give everyone attending time to review it and provide feedback prior to the meeting.  If necessary, document should be revised prior to the meeting based on this feedback.

After reviewing the agenda and the desired outcome of the meeting, the overview document serves as a springboard for discussion.  Everyone’s input is valuable during this session, and we have found that those “in the trenches” -- the product managers and sales staff -- often provide the real world experience that balances the perspective of more senior level executives. 

Establishing Your Strategic Differentiation

This balance of viewpoints is essential in establishing the strategic differentiation.  Let’s face it -- the product and sales staffs are the ones out there selling every day.  They receive direct feedback on the key reasons customers and clients buy a product or service.  They learn firsthand what determinant attribute -- whether quality, price, availability, distribution, brand reputation or some other factor or factors – is the key to closing the sale.

These determinant attributes are the characteristics that are important to customers, yet distinguish the product from competing products.  By identifying the product or service attributes that your customers use to differentiate among competing products or services, we learn why your products sell and begin to understand what makes your company unique. 

Determining Strength of Differentiation

Once the meeting attendees have agreed upon a list of attributes, the next step is to determine the importance of each attribute and how strong the differentiation is between each one as compared to the competition.  We then focus the discussion on refining the analysis of each of these attributes.  If you have, for example, the most efficient widget, we might ask these questions to gain more meaningful information:

  • What company is in second place?
  • How much more efficient are you than them?
  • How does the rest of the competition stack up?
  • What company looks to be a short- and/or long-term threat?
  • Are there outside factors that affect this attribute?
  • Are new companies moving into the market that might affect your leadership position in this particular area?

It's important that the focus of the strategic thinking be on those attributes that clearly set the company apart from the competition – this list may be as short as one or as long as a dozen factors or more.  The end result of this meeting is powerful source material for developing an overall marketing strategy as well as a communications program for your product or service. 

Strategic Communications: How To Set Up a Communications Audit

 

In an earlier blog, “Strategic Communications Starts with a Communications Strategy," we looked at three examples of how companies utilize different approaches to public relations to market themselves:

  • Company A -- Reactionary, product-focused
  • Company B -- Intermittent, "hit and miss"
  • Company C -- The "big bang" theory

While each of these programs may be effective with the media in the short term, none of these programs will be successful over the long term.  Each one fails by that important benchmark because they all lack three interrelated factors:

  • A thorough understanding of how the media works
  • A long-term perspective
  • The commitment necessary for success

By understanding each of these factors, it's possible to lay the groundwork for establishing an overall communications strategy and then developing the communications programs necessary to make the media first aware of your company and then interested in writing about it over the long-term.

Developing a Positioning Strategy: The Essential First Step

The first step in developing a positioning strategy is to conduct an internal audit of what makes your company unique.  This uniqueness becomes the foundation of your company’s strategic differentiation in the eyes of the media. It is also the foundation for the stories that you can develop that will appeal to the media and to the audiences you want to reach -- from customers to business partners to stakeholders and employees.

Checking under the hood

While the phrase “internal audit” conjures up a costly and lengthy process of surveys, interviews and meetings that can often center more on the process than on the results, we have found from our experience that a focused half-day session with the key company executives is the optimum approach to "looking under the hood."

Gathering together this core group of executives establishes a forum that enables everyone to contribute their views of what makes your company unique.  Members of this group range from the obvious top-level positions of CEO and division heads to the not so obvious, such as those more responsible for the day-to-day operations at your company, such as product and sales managers.  Corporate communications staff and outside communications agencies would of course be included as well. 

The strength of this approach is in the numbers.  The key is to be inclusive so that a variety of viewpoints are represented, but at the same time the number of participants is limited to a workable number.  From our experience, this group has been as small as three people at a startup to as large as 20 at a Fortune 500 company.

To maximize the output of this group session, we always prepare a document that presents our own, studied “outsider’s” perception of your company.  This marketplace SWOT (“Strength Weakness Opportunity Threat”) analysis is designed to focus the meeting and get “everyone on the same page” prior to its start.

Teeing Up the SWOT

In order to prepare this document, we research a number of areas:

  • Media coverage – both quantitative and qualitative -- and interview key journalists
  • Analyst coverage, including interviews with key analysts that follow your company
  • Marketplace analysis and the positioning of your real and perceived competitors
  • Your own marketing communications and public relations materials, such as sales and promotional literature and company-issued press releases
  • Your website and an analysis of how it compares to your competitor’s websites

This preliminary overview document is distributed well in advance of the meeting to give everyone attending the necessary time to review it and provide feedback prior to the meeting.  If necessary, the document should be revised prior to the meeting based on attendees’ feedback.

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