Originally published in The Startup.
It was 3 pm on a dreich Monday afternoon and I was having trouble stopping my eyes rolling visibly into the back of my head.
My client sat across the table from me, looking eager as driving drizzle (a speciality of Scottish summertime) slid down the window behind them.
The consultation had been going well up until that point — it felt like we were on the same page — but I’d killed it with the question that always killed it.
And I mean in the original sense of the word.
“What’s your business’s USP?”, I’d asked them.
“My what…?”, they replied, their smile slipping.
“Your USP, your unique selling proposition.”
I tried a different tack.
“What distinguishes you from your competitors?”
Deep in thought, a grimace crept over their face.
“What characteristics set your business apart?”, I persevered.
“What makes your business special?”
Bingo! Their face lit up with an idea. And thank goodness, because I was running out of ways to rephrase the question. I hovered, pen over notepad, poised to write down what was coming.
“We take pride in providing an excellent standard of customer service and our staff are highly experienced professionals.”
I put my pen down and rubbed my eyes. That was not the answer I was looking for.
I’m a copywriter and knowing what makes a client’s business unique is fairly integral to my work.
Getting them to actually tell me what makes their business unique? That was an egg I was having trouble cracking.
I couldn’t find a question that would yield what I was after — a flash of inspiration, a spark to light the touchpaper of a brilliant idea.
Instead, clients would list off the same old worn-out happy talk I’d heard a hundred times before.
“We’re a family business of three generations…”
“Our first-rate facilities are located in the beautiful Scottish countryside…”
Nothing special to hang a marketing campaign around there.
I think it was Steve Krug who first coined the phrase “happy talk” in his book Don’t Make Me Think (published in 2005 and still fiercely relevant):
It’s that amiable-sounding fluff people are often so eager to pad out their marketing copy with.
What’s wrong with wanting to sound friendly, you ask?
There’s nothing wrong with it per se, it’s an honourable aim. It just doesn’t make for effective copy when you’ve got a limited word count to make an impact. Not to mention the ever-diminishing attention spans of today’s consumers.
I’ll defer again to Steve Krug:
“Unlike good promotional copy, it [happy talk] conveys no useful information, and focuses on saying how great we are, as opposed to delineating what makes us great.”
Was the problem me, I wondered? Attracting boring clients lacking in creativity or vision.
An older, more experienced me would say there’s no such thing as a boring client — everyone has a good story to tell. The key is extracting the story, and that’s where my difficulty lay.
Clearly, a fresh approach was needed before I told my clients to stuff it.
Luckily, inspiration was close at hand.
I was attending a seminar on corporate social responsibility when the speaker (whose name escapes me) asked the room to consider, beyond our own bank accounts, the positive impact our respective businesses made on society.
He posed the question:
“What would the world lose if your business closed tomorrow?”
There it was. The question I needed to ask.
I tried it out on my very next client and the result was pleasantly surprising. They opened up and told me the story of their business in all its gritty detail. The highs, the lows, the times they nearly gave up, the times they felt set for world domination.
Finally, some material I could work with.
Firstly, the question works because it’s emotive — people answer with their heart. You feel their passion, their drive, and understand their labour of love (which all businesses necessarily are in the beginning).
Ask about USPs and people answer with their head. You get dry, buttoned-up, best behaviour answers — the sort you find on grant applications and business school exam papers.
People make emotional buying decisions and dry, buttoned-up, best behaviour marketing copy rarely makes anyone feel anything other than bored.
Raw emotions are the rough building blocks from which exceptional copy can be carved. An awful lot of finessing is required, don’t get me wrong, but it’s far easier to rein in a wild idea and tame it than to create one out of nothing.
Secondly, the question works because it takes the focus away from comparisons.
Defining a business purely in comparison to others will never produce anything original — just slight variations of already well-trodden paths. You can never forge your own this way.
It’s the reason the internet is stuffed to the gunnels with articles discussing the same tired topics. Too many content creators look to what others are writing for inspiration (or seek to “join the conversation”) rather than coming up with anything new.
Sure, it’s safe. But my goodness it’s boring.
If you’re a copywriter, try asking your next client what the world would lose if their business closed tomorrow.
If you’re a business owner or in-house marketer, try asking the question to yourself and your colleagues — from the shop floor to the boardroom, and even customers if you can.
Hopefully, what you hear will help you join some dots in a new way and illuminate a fresh direction to take with your own or your client’s marketing. At the very least, the answers won’t kill you with boredom.