In the final season of Mad Men, Don Draper is asked by the CEO of a small computer services firm if advertising might help his business. Don's immediate response is to ask: "What's unique about your company?"

That's the first question I ask when I work with companies to revamp their sales and marketing messages. I almost almost get some variation of these answers:

  1. We decrease the customer's costs.
  2. We increase the customer's revenue.
  3. We decrease the customer's costs and increase the customer's revenue.
  4. We increase productivity.
  5. We're the highest quality.
  6. We're the best value.
  7. We're the industry leader.
  8. Our product is [exciting-sounding buzzword].

Answers 1 through 4 simply describe the goal of every B2B product, and are therefore meaningless, while answers 5 through 7 are just personal opinions, which are irrelevant to customers. (Answer 8 is just plain stupid because customers don't care about buzzwords.)

The failure to articulate why you're unique is important because if you can't, there's no reason that customers should buy from you as opposed to your competitors. With this in mind, there are six ways to be unique:

  1. Lower Price. Your product costs less than similar products.
  2. Faster Delivery. You can get the product into the customer's hands sooner that your competition.
  3. Product Features. Your product does something that the customer values but that your competition lacks.
  4. Superlative Support. You can service customers better than your competition (ideally measured by and objective source).
  5. Valued Advisor. The perception that you are a unique resource with specialized knowledge.
  6. Emotional Connection. A previous personal connection exists between you and the individual buyer.

As a general rule, the more of these elements of uniqueness that you possess, the more successful you and your company will be. For example, suppose you're selling inventory control software. The ideal situation would look something like this:

  1. Lower Price. Your software costs half as much as your competition's software.
  2. Faster Delivery. Your software installs in half the time it takes to install your competition's software
  3. Product Features. Your software is the only one in the world that automatically corrects security problems.
  4. Superlative Service. You've hired enough fully-qualified support technicians that there's never a wait time.
  5. Valued Advisor. You, personally, have written a book on inventory control software.
  6. Emotional Connection. You once sold a CRM system to the same customer and it worked so perfectly the customer is still talking about it.

Needless to say, such ideal situations seldom or never occur (but it's fun to think about them!) In real life, it's usually enough to possess one or two of these element to establish your uniqueness. Here are some famous examples:

  1. Lower Price. Asus's monitors are usually about 10% cheaper than the competition.
  2. Faster Delivery/Availability. Amazon offers a huge selection and has very fast delivery times.
  3. Product Features. Tesla Motors has products possessing features that other products lack.
  4. Superlative Service. As anyone who travels knows, Jet Blue treats passengers much better than other airlines.
  5. Valued Advisor. Tony Robbins is a one-of-a-kind motivational speaker who's written several bestsellers. (#5)
  6. Emotional Connection. Apple has established an emotional connection between the brand and its customers. (#6)

While those examples are from huge businesses, the same elements of uniqueness apply to startups and small businesses. However, there are some restrictions and special cases.

  1. Lower Price. As a general rule, you can't be the low price leader in a commodity product for very long. Unless your product is so niche, you're the only one who can get it, you'll be clobbered by somebody who's willing to tolerate smaller or even negative profits.
  2. Faster delivery/availability. For small businesses, this usually means serving a particular geographical area, especially one that is difficult or impractical for other companies to reach. A common example is the corner store that serves a small neighborhood of people who don't have cars, or a pizza parlor that delivers to a rural area that's too dispersed to support one of the big chain parlors.
  3. Product Features. Many startups base their future on this and it can be very effective, especially if the product is original and interesting. However, if it's a product that has a broad appeal and isn't too hard to replicate, some big company may enter your market and underprice you. (Or, if you're lucky, buy you, which would of course be a good thing.)
  4. Superlative Support. This is the classic area where small companies can usually do a better job than big companies. The challenge here is that some customer may take too much advantage of your support policies and thus make your product unprofitable. However, that's more likely to happen if a small company unwisely tries to be the low price leader as well as have the best customer support.
  5. Valued Advisor. The best salespeople (and non-salespeople who must sell to launch their business) get really good at this. They study their customer's problems and competitors and can provide insights that the customer otherwise might overlook. The customer then buys from you simply to keep you around.
  6. Personal connection. This is another area where small companies can excel. Big companies tend to be impersonal but smaller companies (and those who work for them) have obvious "personalities" can keep customers buying. In addition, a good reputation for delivering as promised goes a long way with any customer.

So those are your basic choices. Obviously, there's much more I could say about each of them, but this should do as a start.

BTW, in the Mad Men episode, when Don asks "What's unique about you?", the CEO doesn't have any idea, so Don simply answers for him: "Your competitors don't have you... and they aren't advertising." Sweet!