Forget the USP – it’s all about the SSP
Richard Newey and Steve Smith argue that firms
should abandon the search for their USP in favour
of finding their ‘strategic selling point’, and share
some thoughts on communicating it effectively.
Some brands are very good at
expressing their unique selling
points. Think of “When it
absolutely, positively has to be
there overnight,” or “We’re number two.
We try harder.” These positioning statements
represent brands (FedEx and Avis,
in this case) that have made it their
mission to capture their USPs. But
finding this ‘brand holy grail’ is without
doubt an easier proposition when it
comes to consumer brands, compared to
the world of professional services.
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to
support the view that the professional
services USP is close to extinction. Take
15 minutes to browse a few professional
service firms’ positioning statements and
you’re likely to find that trying to identify
a clear point of difference between a firm
and its competitors can be a futile exercise.
Does it matter?
If finding one’s USP becomes laboured,
does that mean there isn’t a USP to find?
Is the only alternative generic brand
marketing messages? As experts in business
brand positioning, our answer is, of
course, an emphatic NO – there’s always
another way to effectively position your
organisation. Charles Revson, founder of
Revlon, once said he wasn’t selling
makeup, he was selling hope. While this
isn’t a customer-facing tagline, it’s
certainly a fantastic platform for a
compelling and creative brand positioning.
The usual suspects
Many professional services firms tend to
rely on the usual suspects as a source of
differentiation: history and heritage
(although this is reassuring, it’s rarely
unique), a professional approach (we sure
hope so), as well as service excellence,
attention to detail and expertise (again,
these are qualities offered by many
Most firms fit into one of these broad
positioning strategies and there’s
absolutely nothing wrong with that;
they’re all valid claims of brand position.
Conversely, there are plenty of firms that
don’t try to lay claim to any of the above,
and take an approach based on ‘here‘s a
list of partners, here’s a list of practice
areas – take your pick.’ Although there’s
nothing intrinsically wrong with that
position either, it’s putting the onus on
the client to make the right connections.
Free yourself from the USP
So let’s abandon the pursuit of the endangered
species that is the USP and look
instead to define and articulate the SSP –
the strategic selling point. Essentially,
this is a brand strategy that works with
the business to support and deliver the
ambitions of the firm.
What are the advantages of an SSP?
The obvious one is that a measurable
short to medium-term objective can be
used, for example: a 20% growth in
corporate client revenues over three years
for a largely private client firm, or
securing a place in the Sunday Times
Best 100 Companies rankings within five
years. These are concrete business objectives,
so the question then is how can the
brand help deliver these ambitions? In
the examples above, the firm would have
a clear view of its target audience
together with specific stories and proof
points to communicate.
Time to find your SSP
While locating the almost extinct USP is a
big challenge in professional services, this
doesn’t mean that the only alternative is
to do nothing or to just follow the herd.
Taking the time to include the right
people in examining the firm’s purpose
and ambition thoroughly helps to develop
a brand story which can be interpreted
for both internal and external audiences.
Finding and capturing the elusive SSP is
still no easy feat, but unlike attempting to
trap the USP, with the right approach, a
skilled team and the best hunting tools,
it’s much more attainable and arguably
will have a more profound impact on
your firm in the long run.
Taking a step back
The starting point for differentiating your
firm should of course be to take a step
back and see the brand from your clients’
point of view. An objective viewpoint is
absolutely essential for effectively determining
your differentiation strategy; you
can’t do this on your own. But using the
right tools and tailoring them to your
business can help you get to the heart of
your brand in an informed and objective
way. This gives you the creative ammunition
and collective confidence to build a
brand story that delivers differentiation
and fits your business and your clients’
needs, rather than just a superficial exercise
Share the load
A crucial population that’s often overlooked
during the strategic planning
process is your internal audiences. From
partners to support staff, having a clear
vision is something that everyone can
aim for, with targets and an easy-todigest
image of what success will look
like. Even setting relatively modest
ambitions can create an atmosphere of
quiet revolution. In the often risk-averse
world of professional services, a practical
ambition representing realistic and
tangible change is something that all
partners and staff can believe in and feel
Do the maths
As you assess your differentiators,
conducting a brand health check will help
to evaluate the current state of both your
brand and your business’s overall health.
Score yourself on a 1-10 scale against
questions such as:
- Does the firm have a clear set of brand values?
- Does everyone understand them?
- Is the brand applied consistently?
- Is the brand evident in all business activities?
- Are we confident the brand is reaching our target market?
- Do our brand messages communicate the benefits that motivate our clients?
Putting some numbers to your brand
differentiation exercise can really focus
hearts and minds.
Communicating your SSP
If you already have a firm grasp on your
business’s differentiators, what do you do
next? How do you communicate them to
your chosen audiences? Here are 30 ways
to develop a communications strategy,
focusing on written and visual content,
that conveys your SSP effectively.
Communications strategy and planning
1 Plan your plan: Make sure your
communications plan is driven by your
overall business strategy and that it
involves the firm’s leadership team.
Define your goals, consider the risks and
benefits and tailor actions to your
resources and budget. Get a content
strategy and plan in place and stick to it.
2 Ask the audience: Don’t just guess at
how your audience wants to receive your
content – ask them.
3 Play the long game: Remember that
the objective is to move the prospective
client from interest to acquisition, and
sometimes this process takes a long time.
Sharing valuable content regularly will
keep them connected to your business
until they’re ready to purchase, but be
prepared to keep at it.
4 Measure it: How will success be
measured? And what exactly do you
mean by success? Accurate analytics are
just as important as any of the tactical
aspects of a marketing plan.
Content and idea generation
5 Be ruthless with content: Always
make sure your content is relevant and
engaging to your audience and gives them
something of value. Remember that your
audience’s time is valuable, so don’t bore
them or turn them off with weaker
content. Mix up different types of content
if possible and use a variety of tools to
allow for changes of pace.
6 Don’t reinvent the wheel every
time: If you know your content works
and is well thought of within the industry,
think about how you can apply the same
format for other services, sectors or
regions in which your firm is active.
Tweak the content to get the right
messages and tone of voice to suit your
7 Harness the power of research:
There are lots of issues-based surveys out
there from professional services firms,
but the principle behind them is a sound
one – firms can show empathy with a
targeted market segment both by the
questions they ask and their interpretation
of the results. Remember that
designing the questions is as important as
getting the responses.
8 Give your clients a benchmark:
Ultimately, your content needs to open
up the possibility of an informed conversation
on the issues that matter to your
clients and prospects. This should form
the basis of the business case for your
communications and anticipated return
9 Let your success stories do the
talking: Involve your clients in your
marketing. People want to understand
how other organisations are addressing a
particular issue. Qualitative, ‘free-text’
answers from survey respondents, for
example, are often a valuable source of
insight, so make the most of them.
10 Keep an eye on the competition:
Do your homework on competing content
already available. You can still focus on a
topic if a competitor has already covered
it – the key is to find new angles. For
example, aim your content at a different
audience or by company size or location.
11 Involve the right people internally:
Usually this will be fee-earning
subject matter experts able to tap into
changing attitudes on a particular issue
or trends among individuals or businesses.
You’ll need commitment and buyin
to drive the idea forward – usually
including someone with enough clout
internally to ‘own’ it.
12 Find a good partner: Give your
content more weight by teaming up with
other credible, non-competing organisations
to produce it. For example, university
research departments or reputable
13 Curate your website content
carefully: Websites too often become a
dumping ground for information. Instead
they should follow a meaningful editorial
policy and be planned like other forms of
marketing communications. It’s about
quality, not quantity.
Tools and channels
14 Own a channel: Firms that stand
out have found their communication tool
of choice (blog, magazine, social media,
press, etc.) and honed their skills in this
area so that they’re able to use it more
effectively than other firms.
15 Don’t just be digital first, be
digital always: In our increasingly
digital world, clients’ needs are changing.
They want access to real-time information
and insight. But it’s not just about
digital tools and platforms, it’s about how
digital is changing the world.
16 …But not absolutely always…:
Depending on the demographics of your
client base as well as the specific communication
tool that’s being used, you won’t
want to completely disregard print
communications. Where are your
customers most active? How do they
make purchases? Consider this when
determining your marketing mix.
17 Remember not everything is
tweetable: While there’s an important
role for digital and social media to
present headlines and sound bites, the
value of thought leadership is often in the
detailed analysis. This is not always
possible in a 140-character tweet.
Repurpose your content for each of your
key marketing channels.
Getting your message across
18 Tell stories: Talking in facts doesn’t
help differentiate your brand from others.
Truly engaging with clients is much
easier to do when your communications
tell a story. Our brains process stories
differently than lists of facts, and this
helps us to remember the information.
19 Grab their attention: Start your
story in such a way as to grab your audience’s
attention and get to the point
quickly. And don’t forget a call to action
at the end.
20 Be consistent across all platforms:
Always follow your brand style
guide in any and every piece of external
communication. Tone of voice is an especially
important aspect, as it’s critical to
conveying a clear, easily digestible
message. If you don’t have a style guide
yet, now may be the time to get one.
21 Think visually: Think about whether
your content can be presented graphically
using charts, tables or infographics,
rather than through words alone. And
don’t ignore the power of white space –
sometimes less really is more. Consider
reworking your written content in other
formats that can stand alone such as infographics,
presentations or videos.
22 Make it easy to locate content on
your website: People decide very
quickly whether they’re comfortable
using your website and if they want to see
more. Poor design will put users off
straight away. They also won’t spend long
looking for what they want, so don’t bury
all of that carefully crafted content.
23 Optimise for mobile: Make sure
your content is optimised for mobile
devices, including for imagery, as users
are more drawn to imagery than text. But
be selective to support your content.
24 Get your internal comms right
first: Make sure your internal audience
knows what’s available across your
communication platforms and stands
behind the content, so they can share
relevant content with their clients.
The power of the written word
25 Hook the audience straight
away: Headlines are your most powerful
tool in hooking your audience so make
them interesting and try to evoke
curiosity, but don’t overdo it. Your headlines
should be short, punchy and to the
26 Make life easy for your audience:
In the case of written content, it’s
important to think beyond the headline
and use ‘signposts’ such as headings, subheadings,
abstracts, pull quotes,
summary boxes, key facts boxes, bullet
points, etc. to break up long copy and
help draw your reader in.
27 Make sure your copy is up to
scratch: All the best practice copywriting
tools at your disposal should be
employed to help readers understand the
importance and urgency of the issue, how
it affects them and what action they
should take. So you’ll need good
summaries, manageable chunks of copy
and active language.
28 Lose the waffle: All content,
whether viewed on a desktop or a mobile,
should be precision-made to suit your
audience, wherever they consume it.
There’s still a place for lengthier content
as long as sentences and paragraphs are
concise, well-crafted thoughts. Tighten
your copy and make every word count.
29 Find a good editor or ghost
writer: Your content will probably be
written by a mix of people, most of whom
are unlikely to be trained writers, so
expert editing can make all the difference
to the quality of your copy. A good editor
will structure a story effectively so that it
answers the relevant ‘who, what, why,
where, when and how’ questions.
30 Get the client service basics right
first: Clients can be an important part of
a communications strategy, so it’s important
to get your service basics right first.
Don’t underestimate the power of a satisfied
Richard Newey and Steve Smith are directors at
Thirdperson, specialising in brand communication
and content marketing to help professional services
firms achieve their business objectives. Visit: