Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. – Margaret Mead
How do you set yourself apart from others – show how you are different and unique?
Is it about the way you dress, the brand you create, the story you tell?
And how can you select an approach that works for you?
Being unique on the outside
The first way many of us look at differentiating ourselves is by working on what’s on the outside.
This comes down to the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
The idea that what you see first has a huge influence on how you perceive that thing leads to you making certain choices.
Your choice of colour and font, for example, can indicate whether you are playful or serious.
In the comedy series Yes, Prime Minister the characters talk about how if you have nothing to say, as a politician, you should stand in front of an exciting backdrop while if you are announcing a lot of change you should be in front of a staid and traditional backdrop.
You manage the environment and your image to manage you message – and this kind of approach makes up the vast majority of the approaches most people take.
We try and get across how we are unique by trying to show it on the surface.
Most of the time, however, what we end up doing is less about showing how we’re unique but showing what bucket we fit in, what genre we’re in or what style we follow.
Managing image ends up helping the person viewing you make a quick decision about what you are similar to rather than what’s unique about you.
Think about that in the context of clothing, for example.
If you want to look different from anyone else on the street, there are quite a few options to choose from, described by words like goth, hipster and punk.
These are about setting yourself apart from the mainstream but at the same time identifying with a culture – they’re not unique in that sense.
Instead, they’re defining, they tell the world what you are about and what you are not.
That’s a useful start, but you have to go deeper.
Being unique on the inside
While what you show on the outside is more about whether you’re in or out of a particular group, what’s on the inside is unique to you.
It depends on your own journey, your family experience, where and how you grew up, the opportunities and obstacles you had and what you did with them.
We all have a unique path we’ve travelled to get to this point where we have become us.
And that’s a scary thing to reveal and show to the world.
It’s much easier to hide behind a constructed exterior, something that’s what we want the world to think of us rather than open up and show who we really are.
When you do open up, however, and talk about and show your own journey then you have something that is unique, a story that no one else can tell – a story that others can listen to and see you for who you really are.
You have an opportunity to be authentic.
Now, of course, trying to use this as a marketing tactic ruins everything.
You will hear lots of people using their story in a way that appears manipulative.
These days it’s for reasons like trying to skew the algorithms that decide how to monetize content on platforms.
And while your particular journey is unique to you that doesn’t mean it adds value.
Lots of people may have a similar story – a rags to riches journey of their own.
Sometimes you see people apologise because they didn’t have a struggle growing up and life was pretty easy.
So, when you think about it if you grew up in a culture and followed a similar path to most others – yes you had a unique experience but it is something unique that you can offer someone else?
In most cases probably not.
Think about your resume – it lists all the things you’ve done but it’s possible to compare that with the things other people have done and decide who is a better fit.
So your story probably isn’t enough to give you an edge – so what will?
Combining things to create something unique
The two approaches described so far, trying to be unique on the outside or unique on the inside are like trying to pick what colour you are all the way through.
It’s like being a single thread which might be different but not very strong and easy to discard.
Another approach to consider is by looking at the value of combining things to create something unique.
One way to think of this is how you might combine spices.
Simple individual spices create amazing combinations of flavour – something you wouldn’t get from one spice on its own, however wonderful it is.
For example, let’s say you want to start a business in construction.
But you’re a woman.
And from an ethnic minority.
Those three things are just simple facts about you, but when you put them together you get a construction business run by a woman from an ethnic minority background.
In this day and age that’s still unique and something that will get you attention and press coverage and pretty good marketing.
This approach extends to the things you do rather than what you are.
You could be funny, like drawing and understand how engineers think.
Put those together and you have Dilbert, a wildly popular comic strip.
Now, it might take some experimenting to find a combination that works for you.
But, the more you work on this the more likely it is that you’ll come with a combination that’s unique not just in the sense of being different but being unique in the sense of adding value.
Take two photographers, for example.
One takes a range of pictures and is clearly competent at what she does.
The other specialises using drones to take pictures of historic buildings from unusual and eye-catching angles.
You manage a museum and want get some pictures for your marketing.
Which one are you going to choose?
The thing about using combinations to create something unique is that you are going to limit the market for what you do.
At the same time you’ll make it easier for people who need what you provide to make a decision.
And the increased success you have at getting business from a smaller but better defined market can often offset what you might have made by targeting a wider market where there is more competition.
Specialisation is a good thing – it helps attract the right people and makes it easier to convert them from a prospect to a sale.
It still needs to be a large enough market to support you – and finding that balance between the right level of generalisation and the right level of specialisation is something you will do through trial and error in your field.
But when you create combinations it doesn’t mean you can’t do the individual elements – it just means that you can also do something specific better than most other people.
In the photography example above, the specialist photographer can also probably show examples of more general shots, but the generalist will probably have few examples of the eye-catching building pictures the specialist has.
Look for ways in which you can combine what you already do to create a niche for yourself, a space where few others compete.
It’s often easier than you expect – and once you find that space make it your own, occupy it and focus your content and marketing on showing how you can do that better than anyone else.
Often, however, you need to be certain that the niche you’re going to occupy is one that can help make you a living before you commit to it.
This is particularly the case in service businesses, ones that depend on helping others do something they want to do.
You first need to get good at finding out what people want to do – and that starts by talking to them.
We’ll look at the art of doing that in the next post.