Are unique selling points pointless?

Early on in my very non-linear career, I was excitedly telling a friend I was starting a design agency. It was going to be great. I was in the middle of regaling them about all of the wonderful things we'd be doing when they delivered one of the ultimate inspiration-killing questions:

“So what’s your USP? You know, your Unique Selling Point?”

And I was stumped.

I think I bumbled through a vague explanation about how we had some unusual process or approach, but it wasn’t very convincing. Even to me. I left that conversation feeling deflated.

We did some awesome work at that design agency, we won lots of clients, we had lots of fun, we didn’t make huge piles of money or anything, but it was formative for all of us.

But I don’t think anywhere along the way did we answer that USP question. 

A USP is something that a lot of people think is essential to running a successful business. Something about what you’re doing needs to be utterly unique. There needs to be a component of what you offer that nobody can replicate. The theory goes that by ensuring that you offer something utterly unique that you win more business and you end up with a business idea that's easier to defend.

It’s a nice theory, but it’s based in the world of patents and manufacturing. It’s an old idea. Nowadays, you can invent a new product and pop it on Kickstarter. Within a few days or months, it’s likely to be replicated and already for sale on Alibaba before you’ve even managed to get your first batch to your customers. Copying is rife, and maintaining uniqueness is very hard in a traditional business sense.

But that’s the world of business. Some of the ideas apply if you’re trying to make a living from your creativity or ingenuity. Sure, it might be possible that you’re an inventor and come up with something patentable and globally unique (at least for a short while), and the standard “Work out your USP” advice obviously applies. 

If you’re running a passion business, I’m not convinced spending too much time thinking about a “Unique Selling Point” is particularly helpful or applicable. You’ll likely be going from project to project, trying out new processes, approaches, media, techniques… your unique offering will shift depending on context. It'll be hard to explain to people. It'll probably be hard to define, hard to put your finger on. Almost like… a personality.

So maybe the right answer to the question, “What’s your USP?” is quite simple: