The world of business is tough. E-commerce businesses (online stores) are more competitive than ever, especially with the onset of Amazon, which allows people to sell anything at any time. Anyone can sell products, but that doesn’t really mean a product is any good or has any market value. We often see entrepreneurs — with all their TED Talks and panels — suggesting that the most important thing for success is creating a unique product, but is that actually the case?
A unique product isn't a requirement for selling products successfully, but it can give you a competitive advantage.
The truth is that most startups fail, and a unique product does actually give companies a leg up — sort of. The biggest reason startups fail is because there’s no market need for what they’re offering, be it physical products or services. This could be because they’re operating in an oversaturated market and not offering anything different from their competitors, who already have established consumer bases. Think about it: Why would a loyal customer transfer her business to a different company that’s doing exactly the same thing?
Before you start selling, think about what factor sets the business apart from the competition. It could be adding unique features to an already existing product, creating a unique product completely from scratch or simply elevating the buying experience in some other way. In marketing, this is called a unique selling proposition, which is defined as the thing a seller uses to market a product or service as different and better than the competition. Sadly, it’s not the only thing that matters when it comes to sales even if it helps.
A unique product will definitely help a business stand out, but it’s not enough to make a product successful on its own. Great products that are truly in high demand add value to a target market — and not just a couple of them but a lot of them. For example, you might have an excellent idea to sell pre-peeled bananas in individual plastic packing, which is certainly unique, but there’s a reason it’s unique. Bananas already come individually wrapped by nature, so it’s completely unnecessary.
A common mistake many e-commerce businesses and startups make when they’re pitching new product ideas is focusing on a product that solves a problem for them and only them. There’s a whole market out there that may not have the same problem you do. You might hate peeling bananas, but you’d be in the minority because most people don’t really care — you won't bring in any new customers with this.
A good example of a product that adds value is KegWorks’s pumpkin tap kit, which transforms a pumpkin into a drink dispenser. Why is it so successful? Well, it makes the common decoration of a jack-o'-lantern actually functional for Halloween and fall-themed parties. Sure, it’s a novelty, but each year, more than 172 million people in the United States celebrate Halloween and spend more than $8.8 billion getting festive.
A huge mistake entrepreneurs make is trying to do too much. You might have the most unique products in the world, but that alone can’t make you successful unless those products support your brand vision. Consider the following example: A CEO needs to hire a graphic designer to create his company’s logo, and he’s choosing between two companies for the contract. One is a service that is best known for logo and web design, and the other is a print shop that specializes in creating business cards and brochures but also offers graphic-design services.
It’s likely that the CEO is going to do business with the branding and web-design company rather than the print shop because the branding and web-design company is best known for that type of work. In this case, offering graphic-design services does, in fact, make the print shop unique compared to the competition in the printing industry, but it doesn’t make it a front-runner in the world of graphic design.
In order to have lasting success, a brand must have unique products that completely support its brand identity and target market. You may want to steal some of the market share from a larger company, but doing too much will muddy the message, and it’s best to be known for a specific thing than tons of random things.
Offering unique products can absolutely give you a competitive advantage but only if you’re using them to solve an actual problem. Apple, who is largely known as one of the biggest disruptive innovators in tech, is perhaps the most glowing example of this type of business strategy. The company, whose personal computers helped it rise to prominence in the ‘80s, isn’t as massive as it is today because of those personal computers. It still only has about 7.8% of the PC market share, and cheaper competitors like HP and Dell beat them all the time.
Apple can attribute a large amount of its success to the iPod and iTunes, which were released in a one-two punch and solved an emerging problem in the music market. CD sales were starting to decline in favor of illegally downloading MP3s. There was no way to legally buy digital music, and you couldn’t play downloaded songs in transit unless you burned them to a CD. Much to the dismay of blank-CD sellers everywhere, Apple released the iPod and iTunes, which ultimately sold an estimated 39 million units and 35 billion songs by 2014 respectively.
This isn’t the only place where Apple succeeded by using unique products to give itself a competitive advantage. We also see it with the brand’s iPhone, which has been known to generate $155 billion in revenue in a single year. Today, other brands have been encroaching on Apple’s market share with similar features at a cheaper price point, but at the time, Apple’s streamlined, touchscreen design knocked the clunky half-keyboard, half-screen design of its competitors out of the water. It was a brand-new kind of phone that revolutionized the market, and this set up the company to be a leader in smartphone sales.
Creating a unique product takes a lot of digging, and to find something brand new that’s truly valuable to potential customers, you’ll have to look at the competition and consumer data in a competitive analysis. This is a model that’s typically used by disruptive startups, like Apple was at some point in its early years. If you find out what problems consumers have with a brand and can discern where their needs are not being met, you can create a new product or service that solves these problems and meets those needs. You shouldn’t be in the business of selling things; you should be in the business of solving things.
Another great way to create unique new products is to utilize your own consumer data. Try to take a look at how consumers are using your current product line or current services and consider asking for feedback. Sometimes, a new idea is simply an old idea used in a completely new way.
This approach was taken by Google with Gmail, which rose to popularity because it offered an unusually large amount of space for a free email service. This was a selling point, and Gmail's consumers began using email as a utility for storage just as much as they were using it for communication. Who didn't email themselves documents before cloud storage existed? Google looked at how people were using Gmail and used that to develop other products like Google Drive and Google Docs.
Like Apple’s strategy, a unique product can absolutely make your business successful, but that’s not the be all end all. How many local plumbers offer the same exact services as other local plumbers? A quick Amazon search will pull up hundreds of e-commerce businesses that are all selling similar products. They’re seemingly all still in business, so what’s the deal?
The truth is that you don’t need a unique product to succeed at all. You just need something unique about your business that would make potential customers reach for your products and services over a competitor. This could be anything from an interesting brand look to faster shipping, a series of great marketing campaigns or a social media persona worth following. You can adapt to trends and incorporate them in your otherwise-ordinary products and service to stay fresh and relevant. Plenty of companies succeed because they’re doing the same thing as the rest of the market, but they’re doing it better.
Consider online retailer Nasty Gal, who managed to grow from a vintage eBay store into a $100-million company at the height of its business. Nasty Gal wasn’t really selling anything different from other vintage eBay sellers. The key difference was the branding, not the products. Instead of taking fluorescent-lit photos on mannequin busts, founder Sophia Amoruso enlisted her trendy friends as models to make the clothes look really, really cool.
The Nasty Gal image became something consumers wanted to emulate, and the brand coasted on it until major retailers like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters started doing the same thing but on a larger scale. Eventually, the brand was sold to the U.K.-based fast-fashion brand Boohoo, but the moral of the story is that Nasty Gal initially succeeded by offering a different perspective than the competition rather than different products.
Similarly, Kylie Cosmetics offered consumers the same old beauty products that cosmetics companies have been selling for decades but from a brand-new perspective. Most major cosmetics companies sell both lipstick and lip liner, but Kylie Cosmetics was one of the first (if not the first) to package them as a duo in the same exact shade. With its lip kits, Kylie Cosmetics effectively solved the issue of your lip liner not matching your lipstick.
Unique products and unique selling points don’t always matter. In a very limited number of cases, a business doesn’t actually want or need to be unique at all. Though it’s not exactly the most ethical practice, businesses can be massively successful by copying competitors, most often by offering cheaper alternatives to more expensive designer goods. For example, we see this in the world of fast fashion, where retailers like Fashion Nova and Missguided create cheap knockoffs of celebrity outfits, but intellectual-property laws are fierce, so products must be different enough to not cause a copyright lawsuit.
In other cases, a business simply lacks competition, but this isn’t always sustainable. For example, a rural grocery store that’s the only option within 20 miles will succeed on the premise that there’s nowhere else convenient for local residents to buy groceries. However, it will probably be put out of business the second a Walmart opens nearby. A unique selling point would provide more staying power.