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The Secret Ingredient For An Unbeatable Value Proposition

One obsession can blind you from finding it


Have you ever been given amazing advice that needed to plant and grow before you knew enough to even use it? A small clue about how the world works.

If you have, then you know it hits when we usually don’t expect it.

That’s exactly how I learned about a secret marketing ingredient from one of my mentors; a Navy Admiral that was also one of the most successful corporate leaders in Southern California at the same time.


10 years into my Naval aviation career I was performing in the top 1%. Which means thought I had pretty much figured everything out. And, of course, was wrong.

Everything I thought I knew about being successful wasn’t for the game ahead of me. A game of selection. Up to that point in an aviation career, success is mostly based on criteria mostly made up of being the best aviator. Mission accomplishment and leading teams.

For the highest military levels, though, selection boards decide the outcome. They pick from stacks of high performers to decide who gets the most prestigious roles.

Selection is a different game than flying missions where the criteria for success are pretty clear. It’s a choice. And, a choice from a stack of similar products — mostly the same experience with small differences. All adding up to what the selection boards think is most valuable.

So to teach me that, the Admiral hit me with a wisdom bomb. On a routine day, and out of nowhere during small talk.

“To get where you want to go, you gotta have that extra thing. The other thing you’re known for.”

Wait, why would I need another thing!? I’d given a piece of my soul working to be the best aviator, wouldn’t that be valuable enough?

Not on its own. Not when everyone else was good enough to make it hard to tell the difference.

It was actually a lesson about what best really means — standing out.

That the game of being a little better is a losing one. And things that we think are selection criteria can be constraints.

His advice taught me more about marketing and careers than I was smart enough to realize at the time.

Take a look at how most number 2 and 3 companies in any industry. Notice how they limit themselves by not standing out. How does that happen to a business?


A Prison Of Our Own Creation

Imagine having the second best company. Or even the second best product or service in a market.

Being at the top is just one competitor away. And would bring in a bigger chunk of the rewards. Sometimes, about as much as all the other competitors combined.

Seems like it would make sense to check out what the top competitors are doing and try to figure out where we could push ahead. To outdo them. Find their best feature and give away more of it.

Any big corporation marketing boss would lecture us on how important understanding the competitors is. Which is ok advice. Except that it doesn’t come with an instruction manual or warning label.

Benchmarking our competitors starts out with good intentions. Of course, we want to be better than them. Why wouldn’t we?

So we take peek at what they do. Then another look. And, a longer look.

Until we don’t look away, and can’t see anything else.

Obsession — an idea or thought that continually occupies or intrudes on a person’s mind [3]

What starts out as trying to be aware turns into an obsession. And becomes the only thing we see.

Standing out is winning. And, happens by creating new value beyond what’s available.

If we’re laser-focused on competitors, we’re blind to the places that give us the best chance to create meaning — our own superpowers and customers.

Locked in a prison we created. Into criteria that someone else defined. Where it’s hard to notice we’re better. Even if we think we’re showing some differentiation.

Sure, it’s different — but only to us and compared to one competitor that we’re obsessed with. Usually, nobody else can really tell.

And, even if they can, it’s not enough to overcome the hassle or fear of trying something new — which is actually what it takes to justify our price and the personal cost to switch to us. To choose us. Which happens when people are moved.

Our value proposition does that moving. Creating the groundwork for a good one works, but adding a secret ingredient makes it unbeatable.

The Great Escape


Even when we have an awesome product or service, the value proposition does the hard work of moving customers — it’s the connective tissue between our marketing strategy and execution, coming to life in our messaging and campaigns.

It’s the force that influences customers to buy, and supports our price by explaining what we do, who we do it for, how we do it differently — and in a way that nobody else can.

A good one is believable, relevant, shows clear value, and is differentiated — in valuable ways that solve real problems or deliver on customer desires. Which we can see more clearly outside of our own prison.

Because when we’re trapped, we only work on one solution. Being better than our competitor’s solution. And we work really hard. To create only slightly more value.

Being differentiated doesn’t mean we have to be different in every way. Just the ways that our target customers care about most.

And in the places we’re different, a good value proposition makes a big promise — valuable enough to change beliefs and move customers to do something.

Which is the most important part of building the groundwork. The thing that stands out from the noise. Gets us noticed. Persuades.


The Secret Ingredient

It’s not the only thing that persuades. And doesn’t work when we try to take a shortcut and use it alone.

But when we do the hard part of laying the groundwork and sprinkle a +1 on top our value proposition becomes unbeatable.

The +1 is an important, but smaller promise. From the overlap of the advice I got, and tested sources of marketing expertise.

  • The Admiral said, “Have that extra thing.”

  • Famous copywriter Bob Bly says, “the secondary promise is a lesser benefit that the product also delivers.” [1]

  • An important element of Blue Ocean Strategy is winning in factors outside of what industry competition offers.

Creating a +1 requires looking beyond typical constraints, and zooming in on what’s valuable to our customers. Appreciating what it’s like to be our customers. And giving them another way to win.

Sometimes customers don’t believe the big promise. It happens.

Or sometimes we’re up against some deeply embedded belief. Trying to change that becomes a tug of war.

The +1 is the secret ingredient to overcoming that. Creating multiple ways to win. And supercharging our chances to persuade.

A computer with the most processing power ever, plus it’s lightweight. A car that saves you the most money on gas, plus it makes you look cool.

When we’re the customer, do we buy for the +1 alone? Probably not. But it there’s a good chance it’ll be the difference is making us pull the trigger. And loving something instead of liking it.


Bonus: The +1 For Us

It works for our personal brands and careers, too.

Picture most of the superstars in your company or on your team. Or even corporate icons you admire.

I’d bet almost anything they have a solid +1. An engineer with polished presentation skills. A musician that’s a strong leader. A financial analyst that stays up to date on the latest technology.

It matters to put in the work to be the best in our chosen fields; and doing that first. But look around and you’ll see the role of the +1 in careers.

Never Looking Back

“There is no permanently excellent industry.” “There are no permanently excellent companies.” [2]

Is it easy to create a +1? No way. We have to escape through a narrow gap.

If the +1 for our products and services are too different we risk delivering on something customers don’t care about. Not different enough, and we don’t stand out. And that’s after we get the groundwork right.

But it’s our best chance for real influence. For standing out by going beyond what’s available — making a big promise and committing to a +1. The secret ingredient to standing out so that we’re unbeatable.

If it doesn’t work immediately, fine. That just means it’s time to check our groundwork: who is our product or service for, the price, the benefits, how it’s delivered. To look again for the +1.

Knowing we’re free from competitor obsession to be adaptable.

And being adaptable is how we catch the changes in customer tastes and desires, happening all the time. The changes where the +1 lives.


[1] Robert W. Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook, 4th Edition, 2020

[2] W. Chan Kim, Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy, 2015

[3] Oxford Languages

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