Self-employed professionals frequently hear the advice to “be unique” in their marketing. The basic idea is a valuable one — to get attention in a crowded marketplace, you must stand out in some way. Distinguishing your product or service from the competition can make your marketing more effective. Crafting a novel marketing message can attract the notice of more potential customers.

There’s no question that an element of uniqueness in your marketing can make your business more memorable, competitive, and special to your target audience. These are all reasons why being different can be good. But how different should you be?

Blazing a New Trail May Get You Lost

A student in one of my classes noticed there were no display ads for management consultants in the online business directory for his city’s Chamber of Commerce. “What a great opportunity,” he thought, “to make my business stand out to prospective clients.” He spent over $100 per month on a large ad for a full year. The result was not a single call or email, unless you count the ones from vendors trying to sell him lines of credit and search engine optimization.

He had neglected to ask his consulting colleagues why none of them had ads in the Chamber directory. It seemed like a good idea to him, and no one else was doing it, so he pulled out his credit card. What never occurred to him — and what any experienced colleague could have told him — was that companies don’t choose management consultants from ads in a directory.

Sometimes you can be too unique for your own good. There’s a lot in sales and marketing that is tried and true. If you decide to forge a completely new trail, you may be attempting an experiment that many others in your field have already tried with no success.

Unique Can Work but Unknown Usually Fails

It’s not always just your marketing techniques that are a little too different. The same problem can afflict the product or service you are marketing.

I met a fellow while networking who had a “unique process” for helping companies resolve conflicts between employee groups. When I asked him to explain his process, he said I would have to experience it to understand it. I inquired how it compared to solutions like mediation or team building, and he told me it was a totally different approach that defied comparison.

Since I knew a company that needed help with a problem like the one he described, I would have liked to refer him. But I couldn’t picture myself calling my friend at the company to say, “Hi, I know someone who says he can fix your problem, but he can’t explain how. You’ll just have to hire him and see.”

Being noticeably different from the competition can help you attract customers and close sales. But claiming that you have no competition is naive. Comparisons to a known quantity can help prospective customers understand where your product or service fits in the range of solutions they are considering. If they can’t compare it to anything, it’s doubtful that they will be able to see how your offering could work.

Defying Categorization Makes You Hard to Find

Your market, too, needs to be a group of people who already exist and can be readily identified. A reader emailed to ask me for some advice on getting her new book published. I asked what market category it fell into, and she replied that she hadn’t really thought about it.

I pressed her a bit, explaining that her book needed to be categorized in order to be marketed and sold. Even something as simple as where to shelve it in a bookstore depended on having a category to print on the back cover. Was it self-help, spirituality, careers, business? Who did she see as the audience for her book?

She asserted that she was creating a new paradigm, and if I was going to help her, I needed to think more creatively. My reply was to tell her I couldn’t help her at all. Her idea may have been brilliant, but no publisher was going to touch her project.

Creating the perception that your product or service is one of a kind can help you capture people’s attention and make them remember you. But you have to be able to identify the people you want to reach and communicate how you can be of service in words they can understand.

Clever is Okay; Obscure is Not

Do you remember that Natalie Portman commercial where she jumps off a pier, spins out a pink convertible, and tells us she’d do “anything for love?” I had to see that ad a half-dozen times before I could remember that it was advertising a fragrance called “Miss Dior.” The ad was unique alright, but what did it have to do with perfume? And how much did they spend trying to get viewers to associate Natalie’s reckless acts with Dior? A catchy slogan like “Inspiration Beats Perspiration” may be clever and unusual, but what the heck is it marketing?

Definitely look for a unique way to express the benefits you offer to your clients, but make sure it still communicates what you actually do. It’s okay to get creative with your marketing, but don’t bet the rent money on untried techniques.

If you really want to make your marketing more effective, cheaper, and less stressful, stop re-inventing the wheel. Find models that work and replicate them. I’m not suggesting that you plagiarize your competitors’ marketing copy, but when you see someone successful in your field, find out what they are doing right, and follow their lead.

Don’t let your business be a victim of “terminal uniqueness” — the belief that you are so different from anyone else that none of the rules apply to you. Being distinctive is good; being eccentric can be unwise.

C.J. Hayden, MCC, CPCC, is the author of the bestseller Get Clients Now! A 28-Day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches, Since 1992, she's been helping entrepreneurs survive and thrive. C.J. is the author of five other business how-to-books, and has taught marketing at Mills College and John F. Kennedy University. Find out how you can work with C.J. as your business coach or strategic advisor or attend one of her upcoming programs.

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