Find your it, then own it

Don't be all things to all people

First Published December 2007

Don’t try to be a jack-of-all-trades; you’ll end up a master of none. Define your sustainable competitive advantage and give it a great tagline.

To be successful in business, you have to have something that separates you from the pack. You’ve heard it called a unique selling proposition (USP), but I prefer to call it sustainable competitive advantage. It can’t be a sustainable advantage if it can be easily copied. That’s one reason it doesn’t work to position your business on price. There’s always a competitor who’s willing to do it cheaper. To identify your USP, start with your passion, what makes you special as a photographer. Focus on what you do best, make it your niche, and be able to describe it in just a few words. Sarah Petty Photography, for example, specializes in whimsical children’s portraiture. Yes, we photograph high school seniors and families, but we’re best known for children’s portraiture.

Jack-of- all-trades implies master of none—so what’s to remember? For the most part, it matters more what you do than what your competitors do, say Al Ries and Jack Trout, authors of one of my favorite books, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” (McGraw-Hill). But in positioning your business, they add, you do need to know how your competitors are positioned in the minds of consumers. “Positioning is not what you do to a product [it’s how] you position the product in the mind of the prospect.” Amid all the options, people generally remember just one brand in any category. Once you own a niche in the mind of the consumer, it makes it difficult for others to copy and replace you. Say Ries and Trout, positioning is not about creating something different, but manipulating what’s already in the consumer’s mind, tying into the connections that already exist. If somebody already owns the position you want, work around it. If the big wedding photography studio in town is well known in the minds of consumers and the studio’s style is traditional, focus on the fact that your style is photojournalistic. If someone already owns the photojournalist position, focus on some other aspect. Maybe your niche is destination photojournalistic weddings. Maybe you bring three photographers to capture all the angles. Maybe your niche is making the images available at the end of the reception for guests to order.

With so many new photographers entering our industry every day—which is great—it’s more important than ever to define your position and work on owning it in the minds of consumers. A meaningful tagline is an essential marketing tool in doing that. A tagline should tell what makes you different, tug on the consumer’s heartstrings, be memorable. Take a look at some businesses that have amazing taglines: GE, we bring good things to life; Have a Coke and a smile; L’Oreal, because you’re worth it; When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight (Federal Express). They all evoke feelings and mental images. My tagline (written by an ad agency genius): Funny Faces. Magic Places. That’s how I feel about my photography. My studio is a place where magic can occur, and I give my clients fun, playful, whimsical artwork of their children. (No, you may not use my tagline! It has been trademarked, which I recommend you do when you come up with your great tagline.) I’m not saying to copy anyone, but you can get inspiration from the big guns who have full-service advertising agencies at their beck and call. Successful marketing starts with smart positioning and understanding the mind of the consumer. Figure out what position is available and you’re halfway there. Make it a New Year’s resolution to come up with a tagline that communicates your sustainable competitive advantage, get it trademarked, and go build your business.


1. Carry a creative journal at all times to sketch images and jot down ideas and words as they pop into your mind. They become a stockpile of prompts when you sit down to brainstorm.

2. Keep a running list of words that evoke emotion. If your wedding client says something warm and fuzzy during your presentation, write it down.

3. Subscribe to magazines (tax-deductible business expenses!). You never know when you can spark an idea from Rachael Ray’s Everyday or Real Simple. As you go through them, write down words, phrases, advertising and article headlines in your creative journal. You can’t steal someone else’s line, but you can farm the inspiration.

4. Read the copy in catalogs and awaken your inner copywriter. The Land of Nod and Sundance catalogs are two of my favorites. Get on mailing lists of companies who market beautiful and expensive products.

5. Ask friends, family, clients and prospects what they think makes you different. Ask new clients to put into words what brought them to you. Write it down immediately.

6. Reading kids’ books puts me in the playful place I need to be when I’m writing emotional copy.

7. Find the time of day or place where you feel the most creative. If you do your best thinking at a computer, transfer your journal notes daily.

8. Most truly creative people need to find inspiration, too, so they become sponges of the world around them— flowers, buildings, clothing tags, in-store signage, store windows, fonts, color combinations, textures.

9. Travel. Observe, even the pretzel packaging on the airline’s snack. You never know what little element will inspire you.

Sarah Petty Photography is in Springfield, Ill. (

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