Creating an Only-ness Statement is one of my favorite exercises to do with new clients. I first came across it in my friend Jän Paul Ostendorf’s Brand Formation Workbook, who found it in Marty Neumeier’s book Zag.

It’s a simple premise: every brand on the planet should be able to say what it’s the only one of. Marty suggests this simple format:

What:
How:
Who:
Where:
Why:
When:

Here’s an example. Harley-Davidson is:

What The only motorcycle manufacturer
How that makes big, loud motorcycles
Who for macho guys (and macho wannabes)
Where mostly in the United States
Why who want to join a gang of cowboys
When in an era of decreasing personal freedom.

A great test of the only-ness statement is to put a competitor’s name in place and see if it still fits. Slotting in Triumph Motorcycles or Suzuki or Yamaha makes this statement awkward at best and inaccurate at worst; therefore, it’s a worthy statement for Harley-Davidson.

Jan suggests a slightly different framing—a sort-of mad libs style—which I find a little easier to use:

“This is the only that for in who want to during a time of .”

I’ll often use this exercise in workshops with large groups. The format is similar to a design studio setup. I’ll start by giving each person 2 worksheets to fill out over 8 minutes. Once the 8 minutes are up, I’ll pair people together and ask them to create one worksheet between the two of them. That could mean using whichever one version is best, or maybe the pair creates a brand new one with the best of each of their ideas. Groups of two get combined into groups of four people, then eight… you get the idea. The ultimate output is two or three versions that conceivably reflect the best or most rallying ideas in the room. For example, when we worked with Dotdash to create new home and lifestyle site The Spruce, here were the three final only-ness statements that we used to drive our creative direction for the whole project:

This is the only home and food website that simplifies and empowers DIYers and aspiring superheroes who want to conquer their to-do list and feel proud during a time of perceived and unachievable perfection.

This is the only immersive home life site that gives you what you came for and more for people like you who want to feel good about what you come home to during a time of increasing choice and decreasing bandwidth.

This is the only lifestyle brand that gives practical, real-world advice and ideas for the roll-up-your-sleeves crowd and those looking for inspiration who want to reinvigorate their home life with small victories during a time when food and home trends feel unattainable.

You can simultaneously see different themes emerging in each, but there are also more than a few common threads among them too. This type of clarity and insight can lead to unique strategy for any brand.

Next time you start work with a new client—or heck, maybe you use your own business or employer as a test—feel free to give this a shot to see if it gives you a new perspective. Good luck!

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