How To Write An Onliness Statement.

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Why is it so hard to find a detailed "how-to" article on writing an Onliness Statement?


This is a question I asked myself over and over for quite some time.


The first time I heard about the Onliness Statement was when an employee of my branding agency showed it to me in Marty Neumeier's book, Zag. 


We were excited but, still a little confused on what to do with it.


See, the book does a great job of explaining it, if you already understand it, but it's not exactly rich in detail or descriptive in how to create the statement for your own business, let alone for clients as we were being asked to do.


So, we started digging around and looking for more detailed explanations. And, despite finding dozens of blogs, articles, and even the occasional video, we couldn't find anyone who could really explain how to create one.


There were — and still are — lots and lots of articles titled, how to write an onliness statement but, in most cases, they just give you a cursory intro followed by a list of examples.


This does not make for a satisfying "how-to." :-)


And, I think there's a good reason for the absence of real advice around this...

Unleashing the power of this REQUIRES a purpose-driven brand. And, most brands aren't really purpose-driven.

I get it, sometimes a brand is just in business because they're good at something and they need to pay the bills. 


This happens a lot in very small businesses. They have a skill, they don't want to be an employee, or can't, for whatever reason - economic, social, or cultural, and they have to support themselves. 


And, there's nothing wrong with that. (Who am I to say whether anyone's right or wrong if that's their business' reason for being?)


At the most practical level, they're doing exactly what they need to in order to survive.


But, when you get to the "WHEN" portion of the Onliness Statement, it's just not going to work.


The "WHEN" refers to the trend that's powering the movement.


Because, when your purpose is connected to a movement (think, in a time of sustainable-living, farm-to-table, device-dependence, carbon-neutral, short-attention-spans), you're going to find your ability to communicate your passion increases exponentially.


But, without that purpose/movement connection, an Onliness Statement might just not be right for your brand... yet.


If that's the case for you, don't write one. Simple.


And, please don't attempt to reverse-engineer an Onliness Statement by trying to link your service's existing results backwards to a movement, you'll do more harm than good.


People are smart, they can sense inauthenticity. It it's not real, don't force it. Instead, you may want to do some work on your purpose first.


On that note, here's some good news.

Brands can become purpose-driven even if they didn't begin that way.

This is not exclusively a business problem. In fact, I'd argue that most of us, as humans, struggle with identifying a single, central-to-our-being purpose for large parts of our lives.


That's okay. You still feel strongly about things. You still see injustice, you still get moved by underdog success stories. 


You just want to start tracing those feelings. Of course, there are hundreds of, "find your purpose" exercises out there but, it's really rooted in what you value, what you feel strongly about, what you believe in, and what you think you can change.


What do you feel is unjust, or just plain wrong? What do you hate about your industry? What do you hate about the pretenders or the fakes? What makes you sad or angry about how other's are treated, or not?


You may not want to become an activist. That's cool, too. 


But, when you, as your business' heart-and-soul, feel strongly enough about a movement that you wish to take action to help, AND your services can be deployed in such a way that you are able to be a part of the solution, you are, like it or not, changing the world in your own way.


But, that still doesn't necessarily mean you should write an Onliness Statement. :-)


Let me come back to this after we discuss the statement itself.

This is usually the most difficult Positioning Statement to develop properly but, — if you get it right, — its super powerful at aligning your team and message.

This is part 2 in our Positioning Statement Series. Find Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


This formula was developed by Marty Neumeier, who is a branding genius and has written a couple of books you should definitely check out — The Brand Gap and Zag. 


And, this Positioning takes your understanding of your point of differentiation a little further, and adds the trends that are happening in the world that are related to the problems that your solution alleviates — because that’s what gives this Positioning so much power.


I know that sounds like a mouthful but, I’ll give you an example in a minute and you’ll see how it’s really not that difficult if you have that deep understanding of your market.


Simple, right?

Let's take look at the Onliness Statement's construction.

So, the Onliness Statement. 


This positioning is designed as a run-on sentence and uses a series of prompts as follows:


[Company name] is...


WHAT: The only [what you do]


HOW: that [what makes you unique]


FOR: [customer/comunities served]


IN: [locations served]


WHO (need): [customer pain point/challenge]


WHEN: [trends that affect you / your clients]


Break this down to it’s most simple elements and approach them one at a time.

Approach these headings like this:


What: This is just what you do.


How: This is your X Factor, what makes you unique and different.


For: Also straightforward, you have to know who your customers are.


In: This is simply the cities and the areas you operate.


Who: Why are you doing what you do, what problems are you solving, how are you helping your clients.


When: This is the trend in your market that drives your brand purpose, and your product/service's results.

Ready? Let's break down the individual elements.

[Company name] is the only [what you do] that [what makes you unique] for [customer/comunities served] in [locations served] who [customer pain point/challenge] during [trends that affect you / your clients].


This is really basic, just what you do. But, without jargon or industry-speak.


And, before you write down what you think you do, if you're not already 100% certain, do the research and find out exactly how your audience refers to your product.


This is even more important if you're doing this work for a client! Your goal should be to create or strengthen your client's connection with their audience. Opinions don't count. Yes, even yours. Everything should be data-driven! 


The WHAT should be a recognizable product category (recognizable to your audience) which could be something like an “eCommerce website…” or a “could-based project management system…” or "Brand strategy workshop."


The goal here is to have the WHAT work like a dog-whistle style headline, where ONLY those who are interested in this type of product or service need to pay attention to what comes next.


You want people to see themselves or someone they know who could benefit from your product or service.


No one else matters.


This is your X Factor, what makes you unique and different. 


Let's be clear, though, your people and the quality of your service are NOT X-factors.


A great product is the minimum price of entry to even be considered a premium brand and, fantastic service should be mandatory (it's not, but it should be!). And, doesn't every organization like to say they have awesome people? 


But, you also don't necessarily have to go on a "what's different about me" expedition. These usually end up with something cheesy at best.


Instead, what's different about you should be made up of who you are, what business you are in, and what you can bring to the marketplace.


And following is a wonderful technique I learned from Tony Robbins that I like to employ when looking for a client's X-factor.


Instead of focusing on finding what's different, look for an attribute or collection of attributes that allows your business to do more for your clients than your competitors.


And, in spite of the popularity of "disruption," it doesn't have to be that big. It can be. But, it doesn't have to be. It could be rooted in your culture, your mission or something else small but meaningful.


Some questions you can ask:

  1. What makes your company stand out?
  2. How do you offer your customers the most value?
  3. What is your company great at?
  4. What makes you stand out individually?

The point is to uncover the combination of skills, thinking, and experience that illustrates your competitive edge by defining what and how you add value to your clients.


Also straightforward, you have to know who your customers are.


But, let me give you a trick to go a little deeper here. Of course, you have to know your business' niche but, as part of that, we don't want to just take every single member of a potential audience. 


Instead, it's a very good idea to uncover the particulars of the person who has the greatest potential to benefit the most from receiving this results that our service or product offers.


In other words, who's the person who gets the most value out of your offering?


That person will have certain defining characteristics. 


For example, maybe you offer a service that helps stay-at-home mums launch or run running digital course businesses.


Maybe that’s a scheduling app, or maybe that’s a safe day care, either way, that’s WHO it helps. 


That doesn't mean that someone else won't get value from your product or service.


But, based on the research you've done (you have done the research, right?), and the specific problems, agitations, and solutions your audience are experiencing, this is the exact person who stands to benefit THE MOST from your offering.


That becomes your specific FOR. The person, plus their defining characteristic: "stay-at-home mums who run digital course businesses.”


(If that makes you worry about losing business or leaving money on the table, you probably need to do some work on your niche.)


This is simply the areas you operate.


In the case of a local business, obviously this is an absolute necessity.


But, as business heads more and more online, this can get less powerful. In those instances, try to get a little more granular than "everywhere."


For example, if you're realistic, does your online service only serve the big four (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia)?


Or, are you truly a global supplier?


Maybe you serve Westernized societies?


Or, perhaps, you're more comfortable limiting your client base to just the U.S.?


Whatever you decide, try to get granular and real. You don't just have to say "everywhere."


Why are you doing what you do, what problems are you solving, how are you helping your clients.


You'll notice this comes after the word, "who" in the statement. And, you have two distinct options here. "Who struggle with..." or "Who want..."


Which, in other words means the problem you solve for them or the results you are providing for them.


Let's talk about both.


Let me give you an example, using the busy mums from before:


“We help busy Mum’s who run digital course businesses and don’t have time to prepare nutritious meals for their family …”


That’s the [problem] we can help them solve. They don't have time to prepare nutritious meals for their family.


So, in the context of the Onliness Statement, this would read, "...who don't have time to prepare nutritious meals for their family..."


Or, another example, maybe you're working with a client who's experiencing high refund rates of their newly launched product.


So, in the context of the Onliness Statement, this would read, "...who are struggling with high refund rates..."


On the other hand, we could take the results they're looking for, which is taking the positive, not the negative.


Think about things the prospect wants — what they’re trying to achieve.


In the case of our high-refund rate friend, in the context of the Onliness Statement, this would read, "...who want to increase customer retention..."


Or, for our busy mum, it might look like, "...who want an easy way for her to feed her kids without compromising on nutrition..."


Just pick one. Either the problem they're struggling with, or the results they're looking for, don't try to squeeze both in.


This is the power behind this Positioning.


WHEN refers to the trends that are powering the movement. When you can tap into a trend or a movement like “sustainable living,” “carbon neutral” etc, your Positioning becomes much more powerful!


The reason this works is because people buy into brands that share their values. They align with companies that  take a stand for something they believe in.


Remember, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"?


Again, this is related to your brand purpose. Because people choose brands who are about more than just the products or services they offer.


They care about the impact brands are making in the world.


And if you want to take your brand to the next level, you need a sense of purpose your audience can connect to.


But, what if your brand purpose isn't connected to an existing movement? Or, what if you've been asked to create this Onliness Statement on behalf of a client, and you don't yet have an in-depth understanding of their brand.


Here's a trick. Try Googling your (or your client's) industry category plus the words, "in an era of."


If you don't turn anything up that's directly related to your (or your client's) brand, play around with other terms and factors for both the industry, product category, target audience, etc.


And, if all else fails, roll up your sleeves and just Google, "in an era of" and start making notes. 


The more you learn about current and past movements, the stronger you'll be as both a creative and as a brand facilitator.


And, finally, a couple of examples of trends and how they might affect product and market. 


Recently, we developed a brand strategy for a company in the tourism experience vertical.


They provide hardware, software, and creative storytelling to tour company’s —buses, boats, attractions that sort of thing.


Now, if you’ve ever been on a boring tour, you’ve likely experienced the trend we identified for their Onliness Statement.


It went something like this, “….in an era of formulaic tour experiences and short attention spans.”


If I’m a tour company owner, and I’m looking for new storytelling creative to keep my passengers engaged and elevate myself above all the copycat competition — that’s a pretty powerful piece of insight coming from my creative partner!


Here’s another example for a self-storage facility targeted at women in transition. The trend would be “…in an era of empowered women, and big, impersonal service”


Again, if I’m the customer for that storage facility, they’ve just showed deep insight into who I am and what I experience on a day-to-day basis.

Hold your horses, just a second there.

As I said before, an Onliness Statement may not be right for your business, even if you have uncovered your purpose.


There is every possibility that there simply isn't a recognizable movement that your brand purpose is related to.


And, without it, an Onliness Statement is going to sound insipid and forced.


But, that's okay. In fact, that means you have a rather interesting opportunity. 


You can start your own movement. It'll be harder, it'll take longer, and it'll cost a crap-load more money. But it'll be yours.


If that sounds like something that you're ready for, it’s important to understand that movements are largely built on pre-existing conditions.

By validating people's beliefs around these conditions, you can strengthen their bond to those beliefs and values while reinforcing group solidarity with other members of the same group.


As Eric Hoffer says in his book, The True Believer, “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent … or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must kindle an extravagant hope.”


For you to create and harness a movement, your “extravagant hope” means promising a better tomorrow and showing how your brand is actively working towards making that tomorrow a reality, today.

Final thoughts.

Simple, right? Just not easy ;-)


That’s the Onliness Statement, I hope this guide has been clear and helpful and fills in any gaps you had with defining and writing this statement.


Test your knowledge and understanding of your market, their needs, wants, and desires and try writing yours.


If you find you’re unable to identify a trend, you may need some help drilling down on your own brand to uncover a deeper understanding.


What are you waiting for? You've got some work to do.


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Bruce White

Bruce White is a brand strategist, sprint trainer, entrepreneur, and educator dedicated to elevating the perception of value of the creative industry. He writes about business & branding for creatives as well as techniques for facilitating client sprints and dealing with client consulting as an introvert.