Angel Brown shows how insurance companies can identify their unique selling points

The one problem with columns like this, packed with insights on how to market your business, is that all of your competitors can read them too. So if I write about my first-hand experience with websites, give you proof of how they can drive and sustain business in the insurance industry, and then give you tips on how to make yours do the same, you won't be the only one privy to this inside knowledge.

However, there is one crucial difference between what you and your competitors can do with that knowledge - and that's you. You may work in the same industry and read some of the same publications, but there will be key differences that define your business.

To market yourself effectively and help you stand out in the insurance crowd, you need to identify and capitalise on the best of these differences - known as unique selling points (USPs). Do you have something that no one else does? Or a unique combination of specific services, products or knowledge, which can't be found elsewhere? What can your company say that your competitors' can't?

To identify your USPs you must begin with a clear understanding of where you fit into the insurance landscape. To do this, you need to clearly identify your key competitors, and then investigate how they operate, so that you can assess yourself against them effectively.

Real strengths
Identify your company's real strengths and weaknesses and be honest about them. If you'd like to think that all website inquiries are responded to within 24-hours, but in reality it's actually 72, don't promote the myth. That's worse than no promotion at all.

But, if customer service and a friendly approach are genuinely strong traits of your company, be sure to communicate that. Like the health sector, finance is an area where people want to feel assured by the 'experts', therefore highlight your expertise and human side. In the same vein, if you specialise in a niche area, promote that as one of your strengths, to make you stand out.

You don't need to be specialist to stand out - try to look at your business from every angle. If you operate in an area highly populated by specialists, having a wide range of policies could well be your strength, as it makes you a one-stop-shop that can cater for all needs.

Similarly, if you're a small business trying to compete in a sector full of large corporates, use that to your advantage - you'll be able to deliver a personal touch and quick turnaround that most large companies can't match. The key is to examine the market and your competitors.

Nowadays, the personal touch is often replaced by the convenience of automated answering services and emails. For many, this will always be second best to direct communications between two people, preferably face-to-face but even over the phone.

Find out how your customers and potential customers like to be spoken to. Are they

IT-proficient and likely to use email, or more traditional and prefer the phone? Whatever the answer, try to meet their needs. If developing marketing materials, make sure that the appropriate contact details are easy to find and that there is someone responsible for managing enquiries swiftly.

Client feedback
The best way to find out what works and what doesn't is to actually talk to your customers. There's no better feedback than from an honest client. To this end, a client survey can be invaluable - but be sure to ask for at least one thing that could be improved, in case they think they're being helpful by papering over any cracks.

The survey will give you an unbeatable understanding of how you're perceived. It will also help you serve clients better and may even highlight some USPs you didn't know you had. It is a good chance to obtain testimonials from your clients, for use on websites, in brochures and in new business presentations.

To keep one step ahead of your competitors, you should constantly be looking for new USPs that can help you stand out. Developing partnerships with complementary companies, who are targeting the same audience as you but selling something different, is a great way to do this.

This gives both of you a unique alliance as well as an extra marketing outlet and tool. More Th>n, a company that seems to be setting the insurance marketing standard, did this fantastically well through an alliance with veterinary surgeries across the country.

This natural partnership was a great vehicle for marketing its pet insurance, giving it a presence that its competitors didn't have. You can replicate this in your sector.

For example, if you specialise in car or boating policies, try approaching the garages in your area or the local boatyard.

Once you've identified your company USPs, you're half-way to finding your marketing voice. Then you simply need to get out there and start letting the world know. Face-to-face interaction with your audience can deliver great results, especially when supported by good print and electronic communication.

Most of you already know that networking is a great way to make new business contacts. However, rather than simply going to events hosted by other insurance organisations, try to think a bit differently. There are an increasing number of organisations designed to help you reach new audiences. Business Network International, for example, is a networking group based on the "six degrees of separation theory" - you may not have any business for me, but you may know someone, who knows someone, who is just the client I need.

Members actively source business for each other and meet weekly to share notes and business insights. Its members - from all industry sectors - claim it generates extremely high levels of work. Marketing is about more than just learning basic tools. To really maximise its potential, you need to personalise it. Once that's done, be sure to spread the word as widely as possible. IT

' Angel Brown is solutions director at integrated communications agency Box. or

Q: After 15 years, we feel its time to rebrand and refocus our business. We want some customer input, to help us understand what we do well and where we may have lost our way. We're thinking of printing up some feedback cards, like you sometimes see on a company's reception. Do they work?

A: Customer feedback cards can work very well. However, distribution is one of the keys. If it's left on reception, then it can depend on the size of your company and the number of clients that would visit your office to actually receive and complete the form. Alternatively, if your clients all use email, then you could develop a survey online, and then just sent it out to them. With all of these things, an incentive makes a big difference. A prize draw of some sort will encourage most people to give you ten minutes of their time. It doesn't have to be very expensive, either - decent prices could range from theatre tickets, to dinner for two, to a case of champagne.