Is anything really unique?

Is anything really unique?

Are you promoting a part of the world that has nothing particularly special going for it? Perhaps your city or region has a few nice waterfalls, a row of 100 year old buildings and a few hills. You need to create an impression that you live in a place that’s truly special.

Fear not. It’s never been easier to fool the mass market. All you need in that one special word. Surely there is no better word to get your message across than unique.

If there is a less unique word that marketing and PR folks sprinkle in press releases and ad campaigns I’ve yet to see it. Here are just a few examples of its completely inappropriate use I’ve picked out from the web:

“Zurich offers a unique mix of adventure, enjoyment, nature and culture”

“Superbly located with unique panoramic views over the City” (a prestigious hotel in London)

“Garden City Center. With a unique mix of sophisticated shops, eateries, and boutiques, our charming village design invites open-air shopping in all seasons”

And one from my home city, “Welcome to St Albans, where speciality boutiques and independent retailers rub shoulders with major stores and international names, making the city a unique shopping destination”.

What exactly does the word unique add to any of these descriptions? Presumably the people behind the creation of these promotional slogans must be of the firm belief that to be unique is a status to which one should aspire. Perhaps they are right, but not in any of these cases does the word unique seem right. Surely to suggest that having the ability to take a walk, visit some shops and have a cup of coffee in the same town on the same day is unique stretches anybody’s definition of uniqueness.

Depending on your philosophy in life you may believe that nothing is unique (hasn’t almost everything already been said and done at least once?) or perhaps that everything is unique (aren’t we all different; isn’t every day different from the last; are no two towns the same?) Even if we take this latter approach where everything is unique, then being unique is no longer anything to talk about.

Some people will go to ridiculous lengths to be unique and still fail. You’d think that if you created something utterly ridiculous you would be able to legitimately use the unique label, but even this is not clear cut. The Australian town of Woombye could have been excused for believing they were truly unique as the only place in the world that is home to a giant 16 metre pineapple. A bigger one however has been erected in Bathurst, South Africa, and with another one having stood in Hawaii some time ago it seems that even a giant pineapple is not reason enough to claim uniqueness.

It’s worth pondering why someone would even consider unique to be such a desirable label to claim. Surely if there’s only one of something it’s often because it’s actually not very good and nobody has wanted to copy it. Perhaps if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then calling something unique is the best back-handed insult?

I don’t expect to change anyone’s habits with this post; there’s nothing unique about it after all. But next time you’re about to slap that over-used label onto your product, service or destination just ask yourself: is it really unique and if so, is that actually such a good thing?

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Freelance travel writer

11 Responses to “Is anything really unique?”

  1. Unique is a 6’1″ large Caucasian male, me, walking in a Mall in Manila where few foreigners ever go. You get the attention of a rock star or maybe it’s a circus freak not sure which.

    October 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm
    • I know the feeling – we were recently in several small towns in Japan and I was approached by strangers as a novelty item (I’m 6’1″ as well). Wait, that means our stories are no longer unique ;-)

      October 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm
      • Yes, and my son is also 6′ 1″ in japan getting the same reactions. But as he has a liking for Japanese girls, he’s not complaining.

        October 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm
  2. Andy, this is a great article. I often find myself bouncing back and forth from the two different perspectives you mentioned here, given what I do. As a PhD candidate and researcher in academia, I am inclined to believe that nothing is unique. Presumably, in any given topic in any research field, someone has done something related to it, that you have to cite it. Never is it the case that you do something and nothing is related to it at all.

    As a traveler on the other hand, I go to places because I want to see things that are only available in that place. I am a big fan of historical travel, and visiting archaeological ruins is something I do every now and then. I visited Peru before because I would like to believe that Machu Picchu is unique, and I am visiting Guatemala this January for the same reason, that there are experiences I can have just by visiting that country and not anywhere else.

    So, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to believe both points at the same time, no?

    October 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm
    • Thanks Jeruen, I suspect we can look at the same situation with both viewpoints and argue a strong case either way. I’m with you though – it’s good to think of certain things (such as Machu Picchu) as unique. But then maybe we’re just using this label to mean ‘something amazing that we haven’t seen before and probably won’t see again’ – unique to us rather than unique in its existence. I’m getting tied up in complexity here – better stop :-)

      October 13, 2011 at 5:43 pm
  3. It used to be “hidden gem” and “undiscovered” were the hot cliches in travel writing, but you penned the new one. It is a shame that even a giant pineapple is no longer noteworthy.

    October 14, 2011 at 12:49 am
  4. Sadly, “hidden gems” keep being discovered by all manner of travel blogger. I wish I employed them on my team when I was a Mining Engineer.

    The next time I start to type “unique”, I’ll think twice to see if I really mean that. But then Jeruen has introduced the less than unique concept of “doublethink”,which doesn’t mean to think twice, but to think of two opposing views simultaneously.

    With string theory holding out the possibility of infinite parallel universes, perhaps it can be scientifically proven that nothing is unique as it must exist in exactly the same form in a parallel universe.

    As you can see I’m easily confused, but that is not unique either, I read it on a Twitter bio.

    October 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm
  5. pam #

    A little cognitive dissonance is a good thing, I like it from time to time. But oh, please please please file “unique” under “over used words” when it comes to travel writing.

    I don’t agree that because there’s just one, it’s probably no good — after all, I’m not aware of more than one Angkor Wat, and that place, oh, it’s freaking amazing.

    But it’s (here’s my axe to grind, yet again) lazy to call something unique without getting into WHY. It’s langague as decoration. Surely it’s enough to say that the indie retailers share space with the box stores, and that means there’s a lot on offer for shopping. There’s no need to claim it as unique, plus, it’s just NOT.

    October 16, 2011 at 7:25 pm
    • Wat Phou in Laos: “Angkor Wat without the crowds” according to some UK travel article.

      Fully agree that using unque without explaining why – in fact using amazing, awesome, breathtaking etc etc – without any justification – is lazy writing. That ‘over used words’ list just keeps on growing.

      Thanks again for the many different though not exactly unique comments.

      October 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm
  6. I stand before you guilty of using Unique in my travel writing….

    But it highlights one of the biggest problems with travel writing especially when trying to sell destinatons.
    You have to get across the reason why, for example, the “crapping leopard monastery” is worth spending 2 grand, staying in unheated rooms and bouncing for 12 hours on an unmade road to see it. You have to give a reason why it is better than staying at home in Watford and ordering a take out pizza.
    Unique is therefore the perfect word. You can’t get this experience anywhere else in the world!!
    That is why superlatives are also incredibly common with travel writing. “Come and see southern Derbyshire’s second largest, fuly intact functioning 19th century commode… “etc….
    Without these tricks how else are we to sell our destinations?
    That is not a rhetorical question… i would like some help.

    Steering the ship of prose through the maelstrom of cliche is best left to the experts like you Andy. However, one thing that is worse than seeing “unique” is seeing “quite unique”.

    October 18, 2011 at 9:53 am
    • I reckon you can get away with unique when you’re trying to sell your type of destination James. But again, perhaps the selling point of the Crapping Leopard Monastery is in fact it’s name – truly unique.
      But in most cases I think people will be far more sold by a well-told story that captures the magic of a place and inspires the reader to want to experience it for themselves than they will be by a lazy adjective dropped in without any effort to back it up with evidence.
      Quite unique is a good one.. someone trying to use up their quota of ‘q’s, I suspect.

      October 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm