Still a hot topic today, the concept of the ‘USP’ was originally developed by Rosser Reeves back in the 1940s. Essentially, Reeves was advocating that you put all your focus on the unique benefit that only your product or service can deliver. All well and good in the 1940s, but how well does this translate to the 21st century with the proliferation of ‘me-to’ products, developed at an ever faster rate?

Nowadays it is often unrealistic to expect to find a unique aspect of your product/ service that offers clear difference and meaningful value over your competitors’ offerings. Before communicating any unique attributes of your offering you have to be very sure that the difference is something that is actually valued by your customers.

That being said, Virgin Media offers a rare recent example of building a strong and meaningful true USP. In 2008 they were the only broadband supplier to offer ‘fibre’ broadband, a unique technology providing the key benefits of faster and more reliable broadband. The strong 2008  ‘Hate to Wait’ campaign proposition resulted in a series of interesting creative executions based on the concept of instant gratification. However, as is often the case nowadays, the USP was short-lived: their main competitors are now introducing their own fibre technology. Not to be outdone, Virgin have risen to the challenge by beefing up their proposition by adding in the product support line (AKA the ‘reason to believe’): “DOCSIS 3 Tech. It’s the magic in our cables.” So whilst their proposition is no longer unique, they can at least offer a unique product support.

Yet in most of today’s crowded markets it is very unlikely that you will find yourself in the position of being naturally landed with a clear and meaningful USP. In other words, whilst it is important to differentiate your product, your proposition doesn’t necessarily need to be unique.  By all means look for that elusive USP, but don’t try to force one if you clearly don’t have the substance to support it. There are however always opportunities to create meaningful USPs over time if you know what is truly important to your customer. Two areas in particular spring to mind here: outstanding customer service (relative to your competitors) and exclusivity (for example your ability to provide better information-based products than your competitors, or  a secret ‘unique formulation’ that cannot easily be replicated by others.) These are not quick fixes though – you need to allow time for your reputation to develop!

In today’s marketplace it is therefore more important that the proposition reflects a key benefit with real relevance to your prospective customer, rather than trying to force-fit a less important but unique aspect of the product. On many occasions the proposition is common throughout the category. Customers are not merely looking for uniqueness, rather something that differentiates itself by solving their problem a bit better, or more conveniently than the competition.

Instead of solely focusing on a unique selling proposition, advertising legend Bill Bernbach believed in digging down into the product and the brand to uncover unique proof-points to underpin his proposition. He worked on the assumption that there would very often be something unique, relevant and interesting to be unearthed on an emotional level. In this sense, he was not necessarily aiming for a unique proposition, but rather a uniquely credible proposition. The classic Doyle Dane Bernbach ‘Lemon’ advertisement used the obsessive quality checking at Volkswagen as the proof-point to convey the proposition relating to the reliability of the VW Beetle.

This approach has been refined over the years into the concept of the ‘ESP’: ie the ‘Emotional Selling Proposition’. But that’ll have to wait till next time…

If you’re interested in delving into this area in more detail (together with relevant examples), you might like my recent book ‘Successful Marketing Communications’.  If you have any thoughts or comments, do drop me a line below.

Written by Rob H

I’m a Chartered Marketer with over 20 years’ experience working in digital and offline marketing communications across the financial services, leisure, education and technology sectors – most recently working for a large financial services organisation, managing the acquisition marketing communications team. I gained an MSc in Strategic Marketing from Cranfield Business School in 2005 and the CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing in 2012. In 2012 I became the part-time course tutor at the Cambridge Marketing College for the CIM diploma in ‘Principles of Mobile Marketing’ – also authoring the accompanying Mobile Marketing study materials for the college. In March 2017 I published ‘Successful Marketing Communications‘ (available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks), which has become recommended reading for delegates at the IDM (Institute of Direct Marketing). When I’m not knee-deeping in reading/ writing the latest marketing communications articles I enjoy outdoor swimming and anything involving snow – with my goal for next year being to combine the two…

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