Branding with a USP is Short-Sighted

From the late 1950’s, the term Unique Selling Proposition, more informally known as USP, has been part of the advertising and marketing jargon. I believe it was coined by Rosser Reeves, head of Ted Bates Advertising, and best exemplified by the commercials for Anacin. Bate took the major advantage of this headache preparation, speedy relief, and presented over and over and over. It demonstrated the headache by a hammer to the side of the head with an animated diagram while the word “FAST” was flashed un-screen time after time.

Anacin USP was fast relief, but where are they now?

Thus, Anacin claimed and defended this USP for a number of years. But along came Tylenol, followed by Advil, and then Aleve and a host of others. Anacin couldn’t keep up. And look where that brand is today. I don’t know the numbers, but one indication of its popularity: no longer does it advertise on TV.

The USP is a tactic

The unique selling proposition should not be confused with a positioning statement. The USP is just what it says – a sales proposition that no one else is promoting at the time. It’s a short-range competitive tactic. It may take competitors quite some time to discover that a particular USP is helping a marketer boost market share, and another little while to counteract that USP with an offering that’s even more attractive. Devising and broadcasting a new theme (USP) is done very well by most advertising agencies. I’m of the opinion that that’s the only value provided by today’s agency. (That’s the subject for another post rater.)

The positioning statement, though not necessarily a consumer message, is a statement of what you’d want your brand to be. If Anacin had adopted a positioning statement that read: We will do all in our power, through research, development, production and packaging, to always have the fastest pain reliever on the market, then Anacin would have won that position in the minds of consumers by consistently demonstrating their dedication to fast pain relief through their actions. With that kind of mind set, let the agency develop a USP that reinforces the positioning statement.

The positioning statement is strategic

The commitment of any organization to provide a consistent level of performance, and to dedicate major resources to accomplish that performance, builds the brand, not a USP.

But today, we still hear those connected with branding use these terms interchangeably. They miss a major difference between a brand strategy and a sales tactic. They also confuse those that aren’t paying attention, namely the executive staff who’s wondering anyway why marketing can’t seem to be held accountable.

I might have stepped on a toe or two with that last paragraph of rant, but it rankles. And don’t get me started on the ad specialty salesperson who wants to sell you a couple gross of imprinted pen because it’s “effective branding”.

Anyway, there’s a place for the USP. It can enhance the brand if it adheres to the positioning statement and the branding platform. And if one isn’t increasing sales, just ask your new agency to create another.

3 thoughts on “Branding with a USP is Short-Sighted

  1. I think that you have got it wrong there. There is almost no difference between a USP and a Positioning Statement. Both of them make a differentiation of your product: the first one just tells how is your product difference from your competitor’s one and in the second one, it is the customer’s perception of the product w.r.t the competition. Both of them at the end affect the perception about the product on the customer’s mind.
    If you are citing this failure case as example, see how many successful companies are there after framing a USP. One of the best example can be FedEx. It’s USP reads “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight”

  2. Well, Anand, at least you see a difference between a positioning statement and a USP. A lot of people get them mixed up and that’s primarily what I addressed above. Thanks for your comment.

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