Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s there was an advertising cult built around Rosser Reeves, Chairman of the ad agency named Ted Bates & Co., and his book, The Reality of Advertising.
He had invented a term that was the touchstone for the type of advertising he and his agency produced. The term: unique selling proposition, USP for short.
The unique selling proposition was (and is) a single feature or benefit of a product hammered home through ads that focused powerfully and solely on the USP. You’d have to be at least 50 to remember the ads he conceived for Anacin. There was a cartoon arm wielding a hammer to the head of a headache sufferer. Then came a clock face with the hands moving very fast and the single word, FAST, flashed on the screen four times in succession. Then the head become a smiling face signifying the headache was gone – fast.
They were most annoying and very intrusive. But they sold product.
Now Mr. Reeve’s concept of USP has carried on to this day. The idea is still sound and effective in sales as well as advertising.
However, some people have attempted to use USP and positioning synonymously. Well, they are not the same. I hear some marketing people expressing a USP as their position in the marketplace. They treat the USP as if it were a genuine differentiator when in reality it is a benefit/feature plucked from the market research indicating why people have said they buy a product from the product category.
A USP is just what it says it is: a unique selling proposition. It is an advertising campaign theme. Or the canned sales pitch. It is predicated on making a claim before s competitor can establish that benefit as its own. In other words, Anacin was no faster than Bayer, its only competitor back in the 1950’s. But Anacin used speed of relief first and loudly, making it their own.
Promoting a product’s benefit does not differentiate the product in a significant way. If a particular campaign doesn’t work or gets stale, you ask the agency to come up with another USP. The USP is a device, not a strategy.
I once heard a sale trainer in a room of some 300 entrepreneurs claim that you differentiated your product with an USP such as a coupon offer or a two-for-one sale. These may be USP,s but they are not differentiators in the sense of defining a position a brand can occupy in the collective minds of a group of loyal customers.
Al Ries, one of the creators of the term positioning and co-author of the book, Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind, likes to say it’s the single word that comes to mind when the brand is mentioned. For Volvo it’s “safety”. For Whole Foods it’s “organic”. For Sierra Club it’s “environment”. These words come from the essence of the brand. It begins with the corporate mission and the vision for the product. It incorporates corporate values and culture. It’s the brand story, the brand platform, the brand presence. It’s the people associated with the brand at all levels of the supply chain. It’s the leadership of the company and of the brand champions within and outside the company. And it’s the word-of-mouth and status the brand enjoys.
The USP does not normally communicate a genuine product position. There needs to be more than a benefit at the root of the brand and its position.
Lets just sat that positioning is a strategic activity and developing a unique selling proposition is a sales or advertising tactic.