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Your Unique Selling Proposition: Use it or lose it

Demographics / Sarah White

Every day, you're inundated with more than 1,500 advertising messages. If you're like most people, you're spending huge amounts of energy just trying to block out those messages.

Now, turn this issue around and ask yourself: "How do I get my message across when most people are trying hard to dismiss it?" The answer is in your USP — your Unique Selling Proposition.

USP defined

The concept of "USP" is credited to Rosser Reeves, chairman of the Ted Bates & Co. advertising agency in the 1950s. He was one of the first to develop a technique for communicating in an overcrowded marketplace. His definition of what makes a USP holds true today:

•  All advertising must make a proposition to the customer: Buy this, and you will receive a specified benefit.
•  The proposition must be unique ; something competitors cannot claim, or have not chosen to emphasize in their promotions.

The proposition must be so compelling that it motivates individuals to act.

The concept of USP has evolved since Reeves' groundbreaking work, but it remains a foundation of successful marketing. USP is nearly synonymous with positioning , and is integrally related to branding strategy . These concepts share a common focus — making a specific offering unique and desirable to a specific audience.

Why it works. USP works because of a simple fact of cognitive behavior. One of the ways the human mind handles the barrage of advertising it receives is to pick something to believe, then hold that notion until forced to change. Snap judgments become permanent beliefs, since it is uncomfortable and difficult to change convictions once formed. The mind tends to filter out new information that doesn't support already held beliefs. This attribute of the mind, called "anchoring," explains why USP is an effective strategy.

Better to be first. The easiest way into a person's memory is to be first. In the mind, second is not a unique position — it's merely the start of "the rest of the pack." The mind can remember some levels beyond "first" and "other," but divisions quickly become fuzzy among the also-rans.

Because of the "anchoring" tendency, being first is better, even if being first is not logically important. Consider the explosion of self-help books with titles like "XYZ for Dummies," "Complete Idiot's Guide to XYZ," "Beginner's XYZ," and so on. The first entrant, the "Dummies" series, now holds more than two-thirds of the market for self-help books. The other publishers were later entrants, and so they struggle to gain a share of the remaining market.

There is no logical reason to believe a "Dummies" book contains more useful advice for novices than other books intended for the same audience. Still, two out of three of us cast our lot with the "Dummies."

Developing your USP is the art of choosing and communicating a dimension in which you can make a compelling claim to be first — and therefore, in the marvelously illogical mind, best.

Components of USP

To find your USP, answer these three questions:

•  What benefit is unique to your offering, and what is the basis of this claim?
•  Who is the target market for whom this benefit is of compelling interest?
•  What USP has been claimed by significant competitors for this target market?

Creating a USP is a matter of balancing these components, to describe a position you will hold in the target market's minds that differentiates you from your competition. Let's consider each of the components.

Your unique benefit. Before a purchase is likely to happen, a magical act of transformation must take place: Features must be turned into benefits. A feature is anything you have designed into the product or service. A benefit is what the customer gets out of it. A feature may be useful, but it is not of compelling interest in and of itself. A benefit is a solution to a problem, a fulfillment of a desire.

Take a camping lantern with a head-mounting strap. You designed the head-mounting strap into the product; that's a feature. The customer gets hands-free operation of the lantern; that's a benefit.

Even if you can't find a completely unique feature to promote, search for one that other competitors have overlooked. When you find it, you've got the "U" for your USP.

The target market. To understand what will be compelling to your target market, you must know what these consumers value. Study what they buy, and how they make their purchase decisions. Consider your potential customers in terms of their demographics, lifestyle and purchase characteristics.

You can do that with bCentral's Demographic Profiler and Household Spending tools, which help you discern attributes and attitudes of consumers. Your goal is to match the benefit you promote to the needs and issues customers care about.

Competitors. Since it's often better to be first than best, it's important to know what beliefs the target market now holds about you and about your competitors. What might research tell you? Remember that competition can come from direct or indirect sources. For example, while all publishers of how-to books are direct competitors to the Dummies books, indirect competition also comes into play from how-to courses and seminars.

It is difficult and expensive to challenge a competitor for a position already occupied, because of the "anchoring" phenomenon. When you know your competitors' positions, you can choose to avoid direct challenges and instead carve out your own niche, where you can be both first and best.

Finding your "first"

If I walked up to you on Main Street and asked you to name three local bookstores, the one you mentioned first would likely be your favorite. If I asked you why you named it first, you could probably rattle off a reason. What you're doing is communicating that bookstore's USP. The fact that you know it shows they've focused their advertising to get their name and USP into your mind.

If your product or service has obvious and desirable points of difference from your competitors', your USP need only emphasize that key point of difference. "But we're all pretty much the same," you say? There must be a compelling benefit implicit in your offering, if not necessarily your product. Even marketers of commodity products find ways to establish a USP.

Consider your strengths and your competitors' weaknesses. Where is there an opening that you can claim? Some common attributes around which the USP can be created are:

•  Quality
•  Selection
•  Fashion/styling
•  Price
•  Service
•  Location


Consider these strategies for uncovering a unique benefit:

1. Against a competitor or category. Remember the rental car giants Avis vs. Hertz? Avis' "We're No. 2. We try harder" turned a disadvantage into a memorable emphasis on service. When soft-drink leaders Coke and Seven-Up butted heads, Seven-Up promoted its "Un-cola" status to set itself apart from the whole category of cola beverages.

2. Reposition the competition. Make your competition the villain, rather than the benchmark of good performance. When Tylenol took on conventional aspirin, it did so with ads that proclaimed, "Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining.... Fortunately, there is Tylenol."

3. Focus on the problem. All photocopiers do pretty much the same thing — make copies. But the latest technological enhancement is an internal modem that can place a service call, even if the copier is unattended when it breaks down. Dealers for the enhanced copier stand out from their competitors by focusing on the problem of downtime.

4. Better value. When other products deliver the same benefit as your offering, then something other than product features must set yours apart as the better value. Your convenient location, or extended warranty, or free home delivery, or lower price point may be your USP.

5. Users and usage. If the "80/20" rule of thumb holds true, it's likely that 80% of your business comes from the 20% who are your best customers. What are these people like? Dramatize their loyalty to your offering, and you will attract others like them. Consider using a high-profile spokesperson from this group of loyalists to get your message across.

By now you should be getting a clear idea how to give your offering a memorable USP. If you still feel like you're in the dark, create a list of the features of your product or service. Then, rank them in order of importance as you think your best customers would rank them. Look for benefits associated with the top-ranked features. Have you perhaps heard customers comment on this feature? What got them excited about it?

How to use your USP

Once you know your USP, use it to inspire your creative approach. Incorporate it into every advertising message you publish and every marketing move you plan. Integrate your USP with your branding strategy. (And if you don't have a branding strategy, read the article, " Branding: A key strategy in the age of parity " in this report. Your USP and branding strategy must be mutually supportive.

The USP is the key that opens the minds of individuals. That open mind is an invitation to communicate the benefits of your offering. Use the key strategically, and sales will follow.



My writing on marketing topics for small business appeared in Third Wave Research's demographics area on Microsoft's bCentral from 2001 to 2004. Microsoft’s bCentral portal was closed down in July 2004 as a result of a change in it's business strategy. Here are links to a few of those stories.

Your Unique Selling Proposition: Use it or lose it

Develop an ad plan that hits the target

Food channel: how fresh produce gets to a restaurant table

Branding: a key strategy in the age of parity


© 2009 Sarah White. Contact me with comments or questions. Home