It’s Not Enough to be Great, You Have to be Different Too: Unique Selling Propositions

Marketers with a long memory, or a penchant for historical research, know there was a time when retail space was very limited, the marketplace wasn’t too crowded, and switching costs were high. Those simpler times are a distant memory now.

The online environment we all operate in today is for all intents and purposes limitless. Choices are vast and ever growing, and there are precious few brands with enough clout and a loyal enough following to keep their customers from defecting to their rivals. Students of history, however, will also recall a development in marketing that first arose in the 1940s to address this specific problem: the Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

“Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.”

Somewhat like today, that time period also saw a rapid proliferation of new products, retail channels, and modes of communication (notably the rise of television). The solution proposed by TV marketing pioneer Rosser Reeves to the problem of too many choices for consumers was for brands to examine their products and customers and establish a means of separating themselves from others.

The One and Only

One of those most known and beloved USPs was popularized by confectioner Mars for M&Ms. The brand’s longest running slogan: “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” has been informing candy buyers since 1954 that M&Ms was the milk chocolate with a candy shell that kept your hands clean.

In another famous example, Procter & Gamble spent ten years researching anti-dandruff formulations before discovering pyrithione zinc was more effective than anything else available. Head & Shoulders hit the shelves in 1961 with the simple but effective slogan: “Clinically proven to reduce dandruff.” Suddenly consumers were faced with the easy choice of choosing between products that merely made promises and one that had hard science to back its claims.

As Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt put it: “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.” Differentiation is so important because in a big and hyper competitive market it’s not enough to be great, you have to be different too. If you are living up to your brand promise, but so is everyone else, there is no compelling reason to select you over them.

“Our role is to help companies realize what is the best part of the things they make, and to guide them in the process of communicating that fact assertively.”

Enter the USP, a well defined and consistently messaged benefit that your company offers exclusively. But more than just being unique and valuable, that benefit also has to be specifically meaningful to your customer. You have to be good and different in a way that appeals forcefully to your target market. If you make a great full sized sedan that has the most powerful engine in its segment, but the marketplace is shifting to smaller, more efficient models, you’re still going to end up losing out to competitors.

Naturally, marketers have limited control over what products and services brands decide to sell. There have been cases where marketers and advertisers help direct the creation of a new offering, but making great products is not our primary mission. Our role is to help companies realize what is the best part of the things they make, and to guide them in the process of communicating that fact assertively in a manner their customers will be receptive to.

The message to send is always: You should buy this product because it will provide this specific benefit… and you can’t get it anywhere else.

Can’t Beat the Real Thing

Advertising is sometimes accused (rightly and wrongly) of overselling products with puffery and exaggeration. The idea of a USP is the reverse of that practice. It’s asking people to buy a product for a very real and very specific benefit it will deliver to them. Sometimes that benefit is a tangible, physical feature like replacing the function keys on a laptop with a touch bar, a shirt made of a new moisture-wicking fabric, or an achievement in efficiency for an air conditioner.

Sometimes, though, it’s an abstract idea like an emotional feeling. Take Coca-cola for instance, it doesn’t taste radically different than any other cola. But its rich history, evocative branding, and association with positive emotions like happiness, joy, and celebration mean that every time you pick up the bottle you feel, even if only in a very small way, some connection to that brand story and those emotions — a feeling you can’t get with a generic cola.

People don’t generally recognize that they choose their soft drink because of how it makes them feel rather than how it tastes, but countless marketing studies and Coke’s dominance proves they do.

The USP concept is especially relevant in highly commoditized markets. In the car insurance market, for example, GEICO and State Farm don’t sell fundamentally different products, so any point of difference is incredibly valuable. GEICO can’t say they’ll replace your totaled Honda with a BMW, but they have been able to build a years long campaign on saving you 15-percent in 15 minutes. It’s a seemingly basic approach, but it gave them a strategic touchstone for their target market to instantly recognize.

Similarly, high tech brands are also wise to hone their USPs because their customers are already very focused on the feature set of the products they are buying. Sales come a lot easier when you can point to the spec sheet and say: “You see this here? You need this, it will make your life easier, and the other guys don’t offer it.” Strangely, many companies have an asset like that, but fail to realize its value and don’t spend enough time highlighting it.

Summing Up

The goal of a unique selling proposition is to connect your brand with its exclusive benefit in the minds of your target market consistently and frequently. Find the problem that you can solve for them. Identify what separates your solution from the competition, and drive home that fact every chance you get.