Defining a Unique Selling Proposition

In 1961, Rosser Reeves published his classic book “Reality in Advertising” in which he introduced the notion of the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP.

The book is out of print today and difficult to get. As a result, few practicing direct marketers know the original definition of a USP. Their lack of knowledge often produces USPs that are weak and ineffective.

According to Reeves, a USP has three requirements (and I am quoting, in the italics, from “Reality in Advertising”):

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Each must say, “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.” … Your headline must contain a benefit – a promise to the reader.

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. … Here’s where the “unique” in Unique Selling Proposition comes in. It is not enough merely to offer a benefit. You also must differentiate your product.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product. … The differentiation cannot be trivial. The difference must be very important to the reader.

Why do so many advertisements fail? One reason is that the marketer has not formulated a strong USP for his product and built his advertising upon it.

Formulating a USP isn’t difficult, but it does take thinking; and many people don’t like to think. But when you start creating direct mail and advertising without first thinking about what your USP is, your marketing is weak because nothing in it compels the reader to respond. It looks and sounds like everyone else, and what it says isn’t important to the reader.

In general advertising for packaged goods, marketers achieve differentiation by building a strong brand at a cost of millions or even billions of dollars. Coca-Cola has an advantage because of its brand. If you want a cola, you can get it from a dozen soda makers. But if you want a Coke, you can get it only from Coca-Cola. Intel has achieved a similar brand dominance, at an extraordinary cost, with its Pentium line of semiconductors.

Most direct marketers are too small, and have too strong a need to generate an immediate positive ROI from their marketing, to engage in this kind of expensive brand building. So we use other means to achieve the differentiation in our USP.

One popular method is to differentiate your product or service from the competition based on a feature that yours has and they don’t. The common error here is building the USP around a feature that, though different, is unimportant to the prospect, and therefore unlikely to move him to try your product or service.

For example, in the pump industry, it is common for pump manufacturers to try to win customers by advertising a unique design feature. These design twists often result in no real performance improvement, no real advantage that the customer cares about.

Realizing that it could not differentiate based on a concrete design principle, pump maker Blackmer instead created a USP based upon application of the product. Its trade ads showed a Yellow Pages ripped out of an industrial buying guide, full of listings for pump manufacturers, including Blackmer. The company name was circled in pen.

The headline of the ad read, “There are only certain times you should call Blackmer for a pump. Know when?” Body copy explained (and I am paraphrasing here), “In many applications, Blackmer performs no better or worse than any pumps, and so we are not a particularly advantageous choice.”

But, the ad went on, for certain applications (viscous fluids, fluids containing abrasives, slurries and a few other situations) Blackmer was proven to outperform all other pumps, and was the logical brand of choice. Blackmer closed the ad by offering a free technical manual proving the claim.

My old friend Jim Alexander, of Alexander Marketing in Grand Rapids, MI, created this campaign and tells me it worked extremely well.

The easiest situation in which to create a strong USP is when your product has a unique feature – one that competitors lack – that delivers a strong benefit. This must be an advantage the customer really cares about, not one that is trivial.

But what if such a proprietary advantage does not exist? What if your product is basically the same as the competition, with no special features?

Reeves has the answer here, too. He said the uniqueness can stem either from a strong brand (already discussed as an option 95 percent of marketers can’t use) or from “a claim not otherwise made in that particular form of advertising” – that is, other products may have this feature too, but advertisers haven’t told consumers about it.

An example from packaged goods advertising: “M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Once M&M established this claim as its USP, what could the competition do? Run an ad that said, “We also melt in your mouth, not in your hand!”?

In his book “Scientific Advertising,” Claude Hopkins gives an example of a USP that has become a classic story. The short version: An ad man walking through his beer client’s brewery was fascinated by a machine that blasted steam into beer bottles to sanitize them.

“Don’t use that in advertising,” the brewer told the ad man. “It is nothing unique; every brewer does the same.”

“Maybe,” the ad man replied, “but I had never heard of it before, and neither has any of the beer-drinking public.”

He then created a successful ad campaign for a beer advertised as “so pure the bottles are washed in live steam.”

One more point: As direct marketers, we – unlike most general advertisers today – are compelled to create advertising that generates net revenue in excess of its cost. Reeves believed all advertising had to do this. He defined advertising as “the art of getting a USP into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost.”

If I were to modify his definition, I would change it to “getting a USP into the heads of the people most likely to buy the product, at the lowest possible advertising cost.” But who am I to quibble with the master?

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