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Unleashing the Power of Your Business with a USP

Looking back over the last 90 days I can see that the most popular framework that has been viewed on this website, by a long chalk, is the unique selling proposition (USP). This is good to know. The USP framework has been around for a long time. Rosser Reeves, a classic ad man who founded Ted Bates & Company in 1940, is credited with originating the framework. It is said that the TV drama, Mad Men, is based on his ad agency. Those old school advertising men didn't beat about the bush. Their aim was to sell products and they did so by finding a key point about the product that resonated with potential customers.

Reeves loved slogans that captured the USP. Some of them are still around today such as M&M's "melts in your mouth, not in your hand." In 1961 Reeves wrote a bestselling book that heavily influenced the advertising world – it was called Reality In Advertising and it proposed three concepts:

1. Tell the customer what specific benefit they will get from the product.

2. Make sure that the benefit is one that is not offered by the competition. If possible it should be unique.

3. Find a benefit that is really attractive to millions of people.

This is strong and good stuff. The problem many companies face is that they can't find a benefit or proposition that is unique. As a result they develop “value propositions”. Rosser Reeves would have understood value propositions but he would have dismissed them as being too weak and too fluffy.

All companies’ offers are made up of a number of positive propositions. They do the job they say they will do and they most likely do it very efficiently. They are widely available. They are attractively priced. They are supported by strong brands and guarantees. Reeves would see the weakness with such propositions. Although these seem like a good offer, and are made up of lots of reasons to buy, there are too many companies promising the same thing. You can’t stand out as having a good reason for the customer to choose your product if it looks the same as everyone else’s.

The starting point in developing a unique selling proposition is to closely define the people who are likely to buy your product – your target audience. With these people in mind the next step is to figure out their needs and if possible their unmet needs. The aim is to determine to what extent your product fully meets the needs of the customers and if there is a gap. And a key to success is determining to what extent you are able to fully meet the needs of your target audience in a way that cannot be met by your competitors.

The problem can sometimes be not so much how your product is different and better than the competition, but the story you construct to illustrate this. I like here to use the example of Coke and Pepsi. Both products seem at face value to be very similar. In fact many people can't tell the difference. However, both companies have developed compelling stories that give people a reason for this choice. And these stories are based on what at first glance may be considered trivial propositions. When people drink a cola they are doing something more than quenching their thirst. They are "wearing" the brand. Coke developed a USP around its history. It was on the market before Pepsi. This makes it "the real thing". Pepsi focuses its USP on taste – "taste the difference now" and latterly "That's what I like". These USPs, woven into stories, from Coke and Pepsi make the brands distinctive to the point that customers become loyal. Rosser Reeves would very much have approved.


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