Why looking for your brand’s Unique Selling Proposition may be dangerous to its health

If you manage brands, the chances are at some point you’ll find yourself in a situation where someone wants to determine the Unique Selling Proposition for a brand you’re responsible for.

Usually this will be because the brand isn’t performing and it’s been concluded that there’s a need to refresh or reposition it.  So the first questions typically asked are along the lines of “What is this brand really about?” and “What could this brand stand for to make it more appealing?”

Most likely it will be a General Manager or CEO with modest marketing experience that suggests figuring out the brand’s USP in response to these questions.  Or you yourself may think it’s a good idea.

Wherever it originates you need to quickly access if the concept is right for the brand under review and, if not, just as quickly take it off the table.  Because for many brands today the USP is an irrelevant concept.

If allowed into a strategy review where it isn’t appropriate, USP thinking will at best muddy and prolong the process.  Worse it can lead to a weaker brand definition than would have been the case without it.  In some cases it can result in an entirely ineffective definition that when executed wastes marketing resources and provides no real traction for the brand.

Why the USP endures

This may seem harsh criticism for an idea that is mentioned in every introductory marketing course and textbook.  But this is part of the problem.  Though a concept developed for a different time and business landscape, it is often presented as a fundamental marketing doctrine with little qualification.  It is also relatively straight forward, making it memorable and comfortable to use.

So when managers are asked to look at the fundamentals of a brand’s positioning, the USP is often readily recalled from their university days and introduced into the exercise.  This is certainly the case for non-marketing managers.  But marketers are also vulnerable to this.

The reality is most marketers will only need to look under the hood of brand a handful of times in their careers.  Most of the time they are executing against a brand definition that they have inherited or, in the case of global brands, that has been handed down from a head office.

There are many options for brand positioning.  But identifying, understanding and assessing these options can be challenging.  The USP approach is just one of them.  But many people still incorrectly see USP and positioning as the same, even though USP has been superseded by the far broader idea of positioning.  This is due to the reasons already given.  A quick look around the interweb will also show that this notion is reinforced by various marketing ‘experts’, particularly in the small business space.

A (very quick) history of the USP

To understand the limitations of the USP concept and why it can hold back a brand, we need to look at its original definition and deconstruct it against today’s consumer and competitive marketplace.

The idea was developed in the 1940’s by American ad man Rosser Reeves.   Reeves thinking can be summed up (with some paraphrasing) along the following lines:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer…it must say to each reader: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.”
  2. The proposition must be one the competition cannot or does not offer.  It must be unique – either in the brand or in a claim the rest of that particular advertising area does not make.
  3. The proposition must be strong enough to attract new customers, to “move the masses.”

In short, the USP frames brands in terms of a single product and the unique, tangible benefits people derive from that product.  Some classic examples are:

Anacin (headache tablets): “Fast, fast, incredibly fast relief”

Head & Shoulders (shampoo): “You get rid of dandruff”

Palmolive Soap: “Brings out beauty while it cleans your skin”

Miller Lite (beer): “Great Taste… Less Filling”

Fedex: “When your package absolutely, positively has to get there overnight”

Domino’s Pizza: “Fresh, hot pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less, guaranteed”

Palmolive Soap Print Ad 1950s

These examples show that the USP has worked extremely well for some brands.  It certainly suited a time when brands consisted of one product or product range, and so could focus on being good at ‘one thing’.  When the world was full of unmet needs which product innovation could fulfil and competitors moved at a genteel pace.

Nowadays brand portfolios span multiple product ranges, often across different categories.  This means most brand simply can’t find one, tangible ‘thing’ to be better at that applies equally across its product offering.   Product performance that uniquely meets a real consumer need is hard to come by, and if found is quickly matched by competitors driven by the hyper competitive demands of low growth markets.

USP versus Positioning

These factors were already starting to play out in the 1960’s and 1970’s leading up the concept of positioning being popularised in the 1980’s.  In simple terms, positioning – to coin Harvard’s Ted Leavitt – is the “differentiation of anything”, as long as the “anything” has some relevance to the target consumer.

Essentially positioning subsumed the USP.  Leading with a tangible product performance benefit became just one option for how to position a brand.

Since then positioning options have expanded and become more imaginative.  Brands – amongst other things – have become containers of emotion, lifestyle advocates, tools for self-expression, badges of tribal membership, flag bearers for values, champions of causes and agents for change (see the post The New Alternatives for Brand Strategy).

Entire categories have in the main moved away from USP based positioning.  Think beer, fashion, perfumes and confectionary.

The point is that while a product or range may have a USP (at least for a moment until competitors match them), it is a lot more difficult these days for a brand with a portfolio of products to find one.  Look around and you’ll see dozens of brands attempting to lead with variations of superior quality, technology, taste, customer service, durability, style and so on.  Attributes they may actually have, but in the eyes of their consumers, and often in reality, things that are not substantially better or different to their competitors.

Even if a brand has a viable option for positioning itself with a true USP, the question is whether that is its best choice.  As noted in the post Technology versus Instinct – a key dilemma for the future of consumer marketing, recent evidence suggests we are far more prone to emotional messages than rational ones.  So an ESP (Emotional Selling Proposition) may be more preferable to a USP even if the latter is available.

Beware the USP

It is a lot easier for most business managers to grasp the concrete logic of USP thinking than the intangibility of – for instance – emotional or values based positioning.  But for the reasons given, and as noted earlier, for many brands now the USP is an irrelevant concept.

So the next time you hear the question “So what is our brand’s Unique Selling Proposition?” be ready to assess if it really applicable.  If not, quickly nip the line of enquiry off at the bud before it derails your brand strategy.

Image Credits: sean_hickin

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One thought on “Why looking for your brand’s Unique Selling Proposition may be dangerous to its health

  1. True that. Really good article. Getting clients to move away fro USP thinking can be challenging, especially when challenged with the emotional based positioning concept.

    Usually I map the competition along a spectrum from: what we have and what we do: through to who we are and why we do it. Typically there is a cluster positioned on the what we do space (including my client). This then opens up the discussion aground the opportunity to differentiate by occupying an emotionally based positioning.

    The discussion becomes more logical for them.

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