I was recently at a marketing meeting where the MD of a company said “I just want you to put across our USP so potential customers go ‘WOW’”.

Sounds fair enough?  No – he was kidding himself.  USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition, and the company didn’t have one.  I wish they did – because my job would have been a whole lot easier.  The hard truth, however, is that companies with a true USP, in today’s overcrowded economy, are rarer than rocking horse shit.  And people who still use that term are hopelessly out of touch.

Where did the USP come from?

Wikipedia explains that the USP concept was first proposed to “explain a pattern among successful advertising campaigns of the early 1940s. It states that such campaigns made unique propositions to the customer and that this convinced them to switch brands. The term was invented by Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates & Company.”

What’s a unique proposition?  The Oxford dictionary defines “unique” as “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else”.   That’s exactly what Mr Reeves had in mind.  In 1961 he wrote a book entitled Reality in Advertising.  It includes these words: “The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique—either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.”

The Wikipedia entry goes on to explain that “today the term is used in other fields or just casually to refer to any aspect of an object that differentiates it from similar objects.”

So the term has become watered down – instead of being taken to mean “uniquely different” it is now used in the much looser sense of “slightly different”.  “The Economist Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus”, by Tim Hindle, explains that the idea of the USP “was usurped by the view that what really matters in marketing a product or service is its positioning, where it sits on the spectrum of customer needs. Shampoos, for instance, claim to meet all sorts of different customer needs and sit in all sorts of different positions—the need to wash dry hair or greasy hair, dark hair or blond hair, or the need to wash hair frequently or not so frequently. Few of them, however, can claim to have a unique selling proposition.”

What difference does it make?

A big one.  If you genuinely have something unique about your product and service then you have a much better story to tell, and selling is much easier – you can just tell it “the way it is”.

But what if you don’t?

Kidding yourself that you do is simply stupid – you certainly won’t fool potential customers.

So do you need to create one?  No.  As The Economist article points out “uniqueness is rare, and coming up with a continuous stream of products with unique features is, in practice, extremely difficult.”  Plus it really isn’t necessary – there are millions of companies out there that have become hugely successful without being unique.

So what should you do?

Ignore the so called experts telling you to find your USP

The whole concept of the USP is now wishful thinking – but I still see people, who should know better, continuing to push it as an essential component of marketing success.

Take Business Link – their “New Venture” series of papers includes one entitled “Why do I need a USP” that concludes “your USP will form the basis of all your sales and marketing activity.”  Get with the programme guys – unique is so last millennium!

Then there’s the Chartered Institute of Marketing (you’d think they’d know better, surely?!).  They’ve developed a “Ten Minute Guide” entitled “How to define your Unique Selling Proposition”.  The thinking (or lack of it) is sloppy, lazy and complacent.  Where have these people been for the last 60 years – not in the real world!

Stop looking for your USP – it’s a red herring.

Just focus on what you do well

David Ogilvy, writing in “Ogilvy on Advertising” published in 1983, acknowledges that even back than “so many products are no different from their competitors.”  He quotes the advice of his business partner Joel Raphaelson.

“In the past, just about every advertiser has assumed that in order to sell his goods he has to convince consumers that his product is superior to his competitor’s.

“This may not be necessary.  It may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good.  If the consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels uncertain about your competitor’s, he will buy yours.

“If you and your competitors all make excellent products don’t try and imply that your product is better.  Just say what’s good about your product – and do a clearer, more honest, more informative way of saying it….sales will swing to the marketer who does the best job of creating confidence that his product is positively good.”

This seems like good advice to me.  Much more sensible than pretending to be something you are not, or chasing after some kind of unique and exclusive promise that is practically impossible to achieve.