In my previous post “Stop telling people about your USP – you don’t have one” I argued that the whole concept of the Unique Selling Proposition has become an anachronism in today’s overcrowded marketplaces – it’s almost impossible to establish even a tiny point of difference, let alone one that is truly unique.

I finished with Joel Raphaelson’s suggestion: “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.”

Over the last few decades a number of other selling and marketing approaches have been developed by people trying to “do a clearer, more honest, more informative” (and I would add the word “persuasive” to this list) job of explaining what’s “positively good” about their product or service.  This article gives you a very quick insight into some major trends that have emerged.  It’s highly subjective and intended just as food for thought – take from it what you find useful!

Sell the sizzle, not the sausage

That’s shorthand for “focus on features and benefits”.  For years we’ve been advised to explain the features (a fact about the product or service) alongside the corresponding benefit (a benefit answers the prospect’s question “what’s in it for me?”).  So if the feature is “Open 24/7” the benefit is “convenience”.  It’s good advice because prospects are self-interested and so find the benefits more motivating than the features – they’re more enticing.

The only problem with this is that all products or services in a particular category tend to have the same generic benefit – lager = refreshment, accountant = peace of mind/reduce tax, boutique hotel = wonderful experience, business intelligence = make better decisions, mobile phone = keep in touch better…and so on.

This means that, if you want this approach to work, you must find more creative, lateral and surprising ways to express that benefit.  So, all deodorant makes you sweat less/smell nicer.  When Bartle Bogle Hegarty took on the Lynx/Axe brand they decided, in the words of Creative Director John Hegarty (read his recent book “Hegarty on advertising” – it’s refreshingly to the point) the benefit was that it helps post-pubescent males get laid.  “The brand’s appeal…is very simple: you’re not going to lock down some tail if you smell like a hog on heat.”  Watch the commercials and you’ll see they’ve taken the benefit then pushed it about as far as they can – this is one of the earliest and it’s a classic.  That’s what you have to do with the tried and trusted feature/benefit approach if you want to stand out from the competition.

Selling products and services is so last millennium – now it’s all about “solutions”

Because benefits tend to be very generic that approach makes you appear awfully “me-too”.  This is especially true in B2B – almost every offering comes down to some combination of “save money, increase efficiency, improve profitability and minimise risk”.  Also, you may push a bunch of features that are not relevant to large sections of your market, so your message misses huge numbers of prospects.

This led to the emergence of what is termed “solution-based selling”.  Here’s an explanation I found online that’s reasonably easy to understand: “Selling, in and of itself, is the process of promoting a product or service by highlighting its features and benefits. In its simplest form, it is a product-centric approach.  Solution-based selling, on the other hand, involves creating a dialog with your customer to uncover their needs and diagnose their pains–customer-centric selling.”

That’s why you see the word “solution” cropping up so frequently – today everyone is selling you a solution.

The most important distinguishing feature of this approach (apart from the word “solution”!) is the change in perspective.  The product or service ceases to be the hero and it is the customer who is placed centre stage.  As one of my clients put it recently “We’re no longer selling what we make, but making what people want”.  So, the customer is now calling the tune (or at least you tell them they are!).

Oh no, not another solution?  (I never knew I had so many problems!)

I was talking to sales expert Trevor Lever the other day and he explained to me that solution based selling soon began to lose its edge.  As he put it “soon everyone was selling solutions – so that rapidly became unremarkable.  The customer, now used to being the centre of attention, and relishing their new-found power, began asking the obvious question – “everyone is offering me a solution to my problem – why should I go with you?”

Good question, and one that is hard to answer logically – because nobody has the slightest point of difference, let alone a true USP any more.  That’s when companies started to become so interested in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) – the message being “we don’t do anything different, or better, but we care about you more” (or at least we try harder to convince you this is the case).

The internet, digital marketing solutions (there’s that “s” word again) and database management solutions (not again!) meant companies were so busy bombarding their customers and prospects with relationship building stuff that people became sick of finding themselves the centre of so much attention.

We so love you – now will you buy from us?

That’s when we moved on to the next phase, Permission Marketing.  Seth Godin’s book of the same name explains that “Permission Marketing…offers the consumer an opportunity to volunteer to be marketed to.”  It “encourages consumers to participate in a long-term, interactive marketing campaign in which they are rewarded in some way for paying attention to increasingly relevant messages.”    This type of marketing is the opposite of old-style Interruption Marketing – an ad that interrupts your favourite TV show, or an irritating pop-up.  Permission Marketing has three distinguishing features – it’s “anticipated, personal, relevant”.  It’s a process of gradual seduction that’s “just like dating.  It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifelong customers.”

Where do marketers go next?

In Hegarty’s book he remarks that advertising and marketing is “an industry that is constantly moving forward.  Yesterday’s idea is exactly that, yesterday’s.  What’s new?  What’s next?  How can one brand gain competitive advantage over another?”  So, what’s next after Permission Marketing?

The next logical step is not logical at all.  It’s quite the opposite, in fact.  The smarter marketers have been heading down this path for twenty years or longer.  The less smart ones are still harping back to the days of the USP (which is what got me started on this subject in the first place).  For the next instalment in this saga go to my latest post – “From USP to UPS”.