From USP to UPS

July 28, 2011

In my previous blog, “How to sell when you have no USP”, I explained how marketing has moved from the concept of the USP on to the feature/benefit approach.  How it then went from product-centric marketing to consumer-centric marketing.  And how this led to the next stage – the shift from Customer Relationship Management (something that’s done to you, whether you like it or not) to Permission Marketing (something that’s done with you, in a way that you do like – hopefully).

Shoot for the heart

The next logical step for marketers who want to get ahead of the competition is actually not logical at all.  As Seth Godin says in “Permission Marketing”, this approach is “just like dating”, which should give you a clue.  Smart marketers, the ones who really understand branding, have started to shift their focus from the head to the heart – they’ve gone emotional.

This tactic has actually been steadily gaining traction for about the last 20 years (the trends I’ve identified tend to overlap, because some marketers are way ahead of others).

In my previous post, “Stop talking about your USP- you haven’t got one”, I quoted from “The Economist Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus”.  The author, Tim Hindle, makes the point that “Uniqueness is rare, and coming up with a continuous stream of products with unique features is, in practice, extremely difficult. Philip Kotler says that the difficulty firms have in creating functional uniqueness has made them “focus on having a unique emotional selling proposition (an ESP) instead of a USP”.

Fashiontainment is where it’s at

John Hegarty, in his recent book “Hegarty on advertising”, argues that product functionality has become considerably less important when building brands, remarking that “the issue with brands today is not about whether ‘it’, the product I’ve just bought, works – I expect ‘it’ to work – but what ‘it’ says about me.  ‘It’ becomes a fashion statement.”  Elsewhere he explains that “the future is going to be one where brands look increasingly at how the two worlds of entertainment and fashion are merging.  Brands need to become part of those worlds – where fashion sits alongside the need to be entertained.”

The work of Hegarty’s agency, BBH, provides an object lesson in how successful ad agencies and their clients have been doing this for donkey’s years.  See BBH’s work for Lynx/Axe, Levis, Wallis and Haagen Dazs.

The ultimate driving machine goes soft on us

Perhaps the best example of the change that has occurred is BMW.   In the 80’s the ads created by WCRS were focused on discovering USPs.  The agency had a technique they called “product interrogation”.  This involved an annual pilgrimage to Munich to ‘interrogate the product until it confessed to its strengths’.  One such trip became part of the agency’s folklore.  Copywriter and self-styled “brand architect” Robin Wight spent half a day pounding away at a BMW engineer to understand why six cylinders were smoother than four. Eventually the engineer explained how a glass of water on the engine of a Mercedes would be de-stabilised by the imperfections in the balance of the engine.  But with the BMW, the engineer said, neither the glass nor the water would move.  This resulted in the famous “Shaken.  Not Stirred” ad.

Now, however, the ads have moved away from the product.  Interrogation to discover features and benefits has been replaced by interrogation of consumers.  And what have they found?  To quote from a recent BMW commercial they realised that “what you make people feel is just as important as what you make….and at BMW we don’t just make cars, we make joy.”

Love is Ben & Jerry’s, Apple, Lexus…

If you want to understand more about the thinking that has led to this more emotional approach to marketing read “Lovemarks” and “The Lovemarks effect” by Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi.  The book is an extended advertisement for the work of his agency (very irritating), but he does make some good points.

He argues that brands “are out of juice” because “they can’t stand out in the marketplace, and they are struggling to connect with people.”  The answer is get “up close and personal” with consumers because, “people think with their hearts”.  He quotes the words of neurologist Donald Calne: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions”.

He explains how his agency recognised the need to give brands “emotional resonance”.  You do this by investing them with “mystery, sensuality and intimacy”, thereby creating what he terms a “lovemark” – a brand that people not just respect, but love…passionately.  It all gets a bit sickly sweet, but you get the general idea – marketing has become the business of creating deep and meaningful love affairs between consumers and products/services.

I feel the need to send a package and share the love!

UPS is a great example.   You can’t get more logical than logistics, but their “We love logistics” campaign makes the world of bar codes, fork lifts, shipping schedules, conveyor belts, supply chains and cardboard boxes romantic and sexy.  The lyrics are pure features and benefits – “when the parts for the line come precisely on time…that’s logistics….carbon footprint gets reduced, bottom line gets a boost…that’s logistics…with new ways to compete, there’ll be cheers on Wall Street….that’s logistics…there will be no more stress, because you called UPS…that’s logistics.  But the tune (“that’s Amore” originally sung by Dean Martin) is pure emotion, and the stuff of lovemarks.  That’s genius.

So, marketing has come a huge distance since the 1940s – all the way from USP to UPS.

  1. Paul Stephenson August 1, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jim,

    Congrats on the triumvirate of USP related articles. I don't know about you but I think the latest ads for O2 (with the annoying fawn) have just about killed off the whole 'we love you' genre. Rather than going back to features/benefits or not so unique USPs, why don't advertisers talk about outcomes more?

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Paul,
      Sorry for slow season!
      I think it will take a lot to kill off the 'we love you' genre (but we can both live in hope!).
      As for why advertisers don't talk about outcomes guess is that their outcomes are disappointing, or unquantifiable.

  2. J.S. Gilbert August 3, 2011 Reply


    I couldn't agree more. Even among the higher budgeted, better quality advertising today, there is more concern for the big idea, the punchline or simply the concept that if you entertain someone for 28 seconds, it will buy you the right to toss in a 2 second pitch.

    Recycled jokes and repurposed campaigns that were shot down by 3 previous clients tend to become forgettable rather quickly, even if they do somehow manage to win lots of awards.

    Getting someone to truly feel some sort of emotion when exposed to your message is really the most effective "brand". Sadly though, for every "one" that spends the time to get it right, we see a spate of copycats, who seem to think that "me too", will work for their clients.

    In the states, the campaign for Kaiser (hospitals and medical services) that uses the voice of Allison Janney (West Wing) have become so succesful that it has now caused half the commercial broadcast casting notices for women to say "looking for an Allison Janney" type.

    Sadly, as those tasked with crafting messages begin to realize their clients aren't unique, they also realize that crafting an effective message (regardless of the media), is a lot harder than it looks.

    It seems, much the way of the "Emperor's New Clothes", that most of the effort is spent on convincing the client that what they just spent all this money on is indeed going to be "effective".

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi JS,
      Sorry for slow reply. Your insightful and entertaining comments raised a smile on this side of the Atlantic! Getting emotion to work in the way intended is a slippery business...

  3. greg stene August 22, 2011 Reply

    Good stuff, all. Just wanted to add a little different perspective.

    The linear progression of the discussion of the ad strategies, from USP on, suggests that the previous strategy has failed and will continue fail (even though that may not be what is intended). I'd like to suggest that the discussion, and its linear progression have been a bit too strategy-directed, and not consumer-centric enough.

    USP will work where the USP matters to the consumer. I've recently moved to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I've come to realize that being here is not a matter of residence; it's a matter of pride, belief, religion, anything you want to call attachment.

    A company that USP-bills itself as starting up in this territory will have a number of people at least considering it for that USP point alone. It won't matter to many other people, however, who will view the claim as being terminally parochial. But it will matter to some of the target.

    Features and benefits ... much the same. A technophile is going to look at features and benes over brand name any day. Will prefer information over image. Again, the target is the key as to whether this aged strategy will work or not.

    The point I'm making is that we have a number of different strategies, and they all still have some value. The real task is to match the right strategy to the right target. The problem is that we tend to think in terms of product and strategy before we reach what should be the starting point ... the target. [Yes, I know "target" is not pretty, but its aggressive attitude is a lot more honest that the dispassionate, "consumer."]

    I'd like to close with this ... as both a former professional (copywriter) and associate professor, I thinking we're missing the real issue entirely. And I don't know what the answer is. When you stand in front of an Intro to Advertising class and show some of the hottest TV spots around, and you discover that say, only 3 out of 100 students ... students who will make advertising their degree choice ... have seen the spots, it leaves you wondering not so much about the strategy employed in the ad, as it does the very meaning and use of advertising overall.

    Not to be a downer, I just find myself wondering when we will move out of the classic idea of advertising (no, social media is not that move in any way, shape or form), and begin to explore that new playground we haven't stumbled across yet.

    greg stene

    • Jim August 29, 2011 Reply

      Hi Greg,
      Sorry for not replying sooner to your excellent and well considered comment. For the sake of brevity I kept the articles relativle simple, so thanks for drawing attention to fact that any of these strategies will still work if the target audience finds them personally attractive (it's still "horses for courses", and always will be).

      As for your observation that advertising is totally missing the younger generation, and is just not relevant in the weird/exciting environment were exploring now, I agree...I'm not sure what the heck is going on "out there" and certainly don't have the answer. I'm just enjoying the spectacle of it all unfolding (or unravelling?!)

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