Stop telling people about your USP – you don’t have one

July 25, 2011

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.

  1. Russell Dalgleish August 2, 2011 Reply


    Another excellent article and one that we could all learn much from. You are completely correct that no one can maintain a USP for any length of time in a world where an idea can be cloned quickly but what we can do is to be unique for a period of time, in a particular sector, in one geography and of course as individuals we are unique in that we are the one delivering the actual service.

    So I must say that The White Cottage is unique in that they are the only organisation that can deliver the unique thinking of Jim O'Conner....... we'll unless this article is abused through the use of Cut & Paste and appears in another blog, but then Jim's next entry is once again unique..

    Oh my heads getting sore thinking this one through.

    Keep up the good work Jim.



    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Thanks Russell,
      Good to "hear" from you. Glad you liked the article. I know I'm unique (ish)...and funnily enough you've helped me realise that's why I'm writing this blog - to prove it. Very pleased a handful of people are following my antics!

  2. Brian August 3, 2011 Reply

    You have so much missed the point. Its not about what Ogavy said or did or preached is all about the package and more importantly living up to the promise. So many companies, big and small don't. Get out of sixties thinking and start think about customer needs in the 21st cent. It might just be a revelation.

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your robust comments! You are right to an head is still partly stuck in the sixties, but that's because it was an intersting decade (IMHO). Since writing this post I've added two more about how marketing has moved on - "How to sell when you have no USP" and "From USP to UPS". Hope you enjoy them, but if you don't, be sure to let me know.


  3. Barry Harvey August 3, 2011 Reply

    Good point, Jim. I am working with a client who has developed a genuine USP for his business, which none of his competitors are saying. Even if they sunsequently copy him, he will always be the first - although, if the all join in, this will become less meaningful over time.

    My business, however, does not. I am trying to develop an idea, but it is a long haul. Mainly, I try and give as much information of value as possible, to inspire confidence and trust. There is no magic solution, just building your reputation one brick at a time.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Barry,
      You're right, there's no magic solution. If there was I'd probably out of a job, so I guess I have to be grateful it's so difficult!



  4. Marc French August 4, 2011 Reply

    Great story Jim, and interesting comments too! I think people obsess about USPs because they are a neatly packaged, simple idea to understand. And understanding brings with it a sense that one is in control. Likewise, folk will responded favourably to your article if it's helped them grasp a notion that's been bugging them for ages.

    The thing is, success is all about building and maintaining a reputation and being relevant to one's marketplace. Sounds easy, but it is a colossal challenge and therefore won't be a popular idea with many businesses. They'll prefer to focus on tiny parts of the equation because they're easier to understand and put into action. Which comes back to the idea of the USP and why there might be so many subtly different books on business success. They're not unique, they've just found the combination of ingredients that appeal to their market.

    So rather than trying to create a six fingered glove, how about a glove that just fits?

    Great, thought provoking stuff Jim, well done!


    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Marc,
      Thanks for comments and insights - thought provoking as ever. As you say, there are no shortcuts to success (but lots of books that suggest there might be one - never buy a book with the word "secret" in the title!)



  5. Paul Barkley August 9, 2011 Reply

    Prior to starting up a business, and not having a business background (local government) I found it very useful to consider questions such as "why should clients seek my advice rather than go to another consultant?"; "what service am I going to offer and to whom?", etc., i.e. USP type questions.

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Paul,
      Good point. It's a useful exercise to see if one does have a USP, but not a major concern if you then find that you don't!
      Good luck with the consultancy...

      Kind regards,


  6. Peter Watson August 19, 2011 Reply

    Great article, Jim. Exceptionally interesting.

    My relationship with USP's is, like so many things, Love/Hate. If you can locate a USP, writing becomes easier. The caveat: a USP must be explained, and explanations often require wordage and a lot of space in a world with a low attention span. Moreover, clients commonly detest their USP. If they're tiny so they can provide great personal service, they don't want to play up the fact that they're small. If they're big, so they can cope with headaches, they don't want to invite that kind of customer. If they're really great internationally, they don't want to alienate the domestic market.

    So, if I can't dig up an easily-grasped USP--and you're correct, these are damnably rare--I forget it. I never say to my client, "Have you people spent even one second taking a look at your competitors' claims?" No, I merely get on with it, move rapidly toward Other Things To Say. These often revolve around a headline with attitude. I play up how life as a consumer is going to improve in doing business with this client. I create a few pitfalls that you won't fall into. If possible I dig up a few benefits (e.g., current clients have been with them for many years, they've won some awards, or they embrace the future and will put you in good shape for unforeseen challenges that lie ahead).
    I send off that copy. I wait for my client to get back to me with a USP they forgot to mention. They get back, generally without that USP. I rewrite about 40% of the copy and send it off again. Silence. The inevitable paranoia that I blew it. Occasionally somebody will tell me that they love the copy, but that's about as rare in NYC as a trueUSP. Weeks later, a check arrives. In six months, I find myself saying to my wife, "Can you believe it? Those guys came back to me with another project!" And she replies, "Sure, honey. You're unique."

    • Jim August 21, 2011 Reply

      Hi Peter,

      Your comment is full of excellent advice. Funnily enough I've just put "How to sell an attitude" down on my list of blog posts I need to write. If you are stuck with little to say, just adding a bit of attitude can hide the fact and get great impact - it's a trick that regularly gets me out of tight spots.

      Your description of waiting for feedback from client, eventually getting paid, and then getting another job from (much to your amazement) rings a lot of bells over here - people are the same, the world over!
      Kind regards,

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