USPs are false thinking

Every time someone talks to me about their unique selling proposition (USP) I can’t help but think that the whole thing is a little overrated. Not as a concept, but as a reality.

The USP found its way into our marketing lexicon in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves. Reeves, a television advertiser, coined the term to hit home a succinct message that Joe & Jane Public should convert to a particular brand because of a punchy one-liner.

It plays to our simple rationale of purchasing X, and tangibly receiving Y. This cream will make you look younger. This nappy is the driest. This pizza is the tastiest. This car is the most reliable. This tumble drier is the quietest.

It’s all rather one-dimensional, and frankly, a little out-dated as our choices (and the standards of measuring satisfaction) have grown exponentially since the ‘40s. Unique is a lofty goal and no-where near as easy to claim in a world where there are a dozen coffee shop choices on pretty much every high street in the land.

I mean, is there anything really unique about the hotels you book? If you’re anything like 99% of businesses you’ll book on location, price and availability. By and large, mid-range hotels all come pretty much the same: foyer, reception, bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. They obviously are unique in a physical sense, but are they in any tangible USP sense?

By the same token, a bank is a bank. Most are largely indiscernible from one another and could easily be exchanged for a competitor. Is the milk in Waitrose any whiter or higher quality than the pint at your local corner shop?

Your sports brand of choice would say they stand for excellence and winning. So would mine. What’s really unique about Adidas, Reebok, Nike, and Puma, then? Are any of them offering anything so spectacularly different from their peers to deserve the adjective?

A large proportion of sales are won on convenience. Even a cafe only needs to be thought of as nice enough before you’ll walk in if you’re that hungry. The fact is that ‘good enough’, not unique selling propositions are driving the majority in business.

Of course, garnering the advocate, the long-term and sustainable customer may well need more. That’s when you need to be so good that folks will pass on the convenient choice and seek you out.

Surely, then, it comes down to diversification, as the much-quoted godfather of business, Igor Ansoff would say. That will essentially boil down to providing a better experience. At the risk of an Apple cliché, isn’t that what Jobs sought: difference? Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player or the tablet computer but they made them different enough so that it didn’t just come down to higher specs or lower prices – people craved them.

And it’s likely to be more of a twist on the norm, rather than complete, bone-crushing uniqueness. Henry Ford’s Model T was transformationally different from a horse. A Mercedes C Class couldn’t claim anything like as much versus a BMW 3 series.

It’s also about how a product makes us feel, as much as it is about one single product feature, ability, or use. To paraphrase Seth Godin, It’s the story we tell ourselves about it. I guess we’re back to that all-encompassing ‘brand’ word again, aren’t we?

So, instead of all this unique talk I can’t help but think we’d be better phrasing it in the context of our story, our diversity and our brand. Is that true of your business and your sector too? Are you in a similar boat?

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