Devising a USP

Unique selling proposition (USP): why a value proposition is better

The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is an early concept in marketing from the 1950s. The USP was developed by Rosser Reeves, a leading advertising practitioner, and advocated in his book Reality in Advertising. It is often referred to as the unique selling point, although this is technically incorrect.

Unique selling point vs value proposition

The term Unique Selling Proposition is widely used colloquially in business. The upside is that it encourages people to start thinking about “what’s in it for the customer”. However, it predates modern thinking on strategy and brand positioning and has been superseded among modern marketers with terms such as the Value Proposition. What’s more, there’s no real structure for how to come to a good USP because the concept has been detached from its creator. People come unstuck by picking unimportant, but unique things, and labelling them as USPs.

Unique selling point vs differentiation

Reeves applied the concept of the USP to decisions about advertising, so in marketing theory it sits within one of the four Cs – Communication. Later, thanks to the work of strategy thinkers such as Michael Porter, we tend to think about differentiation in a more strategic way, applying it not just to what we put in an advert.

The difference between creating a USP and differentiation is that the former is just about what you say about a product, whereas differentiation is a strategy that involves investing in making your product different.

The three criteria for a true USP

Reeves was critical of the idea that everything is a USP, and in his book sets criteria, albeit basic ones. Here, in his own works, are three requirements for something to be a true USP:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. 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.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

Unique selling proposition example

In the above advert, created by Rosser Reeves, the USP is strongly feature – Anacin is positioned as the only one of the four main pain relievers to have an ingredient to relax tension. It was an effective advert, and still has much to commend it despite its age.

This has an excellent USP because it’s central to the product and why people would buy it.

Limitations of USP as a concept

People get so obsessed by the colloquial notion of the USP that they contrive to be unique in irrelevant ways that don’t increase sales, or at least don’t increase them enough to pay for the uniqueness. They would be better off doing what the 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising suggests – this, by the way, is probably the most successful book on advertising ever published. David Ogilvy suggests that you don’t need to have a USP: just tell your story better. He quotes his colleague Joel Raphaelson:

If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product – and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

Why thinking of the value proposition delivers better results

The reason thinking of a value proposition is better than thinking of a unique selling proposition is that it encourages broader thinking. People think about the value to customers, rather than uniqueness for its own sake, and I think that creates better answers.

For example, if you have patents, technology, buying power or other things that make you more efficient, the value proposition might be that you can offer lower prices or bundle in extras that competitors aren’t able to do. Simply looking at what advertising messages to create with a USP wouldn’t get you to this realisation of what the strategy should be.

In the book Value Proposition Design, Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur et al, who are always great at giving some structure, introduce a Value (Proposition) Map, which “describes the features of a specific value proposition in your business model in a more structured and detailed way. It breaks your value proposition down into products and services, pain relievers, and gain creators.”

Value Proposition Design