Ever since Rosser Reeves wrote his classic book Reality In Advertising, it has been fashionable for marketers to bandy about “USP” as if they know what they’re talking about. Trouble is, most don’t. Many have never even heard of Reeves, much less read his book, as evidenced by the fact that they haven’t slightest idea of what a USP truly is. Or, for that matter, isn’t.
USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. A USP is not a slogan or line. It is a strategic peg. It centers on a unique product feature (one-quarter cleansing cream), or one that is perceived to be unique (Techron), that is likely to motivate people to choose a brand.
So, let’s review. A bona fide USP is:
1. Unique. Or, perceived to be unique. Anyone can put cleansing cream in soap, but Dove has managed to take ownership of that feature.
2. A Selling Proposition. That is, it is likely to create brand preference. This can be tricky, because we humans are capricious. It makes intuitive sense that people concerned about skin care would like the idea of cleansing cream in soap. The success of wine in boxes has been more of a surprise.
Do not confuse a slogan for a USP. “We deliver,” “we care,” “trained professionals,” “only the finest ingredients,” etc., etc., are not USPs. For that matter, they are hardly slogans. They are recycled, meaningless fluff.
Neither do you have a USP if you come up with a line that is merely charming (“Happy cows” for California Cheese), that’s a groaner of a pun (“technology the world calls on” for Northern Telecom, “First relationships last” for First National Bank of Chicago), or that rings true only to the Board of Directors and their spouses (“pleasing people the world over” for Holiday Inn, “our people make the difference” for every self-indulgent company at some time or another).
A USP needn’t be a line, or anything remotely like a slogan. Rather, a USP is a claim. As long as it consistently underlies creative concepts and copy, you can vary how you express it. Over the years, Chevron has found lots of ways to talk about Techron, while the USP — that it keeps your motor running clean to make your car last longer — has held constant. Likewise, McDonald’s has found lots of ways to talk about cheap, fast and consistent food, yet never used any of those words in a slogan.
Next time your marketing committee (an oxymoron, incidentally) wants to brainstorm (ditto) a USP, raise a dissident voice. Hold out for a real USP. If, that is, you’re reasonably sure of not committing a career-ending act. Call me obsessive, but I can’t help thinking that when Reeves came up with the term “Unique Selling Proposition,” he was referring to claims that are both unique and a selling proposition.