The USP. That old chestnut. It sticks—like a thorn in your side.
You’ve had it drilled into you: A Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is essential. You can’t write copy—or create any other marketing materials—without it. You need a USP to prove your product is different and better. To highlight your services’ singular benefits. To stand out in a sea of sameness.
And you’re taught that’s true whether you sell candy, cancer services or worthy causes.
But shoot me: These days it’s almost impossible to establish a USP. Is it a nostalgic holdover? A marketing relic from the days of cardboard storyboards, breakfast bourbon and Don Draper ad men?
Your USP’s excruciating exactness
Rosser Reeves, the inventor of the USP, specified three criteria defining the concept: To claim a Unique Selling Proposition, your marketing must…
- Propose a genuine benefit—not a hyped, unsubstantiated promise.
- Prove the proposition is unique—a claim your competitor cannot, or does not, make.
- Have the power to move millions of consumers.
If you’re not a nationally branded household name, you’ve got a tough row to hoe according to Reeves’ exacting formula.
The USP loophole
Luckily, the legendary adman provided some USP leeway, as noted in a recent post by Bob Bly. Reeves allowed you could create a USP by making a claim “not otherwise made in that particular form of advertising.” In other words, by highlighting a benefit before your competitors do.
If you’re like most copywriters, you mine this vein deeply. Your work is all about digging up claims “not otherwise made”: You scrutinize your client’s offer. You study her customers and competition. You bend over backwards and jump through hoops to find benefits your competition has not yet claimed. And that becomes your USP.
Well and good.
Except it’s not.
The decline and fall of the Don Draper-era USP
Lately I’ve noticed a strong ripple in USP Force. Today it’s tougher than ever to make credible USP claims using traditional media.
Those once golden guns—the clever 30-second spot, witty print ad, glossy collateral, flashy website—don’t pack the power to position you as unique.
Real-life client conversation about USP
All this may not be news to you. But it hit me like a thunderbolt a few weeks ago, after a conversation with a client. My chat went something like this (some details changed to protect, well, me):
Client: So, Lorraine, we need two pieces of copy: a space ad and a B2B brochure.
Me: Okay. Let’s talk a little about positioning. Tell me about your services.
Client: Yes! We’re excited about our world-class blah, blah state-of-the-art blah, blah, blah premier blah, blah, blah.
Me: Hmmm. Right. Of course you have a great product. But here’s the thing. It’s not really unique.
Me: As I see it, you have two or three key competitors here in New York City. They offer pretty much the same product you do. Have you thought about how you can set yourself apart?
Client: But they don’t offer the same product! We give New Yorkers world-class blah, blah state-of-the-art blah, blah, blah premier blah, blah, blah…
Me: But your competitors make the same claims. They offer the same product. They target exactly the same customers. And they use exactly the same words to do it. Just take a look at their website. Or their collateral. How can you show customers you’re unique, different or better than them?
Client: Well, uh, um. Let’s see… I know! We provide better customer service. Our company really cares. Blah, blah, blah customer-centric blah, blah, blah trust blah, blah, blah relationships blah, blah, blah.
Me: Like I said, your competitors make the same claims—they even use the same words.
Client: Well, they’re lying! They say it, but we mean it.
Me: And you expect customers to believe you? Because you make claims in a brochure?
The conversation continued downhill. I felt uneasy. Worse, I felt resentful of this tired approach to marketing. It felt like a waste. Of my work. Their money. And everyone’s—including customers’—time.
How to create a credible USP in the digital era
Because, the truth? This company can make genuine claims of uniqueness. They are different. In a number of ways they are better than their competitors—ways that can be proven. But here’s the thing: Their uniqueness is more qualitative than quantitative.
It can’t be proven credibly using space ads, collateral, direct mail or other traditional media alone.
Their road to USP authority—as with so many other businesses and NGOs today—lies in another approach: Content marketing.
I’m convinced this company’s best hope for creating a USP—and reaping the benefits of bigger market share and boosted bottom line—lies with:
Marketing content that shows, not tells. They need content that proves qualitative claims, like we care and we put relationships first. Content that uses narrative to reveal their company’s human faces. Content that’s new, relevant, useful and usable. Could be articles, newsletters, direct mail, emails and white papers. But its foundation—and home base—is likely a blog. A thoughtfully planned, regularly updated, reader-focused blog.
Content strategy—a commitment to building relationships with useful content over a long-ish period of time, rather than with one-shot tactical tools.
Two-way communication that lets customers talk back: the blog’s comment section. Twitter, Facebook and other social communities. Email and 800 numbers that go to—and are answered by—real human beings, not customer service automatons.
New media—because content is more than copy. Today marketing content needs to include a variety of appealing formats: Yes, website, blog and social media copy, but also videos, podcasts, mobile communications and location-based apps.
A mix of traditional media to solidify branding and strengthen relationships. I’m not a traditional media hater. I believe print—and other traditional tools—can be relevant. They still pack power. And they still reach niches that digital media doesn’t. I wrote The Brochure Bible, for heaven’s sake! But in my humble opinion, traditional media as a stand-alone tactic is ineffective. What works? Today we call it “content marketing”—five years ago it was “integrated marketing communications” or “multiplatform messaging.” The catch phrases change, but the human impulse to connect stays the same. It’s about discerning the platforms that best reach your customers—or donors—and using a variety of formats to connect with them.
Is your USP working for you?
What do you say? Can you craft a credible USP using traditional media? Or does the prospect make you want to call it a day—and go drown your sorrows in a bottle of Scotch and a pack of Pall Malls?
Photo courtesy of snacktime2007