Has right-brained thinking hijacked the USP?

Ooooh! Pick my brand! Pick my brand!

Ooooh! Pick my brand! Pick my brand!

It’s been a dominant force in marketing plans, product development and agency briefs since the 1940s… the ubiquitous USP.

A brand or product’s “USP” is its unique selling proposition or unique selling point. That’s a fancy, MBA-way of telling potential customers what’s different about you and why they should buy your product instead of someone else’s.

Advertising legend Rosser Reeves coined the phrase, and in his classic book, Reality in Advertising, says that there are three components to a USP:

  • It must tell the customer to buy a product or service for a specific benefit.
  • That specific benefit has to be something only that product or service can offer. No one else should have it.
  • It has to be strong and attractive—people have to care about that benefit, want it, and see the value in it.

Although a USP is part of a brand and its market position, today, a lot of people use the terms interchangeably or more commonly under the ever-expanding umbrella of “brand.”

Even job candidates are encouraged to have their own “brand” to stand out from the unemployed masses.

A USP has always been crazy important in marketing. All the great advertising success stories—from the VW Beetle, to the Swiffer, to the iPhone—all had kick-ass, take-no-prisoners USPs. A well-presented USP is supposed to be the thing that makes people switch brands… and that still works, when the product is truly different, unique or innovative.

But, that brings up a serious blind spot in the USP viewpoint, especially in recent years. That is, we all have way too many choices when it comes to buying stuff.

A quick example? Take a walk down the laundry detergent aisle of your grocery store. Tide, Cheer, Dreft, All, 7 Generations, Wisk, Gain and tons of other colorful plastic jugs of detergents and related products now claim a full aisle, from bottom to top shelves. Some sell themselves on price or value (65 loads in one bottle!), others on safer environmental claims, some on fighting tough stains, or being gentler on skin, and many other claims. They’re all peddling their USPs.

You can make the case that, with this kind of competition, you need a differentiator more than ever. That’s hard to argue with. But in a global market of “me too” and quick-to-market products, finding that USP is a challenging nut to crack. And it’s getting harder.

It’s the same with countless other products and categories.

It makes you wonder… do more consumers today buy on price, coupons, convenience or blind brand loyalty? When faced with so many choices, do people just shut down? Do they remember even a fraction of the USPs of so many products?

With packaged goods, many marketing experts are saying that today’s USP is not as much about a formula or special ingredient, but rather how the product is packaged or presented. In countless cases, a cool package or product design is all it takes to be selected from a shelf of 600 products offering similar benefits. The average consumer is more design conscious than ever before.

That goes for service products, too. Environmental design, employees, and the general “feel” of a place means a lot to today’s buyer.

What does all this indicate? We’ve become a considerably more right-brained world, where things like design, presentation, aesthetics, approach, ambiance and atmosphere really matter in a world overloaded with choices.

The USP, in the classic sense, has become a rare bird… but one that is fundamentally evolving for today’s crowded marketing jungle.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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