Has the USP become obsolete?

Today’s most successful, cutting-edge brands are going beyond selling… to inspiring.

Today’s most successful, cutting-edge brands are going beyond selling… to inspiring.

Until recently, we all learned the same thing. It didn’t matter if you cut your teeth in an advertising agency, if you were a marketer earning your MBA at night, or if you were one of those salty, hardened product managers in the business for 30 years. It was all about a product’s or service’s unique selling proposition or USP.

The brainchild of pioneering marketer Rosser Reeves in the 1940s, the USP was a fancy way of asking, “What makes you unique from everyone else?” The theory was—and this proved to be true for decades—that if you managed to pound that differentiation into the gray matter of your customers, they’d remember you and buy your stuff. The USP gave rise to some of the most famous slogans in history, namely:

Melts in your mouth, not in your hand. (M&Ms®)

When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight. (FedEx®)

The quicker picker-upper. (Bounty® paper towels)

Depending on how old you are, I’m sure that old-time commercials from your childhood are flashing through your head right now. That proves how effective the USP could be… it worked for years. But, since about a decade ago, the USP may belong more on the endangered list than in marketing books. Among the bigger brands, it seems to have fallen out of favor. I attribute this to:

  • A globalized market that brings more choices than ever to customers in products and services. Ever go into Target to buy something as simple as a trash can? There are 50+ designs on the shelves! It has become a lot tougher to truly be unique with so much more competition.
  • A superabundance of info. Life just seems more complicated these days. Since we’re so inundated with data, it’s often hard to remember a single selling point about anything. We end up relying on Amazon reviews.

Are USPs even necessary, then?!? Most marketers I know still say that if you’ve truly got one, flaunt it. But many leading brands have moved beyond the USP, or they’re at least reinventing it. How? The biggest, most successful brands today define themselves as having a purpose—beyond a mere USP. They present themselves and ask their employees to adopt certain principles or reasons for being. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to hear some CMOs from several major brands at a conference. They were very open about their brands and what they stood for. Here’s just one great example, perhaps one you wouldn’t expect…


USP: The Breakfast of Champions (still on the box!). This related to the cereal’s whole wheat, lower-sugar, lots of vitamins and minerals ingredient list. The box was famous for its portraits of athletes (it was an honor to appear on there), which acted as a sort of testimonial for the brown flakes inside.

Wheaties’ brand “purpose” (as told to me by their CMO): Fuel the Champion Inside. This is a bigger statement than the “Breakfast of Champions” USP. This talks not only about nutritional fueling, but inspiration. Today, their box and their website are still filled with athletes, but not just pros anymore. On Wheaties.com and its related social media sites, you’ll find para-athletes, Tough Mudder® guys, rock climbers and so many more.

Fuel the Champion Inside calls on people to go beyond breakfast. They want you to excel in life. Their site completely backs up this brand purpose, loaded with inspirational stories, recipes and such sayings as, The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen. The entire brand is anchored to this one notion. And it’s done very well. Makes me want to go home and do some kettlebells!

I think another phenomenon fueling this new move in branding is the rise of tribes in our society. I’ve written about this before—humans are wired to be part of groups or tribes. Technology makes finding kindred spirits, with similar loves and interests, a snap. Just like Wheaties athletes.

There are many other examples of branding beyond the USP, but the concept they all share is this: Have a purpose, a meaning, that’s bigger than just your product or service. Be something to people. When you think about it, it’s still a USP of sorts—but a deeper one. It’s a USP that has a philosophy or point of view, as opposed to one that’s based solely on a single product benefit. It’s a more complex approach—perhaps for a more complex world.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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