The ABCs of USPs

There are currently over 40,000 SKUs in the average supermarket, 260 automobile models available, 340 breakfast cereals, 790 magazine titles, 87 soft drink brands, 70 different styles of Levi’s jeans…and that’s just the tip of the goods and services iceberg.

Now add to that the more than 2,100 advertising messages the average person absorbs each day and you quickly realize why consumers are paralyzed by information overload.

To counter this problem, many marketers try to break through the clutter by shouting louder – spending more money on larger ads, more frequency, and more outrageous creative. While these tactics may work to some degree, they can greatly reduce ROI. And as other marketers follow suit, they become less effective.

There is, however, a fundamentally easier way to get your product noticed and remembered.

According to Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, “The best approach to take in our overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind.” USP, branding, Cousin’s subs That’s the basis of the unique selling proposition (USP).

Developed by ad agency chairman Rosser Reeves in the 1960s, a USP is the single most unique and meaningful attribute your product possesses. It’s how your product is positioned not unto itself, but relative to competing products.

For example:

• Volvo = safety
• Crest = cavity prevention
• Energizer batteries = long lasting
• Papa John’s = better ingredients
• Cousins Subs = better bread
• Miller Lite = tastes great, less filling
• Domino’s Pizza = 30-minute delivery or its free
• BMW = ultimate driving machine
• M&Ms = melt in your mouth, not in your hand

These products and brands set themselves apart by helping consumers pigeonhole them as “the only _________ that _________.”

In contrast, “me-too” products with no USP are rarely very profitable because there’s nothing unique about them to establish value in the minds of consumers.

Which means the only competitive advantage that can be created is lower price, resulting in small or nonexistent profit margins.

“If you don’t tell consumers how to choose, they are either not going to choose, or they are going to choose based on the one thing they understand: price.”
-Sergio Zyman, The End of Marketing As We Know It

To create the kind of powerful USP that will cause consumers to notice your product, prefer your product, and pay a premium for it, three criteria are needed:

1. You must make a proposition to the consumer that says, “Buy this product and you will get this specific benefit.”
2. The proposition must be one the competition either cannot, or does not, offer.
3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move your target audience to action.

Jack Trout, in his book, Differentiate or Die, asserts that the strongest USPs fall into one of nine categories:

1. Being first in the marketplace
2. Owning a specific product attribute
3. Demonstrating sales, technology, or performance leadership
4. Drawing upon an impressive product history or heritage
5. Having a specialized product for a specific target market
6. Showing that your product is preferred by an influential peer group
7. Revealing how a product is made / special components or ingredients
8. Being the newest / most up to date
9. Being popular, trendy, or “hot”

“Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.”
-Theodore Levitt, Thinking About Management

While these are the most effective USPs, the most popular USPs marketers try to implement are often the weakest. These are the attributes of “quality” and “service.”

In the minds of consumers, quality and service are not differentiators – they’re basic expectations. Consumers feel they have a right to assume your products are of good quality and your service is accommodating.

Additionally, most consumers simply aren’t able to judge levels of quality. And the majority of advancements in quality are so minor as to be indiscernible to the average consumer – which make them irrelevant.

Besides, how often do you hear businesses claim they have better quality and superior service? (All the time.) How often do you believe them? (Almost never.)

Don’t have a strong USP for your product to hang its hat on? All is not lost.

You may be able to use a preemptive claim. That’s when you make a product claim that isn’t actually unique … it’s just not being promoted by the competition.

For instance, Folger’s used this tactic when they successfully advertised their coffee as being “mountain grown.” All coffee is mountain grown, but Folger’s was the first to capitalize on that little-known fact.

Similarly, Schlitz became the #2 beer in America during the 1920s by claiming it used pure artesian well water, a “mother yeast,” and steam-purified bottles – things all brewers used. But Schlitz claimed them first. And because these claims were relevant to consumers at the time and unique in the mind of the public, this USP carried the company for decades.

Once you’ve identified the most powerful USP for your product, it should become the primary message used to sell it. In the words of business guru Tom Peters, “Your product or service is not differentiated until the customer understands the difference.”

This requires the most discipline because you must subordinate all the product’s other features to the USP. That can be difficult for marketers who, in their desire to meet sales goals, try to be all things to all people in hopes of attracting everyone. Unfortunately, they only succeed in making their offer weak everywhere instead of strong somewhere.

The final step in the process is to continually find fresh ways to express your product’s USP – its “oversimplified message” – by giving consumers new reasons to find this unique position relevant, beneficial, and valuable to them.

The result will be increased consumer preference and product profitability.

Mike DiFrisco is known as “the affordable branding guy.” That’s because he believes that no one knows your brand better than you. In his two decades of marketing experience, he’s helped numerous businesses in many different industries grow and prosper because they’ve built their business on a solid foundation of brand positioning and messaging. Branding can be a powerful tool to get more customers, get your current customers to buy more stuff (and more frequently), foster loyalty, and build word-of-mouth buzz about your business. And everything he’s learned has been distilled into the DIY tools and techniques available at

Related Usps Passport Articles