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The 3-Part Formula for a Winning USP

July 26th, 2010 by Bob Bly

In 1961, Rosser Reeves published his classic book Reality in Advertising in which he introduced the notion of the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP.

Today the book is out of print and difficult to get. As a result, most practicing direct marketers don’t know the original definition of a USP. Their lack of knowledge often produces USPs that are weak and ineffective.

According to Reeves, there are three requirements for a USP (and I am quoting, in the italics, from Reality in Advertising directly):

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Each must say, “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

Your headline must contain a benefit — a promise to the reader.

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer.

Here’s where the “unique” in Unique Selling Proposition comes in. It is not enough merely to offer a benefit. You must also differentiate your product.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

The differentiation cannot be trivial. It must be a difference that is very important to the reader.

In general advertising for packaged goods, marketers achieve differentiation by building a strong brand at a cost of millions or even billions of dollars.

Coca Cola has an advantage because of its brand. If you want a cola, you can get it from a dozen soda makers. But if you want a Coke, you can only get it from Coca Cola.

Intel has achieved a similar brand dominance, at an extraordinary cost, with its Pentium line of semiconductors.

Most direct marketers are too small, and have too strong a need to generate an immediate positive ROI from their marketing, to engage in this kind of expensive brand building. So we use other means to achieve the differentiation in our USP.

One popular method is to differentiate your product or service from the competition based on a feature that your product or service has and they don’t.

The easiest situation in which to create a strong USP is when your product has a unique feature — one that competitors lack — that delivers a strong benefit.

This must be an advantage the customer really cares about. Not one that, though a difference, is trivial.

But what if such a proprietary advantage does not exist? What if your product is basically the same as the competition, with no special features?

Reeves has the answer here too. He said the uniqueness can either stem from a strong brand (already discussed as an option 95% of marketers can’t use) or from a claim not otherwise made in that particular form of advertising — that is, other products may have this feature too, but advertisers haven’t told consumers about it.

An example from packaged goods advertising: “M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

Once M&M established this claim as their USP, what could the competition do? Run an ad that said, “We also melt in your mouth, not in your hand!”

One more point: As direct marketers, we — unlike most general advertisers today — are compelled to create advertising that generates net revenues in excess of its cost.

Reeves believed all advertising had to do this. He defined advertising as “the art of getting a USP into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost.”


This entry was posted on Monday, July 26th, 2010 at 1:42 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

75 responses about “The 3-Part Formula for a Winning USP”

  1. Ray Edwards said:

    Bob, this is one of the best and simplest explanations of the USP I have seen anywhere. Bravo!

  2. Ryan Healy said:

    Great summary, Bob. I actually picked up a copy of Reality in Advertising a couple years ago. At the time, it was $100 + shipping. And, yes, it’s hard to find, though well worth getting and reading.

  3. Note Taking Nerd #2 said:

    A technology USP example I saw of late was used by Motorola in the midst of the Iphone 4 “Death Grip” drama.

    For those who aren’t smart phone geeks like me, and don’t keep up with all the news related to them, quickly, here’s what happened…

    Apple released the Iphone 4 and the problem people were running into was that if their hand touched the left bottom corner of the outside of the phone, where a left-handed person would naturally cup it, the reception DIED and your calls would drop.

    Motorola ran a full page ad in one of the humongo newspapers that showed a big picture of their new smartphone, the Droid X, and in the blurb of ad copy, they gave the standard Madison Avenue feature run down of it but what stood out to me was that they included a line that said, “The Droid X; The smartphone you can hold it however you want.”

    I thought it was genius. What would’ve taken the ad to brilliant status would’ve been them using that for their headline.

  4. Codrut Turcanu said:

    any idea if Claude Hopkins knew about the concept before?

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  7. Dave Saunders said:

    Great summary of the real origins of USP. It’s funny how many such concepts have been diluted as people present them in more modern works.

  8. How Real Estate Investors Create a Strong USP said:

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  9. Andre Hayward said:

    Hello Bob,

    Thanks for sharing this excerpt. You’ve totally helped to demistify the concept of creating a USP.
    I will follow this blog from now on.

    Peace & Much Success,
    Andre Hayward

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