The USP is one of the most misunderstood marketing concepts that I have come across.  I have met numerous accountants who say that their USP is that they “offer a professional and friendly service”. This is clearly not unique.  Even worse, this is the minimum that you would expect from any business. 

You don’t expect to have to work with incompetent and openly hostile suppliers, whether they are accountants, builders, gardeners, vets, cleaners, graphic designers, retailers, architects or otherwise.

So, why is the USP concept so misunderstood? I think there are a number of reasons but let’s go back to where it all started and see if we can unravel this.

Rosser Reeves developed the concept of the USP and it was first outlined in his 1961 book Reality in Advertising.  He defined a Unique Selling Proposition (often mis-quoted as “point”) as having three attributes:

1.  Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer.  Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising.  Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2.  The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique—either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.

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

The first thing to note is the word “proposition” rather than point.  It is hard to imagine how a single point could maintain a uniqueness but a longer proposition would stand a much better chance. 

Secondly, Rosser Reeves worked for an agency (Ted Bates) which advertised big brands (such as M&Ms, Bic pens, Colgate etc) to the mass market which explains the “mass millions” mentioned in attribute (3). Remember this concept was developed for major companies with large pockets; not for small businesses.

So where does that leave the USP in respect to non-corporates? USPs can be an effective way to differentiate you from your competitors.  Given that many products and services are similar to others, this is an important point.  Why should someone deal with you when they could continue with their existing supplier, get it cheaper elsewhere, use a company closer to home, not bother at all  etc etc.?  Your USP is the reason they should choose to use your business.

However, I think we need a slightly modified definition.  I think a USP is a unique, demonstrable benefit that appeals to your target market.  Although demonstrable isn’t necessary, a USP works considerably better if you can prove the benefit that it claims.

Note: the benefit only needs to be unique to your target market; it does not necessarily need to be completely unique.  For example, you may own the only up-market cheese shop in Birmingham.  Yes, up-market cheese shops exist in other cities but to your target market (people living within 10 miles of Birmingham) this would make you unique.  The benefit you offer could be expressed as the widest range of cheeses in Birmingham with expert advice on matching them  with dinner party menus and wine.

OK, this is an obvious example and it can be tricky to unearth or develop a USP.  However, this is time well spent.  Remember always start with your target market and what they want benefit-wise that isn’t currently being catered for in the immediate area.  This gives you a better starting point than listing all the benefits you can offer and then finding out if they’re unique or not and whether they appeal or not by your target market.

As a final comment, you may need to alter your product or service to create your USP.  If it is something that will get your target market excited then this is definitely worth doing.