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The search for a USP is futile and time-wasting

Mark Jenner

NZ Business Director



The search for a USP is futile and time-wasting.


Rosser Reeves ran the Ted Bates advertising agency in the 1950’s and 60’s and is famous for inventing the ‘Unique Selling Proposition (USP)’; the idea that to succeed, a brand must have a unique, rational differentiator. His counsel to clients; create a real, tangible product feature that competitors can’t copy, and communicate it!


Reeves’ idea was a logical extension of the genesis of all advertising resulting from door-to-door selling of the 1930’s and 40’s. The twin pillars of that discipline, comparative demonstration and factual evidence, heavily influenced early print advertising and Reeves’ approach to communication.


One of the first major clients to “buy” the USP was Procter and Gamble, directly leading to decades of “product features” brand advertising. 1950’s TV commercials for Tide laundry powder, Camay beauty soap, and Mr Clean household cleaner were clearly created to communicate a USP.


In turn, P&G’s stature ensured the notion that the USP become the marketing approach ‘de jour’. This spawned a host of followers leading to a generation of marketers trained to find and communicate a differentiated product attribute.


However, the USP concept is fundamentally flawed, for two main reasons:


1. We live in a time of over-supply and under-demand*


In every category, multiple brands with identical features compete for consumer attention. Examples abound; Apple vs Samsung (mobile phones), Samsung vs Sony (TVs), Audi vs BMW (automobiles), Spark vs Vodafone (telecommunications). Each of these examples are brands with product features that perform brilliantly and reliably, but for consumers they are virtually indistinguishable.


Never in history have consumers been so spoilt for choice, and thanks to social media have the power to support or abandon brands quickly. In a world in which information of global sourcing is never truly confidential, if a brand does manage to create a differentiated feature, any accrued advantage is short-lived as competitors copy and assimilate it instantaneously.


2 Consumers do not make decisions rationally


Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work “Thinking Fast and Slow’” won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences because it proved how people really make decisions. His work disproved the view that human beings are fundamentally rational, and that we spend our lives making fact-based decisions after careful analysis and judgement. In reality, we are hard-wired to avoid thinking at all costs. Instead, we use the subconscious, ‘always-on’, intuitive part of our brain to make thousands of instantaneous decisions every day. Critically, we cannot often even articulate why we made a decision.


Kahneman proved that we use existing memory structures and deeply held beliefs to make decisions intuitively and not through analysis and rationale debate. The latter is useful for evaluating options but ultimately the former is responsible for making decisions.


The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency is a fine example of how people really make decisions. There are many reasons for his successful campaign but certainly, a key one was his appeal to the disenfranchised, unemployed blue-collar workers of the “rust belt” coal and mining states. Those voters believed prior governments had abandoned them and foreign workers had taken their jobs, but that with a little help from the Federal Government their lives could be dramatically improved. They believed this despite apparent evidence to the contrary.


Trump’s success was to communicate directly to those beliefs, simultaneously ratifying them and positioning himself as the only leader capable and willing to do something about their situation. System 1 analysis conducted by Kantar just before the election actually showed this pattern, with Trump intuitively seen as trustworthy, confident, caring and intelligent. Clinton in contrast had far fewer intuitive associations and several key weaknesses. Not a surprise then that Trump went on the win despite polls calling a Clinton victory.


The implications for brand builders are both liberating and game-changing:


1. Abandon attribute-based, rational, product-based communication and eliminate time spent on incremental, minute product improvements

Of course, a product must perform (“do what it says on the tin”), but when competitive brands offer essentially the same performance, any short terms gains do little for long-term brand sales and health.


2. Find a way to be distinctive, to stand out

Use a visual device (Apple, McDonalds), color (Cadbury), a scent (Cathay Pacific), or a metaphor (Telecom NZ’s animals). Whatever it is, create, build and invest in it over time, thereby instilling it in consumer-reinforced memories, creating subconscious recall and recognition.


3. Create and communicate to consumers an emotional story about your brand

Preferably one that talks to existing beliefs and memory structures. John Lewis’ Christmas campaign is a great example. It speaks to widely held beliefs about what makes Christmas and the holidays special, and does so in distinctive ways for many years.


Rosser Reeves’ USP concept made millions of dollars for both his agency and clients but we now know brand building involves more than communicating a product feature. The most valuable brands in the world find ways to stand out, to be distinctive and to connect with consumers through powerful, emotive stories. Such efforts build healthy brands that deliver strong sales growth year after year.


* Statement attributed to Jeremy Bullmore, WPP advisory board member