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How's Your USP?

Crafting and Communicating Your Unique Selling Proposition

Among the countless snowflakes that fall, scientists say every one is unique. Similarly in business, while others may sell products or services that compete with yours, chances are pretty good there is something or some combination of things that set you and what you sell apart from your competition. Identifying those traits is the first step in defining your unique selling proposition.

The unique selling proposition (USP) is a term that was originally coined in the 1940s, when researchers at New York ad agency Ted Bates & Co. identified common patterns in successful advertising campaigns. They observed that products or services marketed with credible unique selling propositions were more likely to build market share by getting consumers to try or switch brands. Today the term is used to identify the characteristics of a product or service that differentiate it from similar ones.

What Exactly Is a Unique Selling Proposition?

Rosser Reeves, The Ted Bates creative director who originally coined the term, wrote a precise definition of USP in his book Reality in Advertising:

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

For every organization selling a product or service, from sole proprietors to multi-nation organizations, articulating a unique selling proposition is a proven way to establish, build and defend your business. It's helpful to remember that your USP does not have to be just one trait or characteristic; rather it may be a combination of elements that, when taken together make you unique.

For example, a service station might not be the only place in town to get gas, but it could be the only place with WOW service, where the station cleans your windshield and checks your oil and washer fluid levels while you fill up (they sell a lot more oil and washer fluid than the competition as well). You may not be the only place to buy coffee, but maybe you are the only one with Bonus Beans, a free coffee with every pound sold, or with Free Fridays, where customers who buy a coffee Monday through Thursday get Friday's cup on the house.

Defining Your Unique Selling Proposition

If you haven't clearly established your unique selling proposition, begin by identifying or creating the essential elements that will define your USP. Answering these questions may help:

  • What makes you better at what you do than the competition?
  • Have you been at it longer?
  • Are you the most trusted?
  • Do you have a long track record?
  • Are you the quality leader?
  • Are you family friendly? If so, how?
  • What makes you safer, more trustworthy, or more reliable?
  • What makes you more dependable?
  • What is the indisputable benefit of using your service? Can you say it in 20 words or less? How about 10? Or 5?
  • What kind of guarantee do you offer?
  • How do you provide relief from pain for your customers in the context of the products or services you sell?
  • How do you help them save money?
  • How do you help them make money?
  • How do you make them safer? Happier? Healthier?
  • Are you closer, easier to do business with, or generally more convenient for the customer in any way?

Remember, your USP may be crafted from the answers to several questions, when taken together as a whole.

Communicating Your Unique Selling Proposition

Once you have established your USP, you need to communicate it. Do your customers understand your USP? What about prospects or potential buyers of your product or service? Are you reinforcing your USP at every possible point of interaction? To effectively communicate your unique selling proposition, it is helpful to remember your USP's ABCs:

  • Articulate: State your USP clearly in as few words as possible
  • Back it up: Point to specific features or benefits; rely on testimonials whenever possible
  • Communicate: Reinforce your message every way you can, whether in a tag line, on a postcard, on your business cards, in your ads and on your flyers

Springing a Competitor's Lock

You've probably run into prospects who are so comfortable with a competitor's products or services, so much so that they won't even consider making a switch. Your presentation must lump your product or service together with the competition's, demonstrating that they work well together. Then, introduce a problem that your product and service can solve, using a feature you offer that your competition does not. This is a simple way to put your product on equal ground in your prospect's eyes, without resorting to "badmouthing" the competition. You might even consider commenting on how well the prospect's current supplier does certain things. But by introducing a problem that the competition can't solve, you move your products above and beyond the rest and spring the prospect from the competition's lock. 

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