Developing a unique selling proposition (USP) can be one of the most difficult brand messaging challenges you’ll ever tackle. In fact, it can be downright hellish.
That’s because your USP needs to accomplish an enormous task with incredible economy: it has to clearly articulate why buyers should choose your product or service over every other option they have—and it has to do so in the fewest words possible. Writing a USP is so difficult, in fact, that American companies are largely ambivalent about their USPs. They rate their confidence in the strength of their own USPs just 6.2 out of 10, on average, according to research from B2B International.
This raises an interesting question: If companies are generally lukewarm about their USPs, should you even go to the trouble of creating one for your company?
The answer depends on whom you ask. The folks at marketing analytics platform Kissmetrics, for example, are adamantly pro-USP in their piece, “What a Unique Selling Proposition Really Means & Why Your Business MUST Have One.” On the other hand, Elizabeth Williams, director of marketing and communications at ADP Canada and author of the BizMarketer blog, makes a pretty compelling case against USPs in her post, “Unique Selling Propositions Are a Myth.”
And these are just two of the many voices debating the legitimacy of USPs.
So Who’s Right?
Search me. People on both sides of the debate make valid points. But I will say this: I believe it’s worthwhile that you at least try to identify your company’s USP and get it down in black and white. If you can do it successfully, you’ll have a powerful tool to drive your branding and marketing initiatives. If you can’t do it, you’ll still have a clearer vision of your offering and you’ll almost surely have sharpened your company’s key messaging during the process. That’s always a good thing.
If you’re thinking of giving a USP a whirl, here’s another interesting question: Can you create a strong USP if your product or service isn’t actually unique?
I’ll answer this one emphatically. YES. As Entrepreneur’s Small Business Encyclopedia observes, successful businesses and successful USPs are not about having unique products or services. They’re about “making your product stand out—even in a market filled with similar items.”
Many of the companies with the best USPs offer the same basic products and services as their competitors. Apple offers computers and consumer electronics. Starbucks offers coffee. Both have plenty of competitors, yet both have carved out effective USPs. Apple’s USP is its elegant product design and an intuitive user experience. Starbucks’ USP is its promise that you’ll love your beverage in any one of its eight-kajillion stores or your barista will remake it. (If you’re interested in reading more about Starbucks’ USP, and the history of the USP in general, read Robert Passikoff’s Forbes article, “Starbucks Revives The Unique Selling Proposition.”)
So, if your product or service isn’t exactly unique, take a page from Apple and Starbucks. Focus your USP sharply on what does separate you from your competition.
How To Uncover Your USP
Ok. You’ve thought it over and you’re ready. You’re ready to brave the tenth circle of hell and craft your organization’s USP. How do you begin?
You could Google the phrase “unique selling proposition” and try wading through the river of opinions and ideas you’ll find there. Personally, I think the staff of Entrepreneur Media offers guidance as practical and useful as any you’ll find in its article, “3 Ways to Discover Your Unique Selling Proposition.”
Their approach boils down to learning “what motivates your customers’ behavior and buying decisions,” and uncovering “the real reasons customers buy your product instead of a competitor’s.” Of course, the best way to obtain this knowledge is to talk with your customers directly. Don’t assume you know the answers, and don’t guess. Sure, talking with customers will take some time and effort but it will give you the honest insights you need to create an effective USP.
Once you have your customers’ input and before you sit down to actually write your USP, the Entrepreneur Media staff recommends that you “take the next—and hardest—step: clearing your mind of any preconceived ideas about your product or service and being brutally honest. What features of your business jump out at you as something that sets you apart? What can you promote that will make customers want to patronize your business? How can you position your business to highlight your USP?” Thanks to your customer conversations, you should already be well on your way to achieving this brutally honest self-assessment and answering these questions.
Armed with all of this intelligence, you’re almost ready to start writing (and rewriting and rewriting). Before you do, here are two additional pieces of advice that can make writing your USP a whole lot easier:
- Don’t try to appeal to everyone.—In Lisa Furgison’s article, “How to Create a Unique Value Proposition,” Julie Cottineau, former vice president of brand for Virgin and the owner of BrandTwist, says, “The biggest mistake businesses make is casting too wide a net, for fear of leaving anyone out. Don’t be afraid to alienate a few people … Brands that target everyone, connect with no one.” So be sure your USP zeroes in on your target audience.
- Keep in mind that your USP is not a slogan or tag line.—Slogans and tag lines rely heavily on clever phrasing and word pictures. Your USP should be a clear, plain-language statement of why customers should buy from you instead of your competitors. That said, your USP should be the source and the foundation of your company’s slogans, tag lines and other marketing assets.
Developing your company’s USP probably won’t be easy … but the potential rewards can be enormous. Worth a trip through hell, even.
About the Author: Michael Civiello is a communications strategist and senior writer at fisher VISTA. He collaborates with clients every day to develop messaging, content and PR campaigns that build brand awareness and marketplace credibility.
Photo by Piku, courtesy of Freeimages.com.