HW writes to ask for help in “coming up with a USP” to market his business. He’s a copywriter for and business coach to small businesses. “It’s funny,” he says, “I routinely help my clients with their USPs. But for mine… I feel stuck!”

USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. It is a term that was coined by Rosser Reeves, an advertising consultant back in the 1940s. Reeves used it to explain his success in promoting name-brand products.

It’s not enough to extol the various benefits of your product or service, Reeves argued. You have to identify one particular benefit that distinguishes it from the competition.

In Reality in Advertising, he set down 3 rules for creating a USP:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.”
  2. The proposition must be unique – i.e., one the competition cannot or does not offer.
  3. The proposition must be strong enough to move the masses – i.e., attract new customers.

The USP is an important marketing concept. When a company can offer a genuine USP, it can demand a priority position in the buying public’s consciousness. And once that USP takes hold, a business can dramatically increase its market share through general advertising.

But contrary to what’s commonly preached by marketing gurus today, the USP is not a strategy that makes sense for every business. It was never meant for and is not helpful to small businesses, local businesses, and most client-based businesses.


3 Important Things to Understand About USPs 

USPs work very well to promote brand consciousness when they are part of general brand-marketing campaigns that are omni presentand incessant.

You’re at the supermarket with a headache and you see a dozen brands of pain pills. You know little or nothing about any of them… except for Anacin, which you remember from seeing countless TV commercials and looking at countless display ads. So that’s the one you buy.

This is not going to happen for your product or service if you have anything less than a multimillion-dollar brand-marketing budget. And it is also not going to work for you if the product or service you offer cannot comply with Reeves’s three criteria.

HW doesn’t have the money to build a brand. And even if he did, it would be wasted. Marketing executives don’t shop for copywriting services in supermarkets. They have many concerns in selecting copywriters, but the only thing that really matters to them is performance.

Using a USP to promote a personal service like copywriting makes as much sense as trying to land a position as an NBA player or a TV actor through an advertising campaign that identifies some unique skill you have – maybe cross-dribbling for the NBA player, or crying on demand for the actor.

The only way to get new clients as a copywriter is to develop a track record of writing successful direct response advertisements.

So my advice to HW is to forget about “coming up with a USP.”

How should he acquire new clients?

By doing what is essentially the opposite of brand marketing. He should identify his prospects one at a time. Then, rather than tell them something about what he does well, he should find out what they need.

If they are tired of hiring copywriters that consistently miss deadlines, he should convince them that he will never, ever miss a deadline. If they are worried about producing non-compliant (legally questionable) copy, he should assure them that his copy would always be compliant. If they are tired of working with copywriters that are overly attached to their work and rankle at criticism, he should tell them that he welcomes criticism.

Better than that, he should study the prospect’s business beforehand so that, if and when he does get a chance to pitch his service, he will be able to demonstrate some knowledge of the business and its recent advertising campaigns.

Here’s what I’m saying in a nutshell: General advertising is about me, the product. And that is why a USP makes so much sense. Direct response advertising is about you, the customer. And when you are focusing on the customer and his problems and desires, there is no place for a USP.

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Examples of Successful USPs

* Anacin’s slogan – “Fast, incredibly fast relief” – was created by Rosser Reeves and his team after learning that the caffeine in Anacin did indeed bring faster relief (to some) than other pain relievers on the market.

 * Head & Shoulders– “Clinically proven to reduce dandruff.” This USP, too, was based on research. Ten years of study had confirmed that an ingredient in Head & Shoulders (pyrithione zinc) effectively reduced dandruff.

 * Domino’s created a USP around a common problem with pizza delivery – the time it sometimes took. Their USP was a guarantee: You get your pizza, hot and fresh, within 30 minutes after you order it or you get your money back.

* FedEx did a similar thing with this USP: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

 * Walmart’s USP was very simple: “Save money, live better.” And it worked. Did it ever work!

 * Apple took a daring approach with its slogan for its line of desktop computers: “Beauty outside, Beast inside.” You would think that a practical USP – something about functionality – would be the way to go. But Steve Jobs felt differently and went with aesthetics. As a result, millions of consumers paid a premium price for Apple’s sleek desktop computers, even though they could have bought others that were equally good technically but cheaper.

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sedulous (adjective) 

Sedulous (SEJ-uh-lus) means diligent, with careful perseverance. As used by President John Tyler: “So far as it depends on the course of this government, our relations of good will and friendship will be sedulously cultivated with all nations.”

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“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927)

I first watched this movie, quite by accident, perhaps 15 years ago. It was about two in the morning when I started, and I couldn’t stop watching it. It is a very old black & white film, and is experimental in some ways. I was surprised by how drawn I was to it – the story, the characters, the special effects, and especially the photography. It had a powerful effect on me. I felt at the time that it was one of the very best movies I had ever seen, and I still feel that way.

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