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Make Sure Your Company Has a USP

  By W.L. Jenkins and Neal Kanoff

 How many times have you looked at an ad or TV spot–even one that was executed in a memorable fashion–and realized that you weren't given a compelling reason to buy the product? Or maybe you bailed on an advertiser's pitch because they weren't offering anything different than anyone else. There was nothing special about them, there was nothing to resonate with, and despite all the pretty pictures you said, ``So what?" and turned your attention elsewhere.

 It happens all the time. But somehow some messages get through and cause you to react with your wallet. So what separates the lead dogs from the pack? It's one of the most potent weapons an advertiser can pull from the advertising arsenal. It's called the USP. And without it, a company such as yours might as well take its ad dollars, stack them in a hibachi, light 'em on fire and throw on the weenies.

All right, what the heck is USP? It stands for the Unique Selling Proposition–an idea first put forth by legendary Ted Bates copywriter Rosser Reeves in his book ``Reality In Advertising." Along with a lot of other valuable information in his book, Rosser laid out his Laws of Advertising. And even though the advertising landscape has been reseeded a number of times over the years, the Laws are just as relevant today as they were years ago. If you're a smart advertiser you'll incorporate and use all of them. But Law No. 6 is the one that really sets forth a strong basis for any advertising strategy. It states:

Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show window advertising. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not offer. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions--pull new customers over to your product.

That's a pretty potent idea. It's saying that you need to step up to the plate and decide what it is you're really selling. You must find the one thing that's so unique about your product or service or company that it sets you apart from your competition. Way apart. Sometimes it's obvious, especially if you've invented a new idea or gizmo that no one else has. But that won't last forever. Soon others will enter your marketplace with similar gizmos and they'll be touting them as better than yours. When ideas become commodities, then it's even more important for you shine a stronger light on your USP. Or find a better one. It's a never-ending process. For instance, began by saying that they were the ``earth's largest bookstore." They ran an effective offline radio campaign to reinforce that USP. It worked like gangbusters. Now that they've grown they're selling more than books. Their new USP (which they use as a slogan) is ``Earth's Biggest Selection." They evolved.

So by now you may be asking yourself, ``Ummm. Do we have a USP?" Sure you do. It may take a little digging, but you'll find it. Start by taking a good hard look at what your company does. Do research or focus groups if necessary to find out what your customer target market thinks about your company and your product or service. Their perceptions may surprise you. They may even send you in a direction you haven't considered. In the end, though, you'll come up with that one thing that gives you your edge. You may even find more than one, and that means even more ad power because you've got more stuff to crow about. Or, if you offer more than one product or service, you may discover that you have more than one USP, and that each one needs its own advertising. At any rate, when you find the USP, write it up in a sentence or two, attach the facts that support it, and pin it up on the wall for you and your ad agency to refer to. Include it in your ad strategy. And don't sway from it until you discover a new or better USP.

Once you've got the USP, writing a strategy statement isn't that difficult. For example, let's say you're a company called Geezer Amps that makes guitar amplifiers and you've found a great USP. Your statement might go something like this: ``Only Geezer amplifiers use vacuum tubes to give jazz, blues, and rock guitarists a range of unique, gritty sounds that let them write their own musical signatures." The statement could be tweaked, of course, but the core phrase is ``only Geezer amplifiers use vacuum tubes." That's their USP.

Geezer Amps found their point of difference. And they could build a very interesting brand around that strategy statement. Yet it's sometimes very difficult to find a USP–especially in a commodity business. But with a little elbow grease you'd be surprised what you can buff up. For instance, years ago, way back in the 60's, gasoline was gasoline. (Still is, really.) You had your three grades and that was about it. And all petroleum companies sold gas that contained the same additives, techroline being one of them. But then one day Shell and its ad agency realized that, hey, nobody was saying anything about techroline because, well, everybody had it. Lightbulbs go off in heads, and Voila! USP! They started shouting ``Shell with Techroline!" They made a big deal out of it. They made it seem proprietary. Special. Sales grew. Meanwhile, all the other petroleum companies were mumbling, ``Well, gee we've got Techroline, too." But they knew. It was too late. Shell was there first, stole the thunder and ran with it. Shell found something everyone else had, and made it theirs. Oddly, they found the power of being ``firstest with the mostest" long after the marketing wars had begun.

Which brings up the ``est" or ``er" test. If you can ad ``er" to words like big, strong, tasty, etc., when describing your product or service, then you're on your way to defining your USP. But that's not enough. Your best USP is the one that no one else has. And it has to affect customers in a positive emotional way. It has to put them in a comfort zone above all others. And you must make them feel smart for choosing your product or service. In the end, you should appear superior. It's not enough to say something like ``our support staff provides expert friendly service." It's not enough to say, ``our support staff provides expert friendlier service." But if you can truthfully say ``if our support staff can't fix your problem over the phone, we're the only company that'll send someone over immediately to walk you through the solution" well, then you could be on to something unique.

One last interesting thought about a USP is how it affects your company as a whole. You'll discover that as there is a USP for a product, there is one for your company as well. They can become almost as one. For instance, Allstate sells all kinds of insurance, and each of its products has a USP, but overall they're ``The Good Hands People" and that's a USP in itself. Good hands is a strong, albeit implied, benefit of comfort and assurance. It's a wonderful position statement. Could other companies say the same thing? Of course, but Allstate developed this unique idea first and over the years they've hammered away at the public with carefully crafted advertising that's exploited the USP in a very consistent way. They've used their corporate USP to build a fortress around their brand.

So remember, ads are just going to be just a lot of wasted words and photographs unless you have a USP. Find yours. Then use it like a sledgehammer.

W.L. Jenkins and Neal Kanoff are principals in Radar, a full-service ad agency located in Sherman Oaks. Collectively, they have 37 years of experience creating branded print and broadcast advertising for everything from fast food to the fast new world of dot com businesses. If you're interested in commenting on this column, or if you have suggestions about future articles, please contact us at

Related Links

Although ``Reality In Advertising" is out of print, Amazon will search for it.

 For more on Rosser Reeves, there's a great site created by the University of Texas. It's got all the Laws, quotes and more.

 For some real nuts and bolts ideas (with a slightly British point-of-view) about the USP go to QuickBooks UK.

 Get the book ``The Art of Writing Advertising" which has interesting ideas from a number of advertising giants (including Rosser) at Galetti's.



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