TombstoneIs it time to bring down the curtain on the USP?

I tend to shy away from those discussions titled “Is XYZ dead?”, my particular least-favourite being ‘Is cold calling dead?” However, I’m prepared to make an exception in this case.

The Unique Selling Proposition, or Unique Selling Point is a marketing concept first proposed as a theory to explain a pattern in successful advertising campaigns of the early 1940s.

Business Dictionary defines it as:

Real or perceived benefit of a good or service that differentiates it from the competing brands and gives its buyer a logical reason to prefer it over other brands. USP is often a critical component of a promotional theme around which an advertising campaign is built.

In his 1961 book titled Reality in Advertising (sadly no longer in print), Rosser Reeves identifies three requirements of a USP:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Each advertisement must say to the reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”
  2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique—either a uniqueness of brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field.
  3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

Straight away, we begin to see the issues – the USP concept is designed for mass market advertising, not low volume, specialised B2B transactions.

Let’s assume that you are a manufacturer of a widely used industrial product – flowmeters, for example. There’s lots of competition so how do you distinguish yourself? You look for the elusive USP.

I did a quick search on Google for ‘non-contact flowmeter brochure’ Here’s the headings in three of them.

  • Non-Contacting Flow Measurement
  • User-friendly operating system
  • Measures flow from the outside of a pipe
  • Works with common pipe materials
  • Measures clean liquids in full pipes
  • Simple menu system for easy start-up and calibration
  • Built-in data logger with windows software included

  • Non-contact
  • Clean and dirty liquid and gas versions
  • pipe size ranging from 12 mm to 10 m o/d
  • High accuracy >±0.5%
  • Intrinsically safe version available
  • Unique (Trademarked name) technology

  • Easy, low-cost installation
  • With or without local display
  • Provides rate and total flow (forward, reverse and net)
  • 4-20 mA and pulse outputs for direct interface to data collection systems
  • Designed for maintenance free operation
  • Software utility allows in-field calibration and configuration
  • Class 1, Division 2 hazardous area certification

Not a lot to distinguish them, is there? Not much that is unique. (I spent about 10 seconds searching for (Trademarked name) technology. At least half a dozen other companies are using it so it really isn’t unique.) I suspect each company has taken what it thinks is important and used that as a heading. And therein lies the problem – in its’ purest sense, the USP tries to be all things to all people and ends up being virtually meaningless to everybody.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King…

Let’s assume that there are three customers each looking to buy a non-contact flowmeter. Each customer finds these three suppliers and invites the sales people in for a discussion (yes, I appreciate that this is becoming less common!)

During their discussions, each sales person learns the following facts.

  • Company A is currently using a fourth competitors product but has had real issues with it, leading to production losses.
  • Company B keeps their overheads low by not stocking spares.
  • Company C is upgrading their process line in about 18 months time.

As a result, the discussion is moved away from accuracy of measurement, suitability for hazardous environments and what outputs are available (for example). The features and benefits of the product become secondary (even though that is what we are trained to sell).

Sales person D happens to know that her flowmeters have an outstanding reliability record so in her offer and follow-up to Company A, she emphasises this, providing MBTF reports, contact details for long-standing users and relevant case studies.

Sales person E recognises that the flowmeter being considered is their most popular model and makes up the bulk of production. In his offer to Company B, he points out that the customer does not need to hold a stock of spares because his company will hold the stock for them.  Added bonus: as they are located only a few miles away, any spares required can be delivered on the same day.

Sales person F is concerned that the reliability of his products is not as good as D’s nor does his company carry stock for the model he is proposing. However, he knows for sure that it is a simple matter to change the body of his flowmeter while leaving everything else untouched.  Both D and E need to upgrade electronics, software and cabling for the different model required in 18 months time. Guess what he emphasises in his offer and follow up to Company C? If he’s smart, he will provide an application note describing, or even a video showing, how easy it is to upgrade his flowmeter.

Unique Value Proposition

In each scenario, the sales person has made a Unique Value Proposition – one that is unique to the customer being served, not one that is unique to the product. As a result, each one wins business from one each of the customers. One in three is not a bad conversion rate in this type of market.

Now, I accept that you have to have something to say in a brochure. But, if you have done your homework, you will know what an ideal customer looks like so your initial Generic Value Propositions will address them. It’s only when you get to the later stages of the process, once you know what is driving the customer, that you can craft the Unique Value Proposition.

Let me know how you get on.

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