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What is a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) ?

by Richard Bayston

A unique characteristic of a product or brand identified by the marketer as the one on which to base a promotional campaign; often used in a product differentiation approach to promotion.

A USP is a ‘Unique Selling Proposition,’ or a ‘Unique Selling Point.’

In other words, it’s the reason why someone should buy from you, and not from another vendor in the same space with a similar product. Why use Slack and not Facebook at work? Why buy pizza from Papa John’s and not Pizza Hut?

How Does a USP Work?

Some businesses are the only one in their field. They exist in a marketplace of one, either because they’re gigantic or because they’re so innovative that nobody else is doing what they’re doing. But that situation seldom lasts.

A USP is a way of making it clear to customers there’s nobody else doing what you do. You’re in a marketplace of one as well. The original. The best. The real thing (Coca-Cola).

It does that by proposing some product, service or experience that can’t be got somewhere else, by another vendor who appears to be in the same business. Or by emphasizing the specialty of what you do.

A USP differentiates you from your competitors by seeking to make you synonymous with the main thing you do. If you offer a range of services, no-one really knows what you do. If you’re clear that, whatever other services you offer, you’re really the local SEO guys for Boston, or the best cup of coffee in the Bay Area, they’ll think of you when they need local SEO or coffee. If you’re a digital agency or a cafe, your proposition is weaker because it’s vaguer and there’s more competition. USPs take the well-worn fact that people want the hole, not the drill, and position your business as uniquely placed to provide it.

How Does a USP Differ From a Slogan, or a Mission Statement?

A slogan is a condensation of a business’ identity and offer to consumers. It might contain the business’ USP – many of the best ones do, like FedEx’ ‘When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.’ And a mission statement will probably reference the company’s USP too. But the USP isn’t either of these: it’s the understanding of the business’ unique appeal to its consumers that underlies its marketing and sales efforts, and its whole approach to the marketplace.

The truth is, USPs are so familiar to us we’ve become blind to them. Chances are, every good advertisement you’ve ever seen featured an appeal to you based on a USP. And most successful businesses got there off the back of their Unique Selling Proposition. Back when all other search engines just used keywording, PageRank was Google’s USP.

What Does A Great USP Look Like?

Car rental company Avis offers a solid example of a USP that informed an ad campaign and became a successful slogan too. They spent years bumping along in second place behind the mighty, market-dominating Hertz. Then, in 1962 and on the brink of insolvency, they took their problem to an ad agency, Doyle Dane Bertzbach.

Who figured out how to turn a negative – being number two, not number one – into a positive.

The problem was:

why go with avis

And all that ad copy condensed into their USP:

Avis No 2

We try harder.

Avis parlayed this into ads that addressed common customer complaints:

avis half empty gastank

And even that connected with their customers’ personal world views and pain points:

shake hands with avis

What’s important isn’t the slogan – it’s the way it presents what could be a negative as a positive, and offers a clear, compelling unique sales proposition. Why rent a car from Avis, and not from, say, Hertz? After all, a car’s a car.

But in just three words, Avis managed to communicate an offer of better service and a better experience, one that chimed with the values and interests of its consumers. In the first four years Avis used the slogan, they jumped from 11% market share to 35%. They kept using it until 2012.

That’s kind of old, though. What about a more modern brand?

The obvious choice here is Saddleback Leather. Saddleback has a similar negative-into-positive problem to Avis’: they make quality leather bags, and a quality leather item is expensive. Eye-wateringly so in some cases; their bags start around the $300 mark and several go for more than $1,000. So how do you take that and turn it from an obstacle to be overcome into a unique selling proposition?

You offer an outlandishly long, 100-year warranty. And reinforce that with the strapline that since the bag will (probably) outlive the buyer…

saddleback leather co

You’re buying an heirloom, a trusty sidekick, not a consumer item. A purchase that’s totally unlike other leather bags. It’s a selling proposition that creates a marketplace of one.

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Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston creates copy and content at RBCopywriting.com, mostly about tech, digital marketing and content strategy. When he’s not doing that, he’s arguing amicably with his wife and Googling the answers.

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