The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) concept is pleasingly simple to grasp. It’s a lot like horoscope reading, or Donald Trump, as it seems to promise semi-magical power to make friends and influence customers. Too bad it’s an illusion.


This flimflammery was coined by (Mad Men prototype) Rosser Reeves in the 1940s. It was used by his Ted Bates advertising agency to make boatloads of money plugging the USPs of various brands in the early days of television. He gave credit for the successes to USP, and just never you mind the mind-numbing repetition, cheap airtime, or ethically-dubious claims. His toothpaste, cigarette and candy advertisers raked in the dough.

And yes, it absolutely takes heavy repetition to make that old warhorse work. Case in point: no matter what market you live in, there is one car dealer with a gimmick (waving a fist full of money, corny jokes, singing, jumping on the hood of a used car, whatever). He (it’s always a he, right?) appears endlessly on station breaks in fringe time. He knows his brand is unique, because he’s unique. But I digress.

The USP faltered and failed during the 1960s with the advent of more engaging advertising, more insights into buyer behavior, not to mention higher media costs. Nevertheless, you can still find USP adherents in this century, many of whom overcome the annoyance factor with even more frequency. You may want to strangle the My Pillow guy, as so many of us do. Nevertheless, he persists.

There are, of course, more leveraged, likable and measurable marketing strategies. Ask us about them.

Comments 4

  1. “Nevertheless, you still find USP adherents a half-century later, many of whom have an exaggerated faith in differentiation, and an unprovable faith in rational audiences.”

    Just when a little meat appears, our plates are removed from the table.

    The “differentiation” link is where all the meat is

  2. Reductionist thinking.
    It is still appropriate for basic functional packaged goods products. Quicker Picker Upper. Choosy Mothers Choose Jif.
    Even fifteen minutes will save you… for Geico.

    However, quite a few products have multiple audiences, multiple reasons for purchase, and – often – more than one product. McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, every car company…

    USP’s work for one simple item – with a menu – not so much.

    In addition, the wider range of message platforms adds another form of variance that is hard to manage. One 30 second TV spot over and over – or the new way of doing it – Geico – a single message pill wrapped in a variety of entertaining thin candy shells – well, that’s one thing. But when you throw in web sites, and print ads, and the promotion du jour, a wider range is forced on you.

    Still, using a secret ingredient, some of the consistency we once got from the USP is still possible. That ingredient… the envelope please. Ah, here it is. That ingredient is – design.

  3. Spot on, brother Bruce. The lyrical expression of “quicker picker-upper” weighs far more than the substance. “43.6% more absorbent” would be the same USP, but be forgotten instantly.

  4. Selling proposition is still the paramount phrase. It’s not execution proposition, it’s a selling message. And too many products are still searching for theirs.

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