USPBy John Pellegrini

“We have most unique selection of clothing in this area.”

I tried hard to keep myself from correcting the grammatical error in that sentence and, as pleasantly as I could, asked the speaker exactly what was unique about the clothing.

“Well it’s all the top brands…” and the speaker proceeded to rattle off the most common names in clothing. The names you’ll find EVERYWHERE. Which lead me to repeat my question: what is unique about your clothing? The speaker’s eyes glazed over and they stared into the distance with a look of incomprehension.

The speaker was the manager of a local clothing store in a market where I was working. They had been prepped by the A/E to tell me what was unique about their business. This was their answer. So they were completely confused when I questioned their answer. The A/E wasn’t exactly thrilled with my line of questioning either. They had been pushing the client hard for a while on this idea in order to “freshen” the commercial. How dare I cause problems by questioning the client on their marketing strategy (or in this case, lack thereof)? Even though this particular episode I’m referring to took place many moons ago, it’s still being played out in other stations, other markets, and other places around the world.

Fooling around in Agency land for the last couple of years has given me the opportunity to observe techniques and ideas that desperately need to be implemented in radio. And one of those ideas is the fact that it is now time to throw out USP... the Unique Selling Proposition. Get rid of it entirely.

Yes, I know that for the past decade and a half (maybe even longer) USP has been the major term for advertising along with Brand Name Recognition. It’s the way to position your client against their competition. It’s the way to make your client’s message stand out from the crowd. It’s the way to get the best attention from the listener. Push the unique selling proposition and people will line up in the street!

Unfortunately none of this is true. For the most part, USP hasn’t worked, doesn’t work, and never will work. That’s because the very nature of the concept is flawed. In order to understand this flaw, it is vitally important to put yourself into the mind of the consumer. By the way, you’d be surprised at how many millions of advertising and marketing gurus refuse to do this simple bit of mindset referencing. They consider the consumer to be these “other people” akin to alien life forms or something. But I digress…

From a consumer standpoint, when was the last time you heard of something truly unique? For me it would have been a couple years ago when the Segway was unveiled. You know... that two-wheel personal transport thing. That was unique. That was something that had never been seen before. You see, it’s important to remember the definition of the word unique. It means one of a kind; nothing comparable ever existed before or since.

The problem of the USP from a consumer standpoint is there is really nothing unique anymore. The average number of times a truly unique product, business concept, or service occurs these days is about once a decade. For example, the Segway is really nothing more than a bare-bones automobile if you think about it. A case could be made for all the new technology in the 1990s for computers, however, after researching the subject you’ll realize that the majority of the new technology was nothing more than an improvement on something that already existed. The PC was introduced in 1975. DOS made its debut shortly before that. The concept of the Internet was first proposed back in the 1950s. Interesting bit of trivia for our industry: digital recording technology was originally investigated and proposed by 3M in the 1960s, and developed into a functional format in the early 1970s. Its origins came out of the operational requirements of computer technology. Everything involving computers and digital technology since the early 1970s has merely been an improvement of the existing technology. The fact is virtually everything involving computers first came due to demands from NASA, however now all the improvements are being driven due to demands made by the porn industry. But again, I digress.

Consumers are not, contrary to the apparent opinion of most advertising folk, totally uncomprehending of this information. They know darn well that nothing is truly unique. This makes the client’s claim of USP unreliable, untrustworthy, and turns off the consumer. If you have two or more identical clients with identical merchandise lines and identical customer service plans and identical everything else, then exactly how are you supposed to claim that each one is unique and not flat out lie about it? You can’t, and believe me when I tell you that if you know it, so do your client’s customers. We aren’t beholden to any great secrets about our clients that consumers have no ability to perceive. If you know it’s a crock of crap, so does your audience; in fact they probably know it better than you do because they’ve already been to your client’s business and know its nothing unique or special.

So what do you do instead of USP? Good question. Glad you asked. The answer to this is quite simple… in fact it’s much easier than finding a USP. What you simply need to do is find out what makes your client INTERESTING. Now there may not be anything unique, but there is always something interesting in each and every business that advertises with your station. All you have to do is find out the interesting stuff, and relate that information in a way that inspires the consumer to find a need for that which is interesting.

A simple answer, but harder to implement. Because you are going to be required to get what could sometimes wind up being brutal honesty from your clients. You can’t resort to common cliché. You cannot resort to lying or exaggerating about the products and services offered. You instead have to really get to the heart and soul of your client’s business and why they exist in the first place. And, most important, you need to know that the heart and soul of the business is only the starting point.

Some alleged advertising gurus suggest telling the story of the business. The idea being that you should get your audience to connect or relate with a business as a form of loyalty and they’ll want to shop there. This does work for a certain segment of advertising. Every business has a story behind it; every business owner has a biography. But — and let’s be brutally honest here — not all stories are worth telling. That’s why over 90 percent of all the fiction that is sent out to publishers and literary agents each year gets rejected. You have to move beyond the obvious when it comes to finding out what’s interesting about your client. Plus, you’ll often discover that the client’s story as to how they came to open up their business is identical to many other client stories, which will contribute further to the redundancy and cliché if it’s used in their advertising. Just because I know a certain business owner’s personal motivation doesn’t mean I’m interested in utilizing his business products or services. Plus, how many times can you tell a client’s story before it gets boring? Definitely not the ideal criteria for building an entire year long campaign.

While we’re on the subject, evidence is coming in that proves that emotional connections are not necessarily the best method for advertising, either. I know I’ve bought into that concept and many other ad gurus say the same thing. However, you can have 100% name recognition, 93% likeability, and still have only 15% of the market share. Just because people love your name and love your product doesn’t mean they’re going to buy anything you sell.

Here is the fact that must be carved in stone: people only buy things when they believe the product or service is the immediate and long term answer to their needs. And if you can seal that concept with the belief that YOUR client is either the ONLY chance they have to obtain that which they so desperately need, or is the BEST CHOICE of all the providers of that product or service, then you’ve got the kind of market dominance that the most successful major brands achieve. However, that takes the kind of commitment most small to medium sized business owners cannot or will not implement. The reason for this is that in order to achieve a service level where this kind of recognition can occur, the owner must be willing to do whatever it takes… not just say those words either, they must actually be able to follow through with that kind of service.

Advertising cannot make up for a lousy business with no marketing plan, no commitment by the owner to anything more than paying the day’s bills and no clearly defined consumer base. Advertising cannot make up for a business that has no business being in business.

Therefore find something INTERESTING. What is it about your client’s business, products, or services that would make YOU, Mr. or Ms. Advertising Copywriter, become a loyal customer? How does the product affect your life? How does it improve your life? Can you live without the product? How hard will it be for you to do whatever it is you do with the product if you didn’t have the product? Will your family, friends, and life counselor (PC term for minister or rabbi) think less of you if you didn’t have the product? Don’t just talk about basic concepts; get into real life situations involving real people using the product and how much better off their lives have become. State exact instructions on how to use the product wherever and whenever needed. Give specific and detailed examples of uses that many people haven’t thought of yet. Tell us exactly what we need to do to make our lives so much better than they could be if we didn’t have this product.

Possibly one of the greatest ads I’ve seen on TV in quite a while was the introduction campaign for the “Purple Pill©™®” (not sure which one covers it). For the first six months all you saw were people dancing around images of a purple colored pill with a voice saying (make that chanting like a hypnotist), “You need the purple pill. Ask your doctor if the purple pill is right for you.” Hundreds of thousands of people did just that, despite the fact that not one of those damned commercials stated what exactly the purple pill was supposed to be used for or what illness or syndrome it was supposed to treat! Not until nearly six months after the first spots went on the air did we finally learn that the purple pill was supposed to relieve gastric reflux. I have some friends in the medical industry who told me that people were coming in to doctors’ offices with copies of the magazine ads ripped out and saying, “I WANT THIS” without even knowing what the pill was supposed to do or if they even had the problem.

To me, that commercial remains one of the most powerful advertisements I’ve seen in the last 20 years. Of course it frightens me that advertising could be so powerful that people would lose all common sense and demand a prescription to a drug that they know nothing about, but that’s a debate for the medical industry and ethics professors. What this does, however, is prove the point: by tapping into exactly what people wanted — regardless of whether they needed it — the Purple Pill was one of the biggest sales debuts in the pharmaceutical industry ever. THEY MADE THE PRODUCT SO COMPLETELY INTERESTING THAT EVEN PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T NEED IT WANTED TO HAVE IT! To the point where Dave Letterman was talking about it on his show and how, even though he didn’t know what it was for, he wanted it.

Do you think for one second that had the advertising agency simply stated facts on gastric reflux and price point comparisons with the competition that anyone would have bothered with the purple pill? Do you think for one second that the advertising agency involved cared whether the purple pill was a better value than the competitor’s pills? Do you think that the advertising agency tried to find out about the pill’s USP?


That’s because the original purple pill was nothing new. The purple pill is just another in a long line of the same kinds of prescription medicines that have been available for over a decade. The advertising agency knew this; they knew there was nothing unique about the medicine. So they ignored trying to find or invent a USP and instead made the pill interesting by telling the pharmaceutical company to color it purple, and focused the entire sales concept about how interesting the pill looked and how interesting the lives of the people had become as a result of their prescription. Then they dumped millions of dollars into an advertising schedule — far more than anyone else in the industry had ever spent on similar medications — and they wound up with market dominance. Of course, since then, they’ve come out with a newer version of the purple pill that “does more” than the original. But it’s doubtful that the new purple pill would have had the same impact without the original campaign’s effective interest.

The purpose of advertising is to sell product. USP, Brand Name Recognition, and Market Trends don’t sell anything. Emotional connections don’t sell anything. Make the product interesting; say something interesting about the product or state why your life will become interesting by incorporating the product into your life, and your clients will reap sales. Exact instructions on how to make the product part of your life will win out over vague emotional concepts or a laundry list of features and price comparisons every time.

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