The End Of The Unique Selling Proposition?

Mark Di SommaJuly 29, 20148425 min

When Rosser Reeves first proposed the Unique Selling Proposition many decades ago now, the world was a very different place. Products still had the potential to actually be different, advertising was largely confined to mainstream channels and brands were, for the most part, identifiers.

But with the evolution of best-practice manufacturing, the fragmentation of channels and the increasing development of brands as monikers for consumer lifestyle, I can’t help wondering whether the USP is now redundant.

Clearly I’m not the only person whose had thoughts along these lines. In a lengthy and detailed post, Paul Simister summarizes and evaluates the arguments he’s seen advanced by others to replace the USP. Among the suggestions:

  • A short statement to differentiate your business based on what you stand against.
  • USPs don’t exist in markets where the businesses are more interested in copying each other than in being different.
  • Create a Unique Story Proposition that focuses on what matters to the customer and what matters to you

Ironically as the performance pressures on CMO’s mount, the onus to achieve differentiation, given the evolution of market dynamics and economics, has never been greater … or harder. I think though that we must now assume that any product that shows any level of distinction will in time be caught, matched and even surpassed by its rivals. So the future doesn’t lie in fashioning competitor-proof products. Nor does it lie in fashioning slogans that capture people’s imagination. It seems to me that too many people are trying to evolve an outdated formula to a landscape that bears no resemblance to the context within which it was fashioned.

For the most part, consumers don’t want to be sold to anymore. So it’s not a Selling Proposition that they’re interested in anyway (was it ever?). Yes, they still want to buy and, increasingly, they assume excellence and upgrades. In a social environment, though, where quality from the middle market up at least can be considered largely a given, consumers want to be excited and involved. They want a say in what happens next. They want the brands they are aligned with to align with their values and their hopes for the world.

In response, brands need to fashion their products round their viewpoints rather than looking to drive preference around their features. And that’s led me to wonder whether, as strategists, our goal is no longer to position brands in relation to function but rather to platform brands as promoters of a worldview, even a world change. In essence, to ditch the Unique Selling Proposition in favor of the Unique Brand Perspective – an outlook on the world, and a hope for the future, that drives everything the brand does.

In a recent interview, Unilever CMO Keith Weed spelled out the frustrations he has had with the way things have been traditionally organized: “the real tension you have in companies is when marketing is in one silo, identifying what consumers need and driving demand, while sustainability is in another trying to reduce environmental impact, while Corporate Social Responsibility is in another working on the company’s social contribution while communications is telling its own, possibly different, story. In a connected world, this kind of internal disconnection is a hindrance not a help … Instead, we wanted CSR to be an integral part of our business, embedded in everything we do, and so activities formerly isolated within CSR became strategic initiatives directed toward nutrition, water, hygiene, health and self-esteem.” Unilever’s decision to combine oversight of marketing and sustainability doesn’t just speak to a new construct for sustainable growth it seems to me. It also points to a broadening of the competitive context – a call to judge brands on what they aspire to for others as much as what they aspire to for themselves.

The temptation is to frame this as purely philanthropic. Some, for example, might see this as the next iteration of CSR. You could also argue it’s where purpose needs to go next – from being about what the company wants to achieve in the world to becoming what can be achieved in the world through the company.

That’s good. But it doesn’t have to be that. Intel have fashioned their business on a unique perspective – Moore’s Law. It continues to drive everything about how Intel works. What I like about the Unique Brand Perspective idea is that it sets up a common narrative between consumers and brands on the future. It doesn’t just ask the parties to imagine, or even to agree – it asks them to pursue not just true north but world north. A world “we” (the brand, the company, the workforce and its whole community of stakeholders) agree with and are agreed on. It’s certainly worked for Intel. As Joel Hruska observed, “It’s important to realize, I think, just how odd semiconductor scaling has been compared to everything else in human history. People often talk about Moore’s law as if it’s the semiconductor equivalent of gravity, but in reality, nothing else we’ve ever discovered has scaled like semiconductor design … we’ve never built a structure that’s thousands of times smaller, thousands of times faster, and thousands of times more power efficient, at the same time, within a handful of decades.”

When you buy Intel, you buy into a world that will go faster. Every purchase becomes a step in that direction globally. More than a donation. Not just a contribution. An investment. And that’s what brands need to be asking their consumers I believe – not what do you want to buy, but what do you want to invest in? What do we all want to see move forward? Maybe that’s the question that links strategy and execution. Maybe that helps answer Tom Asacker’s call for a ‘how’ to match the ‘why’.

Here’s eight questions that could help your brand fashion a Unique Brand Perspective.

  1. What do you want to see change across the world? (not just what do you want to put money into changing?)
  2. Why is it in your business to care? (i.e. where’s the alignment and what level of empowerment do you have as a brand to deliver difference)
  3. What part will you play in that change (beyond sponsorship or inclusion in your CSR program)?
  4. What part will your customers play? (To reference a New Zealand parlance – how will they help the boat go faster?)
  5. What’s the business case for such change? (How will you make money through championing this change?)
  6. What are your talking points on that change?
  7. How do you report on the change you are making in the world as well as in the market?
  8. Whose thinking adds credence and perspective to your viewpoints?

What else would you ask?

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  • RJ

    July 30, 2014 at 4:23 am

    Great piece Mark! Love the Intel reference- where else can you find a two word mission statement that has been around for decades?

  • Mark Disomma

    July 30, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Agree RJ.

  • There’s so much in this article! I love “Unique Story Proposition.” AND the call to get marketing, sustainability, and CSR out of their silos and working together. AND the Unique Brand Proposition.

  • jan zlotnick

    July 31, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    So much value here, Mark; thank you. I like the Unique Brand Perspective (on the world view, etc)… but it leads me to this: maybe in this social age, we ought not try so hard to define and express the Brand’s uniqueness but rather the Brand’s open, shared perspective with the Consumer…who believes that What They Say Is More Important Than Anything The Brand Could Ever Say anyway. Then, as a strategist and marketer, I still want to be clear about the brand’s message to this person…and I think it is this: We are who You say we are…and everything we create, build and sell is to prove that is a message to believe in..and a brand that they can trust and thereby share their praise about socially. And finally, when that authenticity passes the consumer sniff test, the Brand can offer it’s CRI, Consumer (not Brand) Reason to Invest — their time, their trust, their money, their reputation in socially sharing your personal view, which indeed ought to be a shared view with the brand). Does that help at all in this conversation? Thanks again for the thoughtful piece…I’ve got it pinned to my office wall. 🙂

  • Mark Disomma

    August 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Jan – absolutely agree with you. Loving Consumer Reason to Invest. Thanks so much. Adds hugely.

  • Tema Frank

    August 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I hear what you are saying, Mark, and I love your point about it not being a “selling” proposition. But ultimately, I think you still need to find something “unique” to offer. It is too easy for all brands to say they care about “sustainability” (Have you been to a hotel lately that doesn’t claim that they are trying to save the earth rather than their cleaning bills by asking you to re-use your towels?), or any other popular issue of the day.

    Heck, all the big polluters also claim, no doubt, on their websites and in their marketing materials that they are working to be better for the environment. So if your oil company really IS investing in less destructive ways to get oil out of the ground (and many of them truly are!) how can you ever gain credibility and buy in to that brand view?

  • Mark Disomma

    August 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Hi – the key here as I see it is not that there is nothing unique but rather that how and where brands should look for distinction has evolved. Hence, the Unique Brand Perspective – a way of looking at, and acting, in the world that, combined with internal behaviours and values, delivers a consistent and individualised approach. Brands need to be thinking through not just what they are doing but why they are doing and the implications of that approach for the business as a whole not just their advertising. Hope that helps. Thanks for your thoughts. Cheers, Mark.

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