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Your Unique Selling Proposition

In order to successfully market itself, every business owner needs to focus on what's special and different about his or her business. The best way to do this is to try to express this uniqueness in a single statement.

Rosser Reeves, a pioneer of television advertising, was the author of the phrase, "unique selling proposition," or USP, which is a unique message about itself versus the competition that each business or brand should develop and use consistently in its advertising and promotion. By USP we don't necessarily mean a slogan or a phrase that will appear in your advertising, although that's one possible use for it. However, at this point we're focusing on its usefulness as a tool to help you focus on what your business is all about.

If you cannot concisely describe the uniqueness of your idea (and create some excitement in potential users), you may not have the basis for a successful business.

There are several questions to ask about your business to determine a USP:

  • What is unique about your business or brand vs. direct competitors? You'll probably find a whole list of things that set you apart; the next questions will help you decide which of these to focus on.
  • Which of these factors are most important to the buyers and end users of your business or brand?
  • Which of these factors are not easily imitated by competitors?
  • Which of these factors can be easily communicated and understood by buyers or end users?
  • Can you construct a memorable message (USP) of these unique, meaningful qualities about your business or brand?
  • Finally, how will you communicate this message (USP) to buyers and end users? Marketing tools to communicate USPs include media advertising, promotion programs (e.g., direct mail), packaging, and sales personnel.

For examples of USPs, think about different brands of products you've seen advertised on TV. What's the main message underlying the ad? Different brands and types of products utilize different primary themes, attributes, or ideas associated with each brand.

For example, cigarette, liquor, and perfume advertising tends to sell brands based on emotional, "borrowed values," instead of strictly product features. Users are encouraged to fantasize that they may accrue the "benefits" of sex appeal or a more satisfying/fun lifestyle, perhaps portrayed by the famous or beautiful spokespersons for a particular brand.

Food products may also utilize borrowed values in addition to describing product features and benefits. However, products like medicinal brands (e.g., cough and cold products) work hard at identifying and promoting unique features that will provide more relief faster than competitors. For these types of products, the way the product works is the most meaningful factor for customers.

The simple test of determining whether you've constructed a good USP for your business is whether it sells for you! If it sells your business or brand, your USP is meaningfully different. If you've been in business for a while, you may have constructed a USP unconsciously.

For example, if you decided to provide free delivery service to your customers because no one else in town is doing it, you've constructed a USP based on service that you are communicating to the intended target buyer. If, however, you offer free delivery service because everyone else in town does so and you need to provide it simply to keep up with the competition, it's not something that sets you apart and should not be the focus of your USP.

For many small businesses, packaging, sales materials, and sales personnel may be the only marketing tools affordable. It is even important to clearly determine your USP to communicate with these limited means.