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In praise of the USP

Rosser Reeves, the CEO of Ted Bates, is best known for defining the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition in his 1961 book, Reality in Advertising.

Reeves held that successful brands are those that offer customers a specific and unique benefit. FedEx built its business on a simple USP (absolutely, positively overnight). So did Domino's Pizza (hot, fresh pizza delivered in 30 minutes, guaranteed), Oil of Olay (younger looking skin) and Avis (we try harder).

But the idea of a USP is seriously out of fashion in our business. The speed at which product advantages can be matched make it difficult for many marketers to find and sustain a point of difference. And that's why today, instead of unique products, we rely on unique marketing. Instead of selling propositions, we have theme lines.

GEICO is a great and current example of a successful USP in action -- "15 minutes can save you 15% or more." Having a clear proposition has enabled GEICO to create consistently memorable, engaging and effective advertising. The Gekko. The cavemen. Peter Frampton. Jed Clampett. The creative diversity of this campaign breaks the traditional rules of branding. No cookie-cutter campaign approach. No requirement to invest heavily behind each individual campaign. No single creative format as the basis of brand integration.

Therein lies the power of having a clear and consistent USP. It gives marketers the freedom to be diverse and interesting in a age when people have the attention span of a gnat. GEICO can roll out a never ending series of new and different campaigns without ever deviating from their core proposition. GEICO's investment behind each new campaign is simply part of an ongoing investment in the idea that GEICO saves us 15% or more. And GEICO's USP provides an authentic basis for brand integration.

There are lessons for marketers. It is still possible to find and own a USP. One of my previous clients, Sony Electronics, found its USP (like no other) within the truth of the product. Wal-mart's USP (everyday low prices) comes from the efficiency of its supply chain. Enterprise (we'll pick you up) found its USP in its channel of distribution.

This isn't limited to consumer marketing. BD'M has created a USP for Applied Materials, the leader in nanomanufacturing technology for industries as varied as semiconductors and solar energy -- helping the world do more with less. This isn't a theme line, it's a statement of the company's true north.

Finding a USP requires knowing what's important to customers, creating a unique way to deliver it and aligning every aspect of the brand's value chain around the proposition -- i.e., product, service, communications, experiences, employee training, sales force, etc. Be consistent over time. Most importantly, don't get bored with your own success.