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The Problem With “USPs,” They Aren’t Unique

by David Brock on June 26th, 2018

The Unique Selling Proposition is a cornerstone to much of what we do in marketing and sales.  At a high level, it’s supposed to be a compelling statement about who we are, what makes our solution different.  Ideally, it is so compelling the customer immediately sees the light and issues a PO.

All we have to do is position our USP in our web sites, our marketing materials, and our prospecting pitches, and we immediately capture the customers’ attentions.

I’m not sure USPs ever really worked, but in today’s world there is really nothing right about the concept of the USP.

Let’s dissect this…..

Unique is, well…. unique.  That means it is different for each person we seek to engage.  What’s important to a certain type of buyer (think persona) is different from another type of buyer.  USPer’s will immediately respond, “Yes, you have to develop persona based USPs.”

But then it’s different industry to industry, market to market, company by company.  Ultimately, we recognize, what’s unique is in the eye of the customer and it’s probably relevant to a certain point of time or set of circumstances the customer might find herself.

But our USPs never seem to reach the level of “One to One,” they are always broadcast to a wide audience and immediately become General Selling Propositions, (GSPs) rather than unique.

Another problem with our thinking about “Uniqueness,” is we fail to consider our competitors.  A number of years ago, I was giving a keynote, the client had asked me to focus on their USP.  My first slide, showed their “USP,” they immediately applauded, high fiving each other about their “USP.”  They probably thought, “We’ve got the right speaker, he recognizes the value of our USP.”

My second slide had the USPs of their top 10 competitors.  All of a sudden, the audience was deflated.  Except for a few small wording difference, the USPs weren’t unique.

Each, in fact, were remarkably similar.  Each claimed to be “bigger, better, faster, cheaper….”  Or “new, innovative, different…”  But fundamentally, they could have been interchanged with each other and no one would have known the difference.

But the fact that USPs really aren’t, isn’t the biggest problem.

The problem is the SP part of the acronym–the Selling Proposition.

Thinking customers or markets care about our Selling Proposition is really the ultimate conceit and self centered thinking.

Ironically, for all the decades the concept of USPs has existed, we don’t hear much discussion around UBPs–Unique Buying Proposition.  If Google is any kind of indicator, Unique Selling Propositions get 16 +M hits, Unique Buying Proposition gets 9 + M hits.

But customers care about what they care about.  When they are buying they care about their buying proposition, not our selling proposition.  And for each customer in the buying group, there is a different buying proposition—which may be why so many customers struggle with buying.

I’m not sure the concept of a USP was ever useful, but it’s not a helpful concept for our customers or for engaging them in high impact discussions.  It’s time that we abandon them and banish them from our vocabularies.

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6 Comments
  1. Kurt Haug permalink

    As usual David, I wholeheartedly agree.

    As a consultant (and/or turnaround exec), one of the first things I do is ask the company to bring a piece of EVERY bit of marketing they have, and put it on the biggest table in the office– usually a conference room.

    They arrange it neatly on the table, pointing out the pieces of which they are most proud, and then I ask them to write down their top three competitors on a whiteboard or flipchart.

    Then, without saying anything, I take a black marker and cross out the company’s name on everything. And ask a question, “If you replaced YOUR company’s name with that of each of your top competitors, would it make any difference?”

    Almost universally (I know, that’s an oxymoron), the answer is “no.”

    In fact, everyone’s USP/”Brand Promise/Mission Statement/ ad nauseum is virtually the same. Because:

    “We are better/faster/cheaper and love our customers more.”
    “We are the highqualityhighvaluemarketleaderoldestbiggest…”

    The fact is, the unspoken objective of a lot of this positioning is NOT to serve the UBP of buyers, but to just “one up” the competition.

    “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

  2. If USPs never worked, how do you explain “Absolutely Positively Overnight” that absolutely, positively launched one of the most successful brands in American history? The service was unique, and the selling proposition similarly. Mr. Reeves would have agreed, I’m sure.

    • John, actually, you are making a great point not about USPs but about Generalized Buying Propositions. The Fedex “Absolutely Positively Overnight” was always intended to capture the attention market. And GBP’s have that goal, to create visibility, awareness and to drive demand. By itself, however, it was insufficient to win the deals. Fedex Account Teams had to analyze shipping and other patterns, actually developing Unique Buying Propositions about why customers should be using overnight in the first place, what overnight would do in helping their customers’ customers be more loyal, drive more business, etc. Customers at the time may have even questioned the value of absolutely positively overnight. So without sales translating that generalized non unique proposition to what it meant to customers, it was just a catchy advertising scheme.

      Generalized things like Absolutely Positively Overnight are very powerful in creating awareness, visibility, and interest, but they are never sufficient to win a deal. It requires sales to create a proposition that is unique and specific to what the customer will get out of it.

      Thanks for helping me expand and illustrated the differences and the power of each.

  3. Hi David, really enjoyed reading this because as you point out, USPs are rarely ‘unique’. Like you say, customers care about what they care about, and that usually relates to a specific outcome they are looking to achieve. If we focus our messaging more on how we help the customer to achieve a desired outcome, we hopefully tap into a dialogue that’s already going on in their head, which makes us relevant. Being relevant is the table stake, but for a customer to place an order with you they have to see you as their best fit option. Our understanding of how they view ‘best fit’ and our ability to potentially re-frame that with them is what ultimately determines how ‘unique’ we are in their eyes. Love the articles, keep them coming!

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