The Most Important Thing Companies Overlook in Their Marketing

Understanding the Unique Selling PropositionThink about what you should say, before you decide where to say it.

It’s the foundation of an effective marketing strategy.

In my more than 30 years helping businesses build better marketing strategies, the thing they want to discuss most is marketing tactics: How can we get in front of more potential customers? (Usually followed by: How much will it cost us?)

Tactics and budget are indeed important considerations, but not the most important. Before worrying where your message will appear, you need to first examine what that message should communicate and why. It’s the message at the heart of your marketing strategy that determines whether you’ll ultimately cut through the noise and win a distinct place in consumers’ minds.

In order to accomplish that, your message must be different, unique. It has to make a clear promise your competitors can’t, or at least one they haven’t thought to make yet. In this way, your brand stands for something singular and specific and memorable. It’s called positioning – how you claim a niche and plant your flag in the marketplace.

Take, for example, two of the nation’s leading insurance companies: State Farm and American Family Insurance. State Farm wants you to know it’s “like a good neighbor” – there when you need them. But American Family Insurance wants to “protect your dreams,” whether that’s a long healthy life or the 48’ fishing boat you scraped and saved to buy.

Both companies have staked out a positioning that distinguishes their businesses from competitors in the minds of consumers. Before meeting with an agent or digging into the finer points of insurance plans, consumers can take a shortcut by deciding which brand message resonates with them.

The Unique Selling Proposition

Positioning starts with understanding your target customer, what they want, and what benefit you offer that best meets those needs. Unfortunately, that’s not always enough. Your competitors may offer the same products or services with the same essential benefit. It requires thinking creatively about how you deliver on that promise, and how to do it in a way that sets your solution apart.

One way to find clarity around your positioning is to use a concept called the Unique Selling Proposition (or USP for short).

The Unique Selling Proposition has been around since the 1960s. It was conceived by Rosser Reeves, one of advertising’s most influential figures. First presented in his book “Reality in Advertising,” Reeves says that a successful USP contains four key elements:

  1. It must make a specific proposition to the customer: Buy this product and you will get this specific benefit.
  2. The proposition must be unique or perceived as unique by your customers. Something your competitors don’t have or offer, and something in which they would not be able to easily imitate.
  3. It should be so compelling and relevant to your ideal customers that it entices them to try your product or service because it addresses their needs, fears, frustrations or desires.
  4. It must be simple and easy to communicate so your customers quickly understand that your product or service offers them this unique benefit.

You may remember Mr. Reeves’ famous USP for M&M Candies – “It melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Another example is FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight,” and Wonderbread’s “Helps to build strong bodies in 12 different ways.”

Finding Your USP

In order to arrive at your own USP, ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s your competitive advantage, if any?
  • What value does your business add beyond the primary benefit? What unique approach, philosophy or point of view can you tout?
  • What are specific issues your customers face when thinking about, shopping for, or using your product or service? How can you address these with your positioning?
  • How can you speak to the emotional, as well as logical reasons people should do business with you?
  • What can you do differently than you or doing now to improve on your primary benefit? What new capabilities or services can you add that will make a noticeable impact?
  • Somewhere in those answers lies the key to your competitive positioning. List as many possibilities as you can, and winnow the list down to the most distinctive and promising options.

Once you’ve decided on your USP, create a positioning statement for your business that can be referred to when shaping your brand or marketing message. A common formula for a positioning statement looks like this:

For (the target customer) who (customer need or opportunity), the (product or service) delivers (statement of key benefit). Unlike (competitors), our solution (USP – what makes your promise different).

Now you’re thinking strategically. Find creative ways to communicate your positioning in every campaign, across different tactics, and you’re investing in a strong brand message, not just the media that will carry it.

Does your company have a well-defined positioning? How did you approach it? Tell us in the comments below.

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