USPs: Your key to selling success

How "unique selling propositions" can increase sales and focus your marketing efforts. - 1998

by Robert Hoffman

As a consultant I am often faced with a difficult task: helping clients understand that their goal--selling more--is in direct conflict with their customersí need to keep a lid on expenditures. Obviously, we all want to increase our sales figures; but a better goal is to make your company more valuable to those whose needs you can serve best. In this way, increased sales become automatic. Plus, you achieve an important windfall: Customers are easier to keep. How do you do this? Three things are essential:

  1. You need accurate demographics for the type of customer you desire.

  2. You need an accurate, reasonable way to contact that group.

  3. You need to provide so much value that a prospect has virtually no choice but to do business with you.

This is a gross oversimplification, but it does provide a fundamental structure for attacking your marketing problems. Iíll be covering these subject areas one by one in the coming months. Before you can take these steps to success, however, you must develop what is known as a Unique Selling Proposition.

What is a USP?
Your companyís Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is a statement that articulates clearly, precisely, and briefly just what it is you do and how you are different from every one of your competitors. In short, it tells your prospects why they should do business with you.

The theory behind a USP is simply this: There are certain customers you want and, equally important, certain customers you donít want. Far too many businesses engage in shotgun marketing, desperately seeking every customer they can get a grip on. The problem with this is that itís not very profitable. Your particular situation, your businessí strong suits, and specialized experience make what you have to offer much more valuable to certain prospects than others. A strong, definite USP should act like radar, picking those prospects out of the multitudes who will have more than a passing interest in your product or service.

USP doís and doníts
To help you understand this better, letís first look at an example of a poor USP. Something that I commonly observe in trade publications are advertisements that say something like "highest quality and best selection." That does not qualify as a USP based on the definition of a clear, precise, brief statement. While it is brief, it is hardly precise or clear what is meant by "quality" or "selection." This is a catastrophic mistake, and virtually every advertiser in our industry makes it! That kind of advertising causes endless shopping by purchasing agents because it does nothing to provoke the readerís interest. Quite frankly, it is a waste of advertising dollars.

What would be a better USP? Letís take the imprecise statement from above and turn it into something concrete. Before doing that, however, I must urge you: Please, please do not copy it! Any example I could give you is probably too broad for your particular situation and, more than likely, isnít the most profitable choice for you. I can think of at least 20 individual USP elements that can be combined with various value-added concepts to come up with literally thousands of specialized USPs. Creating a strong USP requires good observational skills, awareness of your companyís--and your competitorsí--strengths and weaknesses, and a lot of open-minded creativity. Copying someone elseís USP will simply put you back in the same boat as before. Besides, every business is unique. If youíre really creating your USP based on your companyís particular situation, it wonít be like anyone elseís.

Back to the example. The key here is specificity. An easy way to get started in working out your own USP is to brainstorm, using 3 x 5 cards, every possible benefit you can offer a customer. No matter how insignificant you think a particular benefit might be, put it on a card. This kind of exercise is great to do with a group. Once you come up with a nice, thick stack of cards, you can work on putting them in order, from the biggest, most advantageous benefit down to those that are less important. Then, experiment with some combinations of benefits that offer great value. For a machinery manufacturer it might be something like "37 Models in Stock Always, Guaranteed to Double Your Productivity in 30 Days or Your Money Back." Now thatís a powerful USP. Itís clear, precise, and brief. And a vast improvement over "highest quality and best selection."

Of course, make darned sure that whatever you promise, you deliver.

Getting the ball rolling
When developing your USP, consider the following to get your creative juices flowing. Does your company:

  • Serve a certain size company best?

  • Have an exceptional guarantee?

  • Offer a discount for volume purchasing?

  • Offer the same prices for single lot as for quantity?

  • Have a technical assistance department available via an 800 number?

  • Provide some kind of customized service?

  • Offer free shipping?

  • Manufacture its product with some unique or patented material or process?

  • Include some kind of useful premium with a minimum purchase?

Keep in mind that these are not USPs in and of themselves. They are simply starting points to get you thinking. Remember, more specific is stronger; even better is some combination of elements. Be sure to spend plenty of time fine-tuning. If you do it right, your business will change for the better, forever.

Putting your USP to work
When you feel like youíve got a USP thatís right, you need to start thinking about implementation. Obviously youíll use it in your advertising. In many instances the USP itself will be your headline. (Your advertisements do have a headline shouting out a great big, beautiful benefit, donít they? They should, but thatís the subject of another column.) But beyond print advertising, you should integrate your companyís USP into all customer contact--from your receptionist answering the phone, to business cards, to office signage, to...well, everything. And be sure every employee knows and understands the companyís USP, because every employee plays a part in marketing your product or service.

Robert A.Hoffman is an independent marketing consultant specializing in direct marketing and asset redeployment techniques. He can be reached at e-mail: