Photo: Elizabeth Williams @bizmkter

Unique Selling Propositions Are a Waste of Time

Focus instead on a unique way to generate revenue

My friend Sam was recently turfed out of his cushy corporate job and is currently spending his days taking unemployment lessons at an outplacement firm. Inspired by the session on entrepreneurship, he’s decided to start up a lawn care company and called me for help with his homework.

“I need a unique selling proposition”, he said. “Why?” I said. “It’s the second box on page three”, he replied. “I mean, why do you need a USP?” He didn’t know and neither did I.

We talked through how his company was going to be unique.

Were they cutting the grass with scissors? No.

Deploying sheep? No.

Mowing naked? Certainly not.

“I sort of think I would like really unique trucks. You know, the kind that stand out so people notice them”, Sam offered. “Are you planning on giving a brightly coloured truck to each customer? Because if you aren’t, it’s not really a selling proposition, it’s a branding element,” I suggested. We poured more wine.

Just for the heck of it, I asked my kids what they felt their USPs are. One said “Oh my God, she’s still talking.” The other said “Well, I don’t light fires anymore.” No help there, and not likely to get a decent buck for either of them.

Which is when I decided to do some digging. I don’t think I’ve read a book about starting a business that hasn’t mandated the immediate development of the USP. Google is positively awash in helpful stuff about how where to develop a USP. What I can’t seem to find is why.

The Dumbness of the USP

And that is how I stumbled on the dumbness of what a USP is. The term was first uttered in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves, an early TV ad guy. But it wasn’t about a business, it was his thesis about why a series of ads was successful. The campaigns offered a unique proposition to consumers to switch brands; the brands themselves didn’t offer anything. Now this notion of a unique proposition has been sucked up into the much different discussion about brand differentiation.

Differentiation is not necessarily unique, nor is it necessarily a starting point. Lots of brands have discovered how to differentiate themselves along the way, and many have ended up in a spot far away from where they started.

The Smartness of Starbucks

Let’s look at Starbucks. Starbucks’ USP was not, as too many have suggested, a great cup of coffee. Lots of cafés were serving great cups of coffee long before Seattle discovered how to do it. Lots of cafés have comfy seating, nice music, trained staff and filthy toilets. just like Starbucks.

What Starbucks did was figure out how to scale it consistently. Along the way they added in free wi-fi, iTunes downloads, birthday coffees and so forth. Taken all together it’s a great value proposition for the brand and the reason for its success, but it’s not unique, it’s just well-executed.

Folks, we don’t need unique. Whether it’s lawn care, insurance or ball bearings, we are not the only ones doing it, and we are deluding ourselves if we think we are the only ones doing it well, doing it carefully, doing it for less money or in a more friendly way.

It’s a little sad how much time has been wasted by entrepreneurs and beginner marketers chasing around USPs that don’t exist and aren’t helpful. I think a far better use of time is to figure out your URPI — Unique Revenue-Producing Idea.

Sam is going to cut grass just the same as any other good lawn company. His orange trucks and delightfully playful marketing will generate a bit of brand awareness. He’ll steal share from his less reliable or quality-oriented competitors and he will build his client base on referrals and by guilting the neighbours into letting him stick bag signs on their lawns.

He may even be able to command a premium price one day and get smart outfits for his employees. But if he really wants to do something unique he will stop fussing about what makes him seem different to a customer and go do something that really is different and creates revenue.

For example, he’ll seek out corners of the market that don’t outsource lawn care and convince them it’s time. Maybe he’ll work with property developers to put one-year contracts for lawn care into purchase agreements. On the profit side, perhaps he’ll invest in more efficient forms of marketing than his competitors and save a few bucks, or maybe he’ll expand his margins by looking for fuel-efficient equipment.

I think spending time working out how to make more revenue is much more interesting than trying to perpetuate the myth of the unique selling proposition. In the end, Sam told them the dog ate his homework.

Previously published on the BizMarketer blog

BizMarketer is written by Elizabeth Williams.
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