The Selling Point Mythos

I often hear people talk about the idea of a selling point — that single, absolutely amazing thing that sets you apart from everyone else and makes you a proposition that people will want to pay money for.

That’s all well and good, to be honest, as a product with a clear selling point is more likely to be sold in large numbers than a product sadly lacking in one. This is proven. In fact the term was coined to describe how advertising campaigns drove the success of several companies in the early 1940s.

The problem with describing and formalising good ideas, however, is that the people who had the ideas in the first place almost invariably didn’t think of them in a formal, regimented sense. Reducing the possibility of success of a product, business or person to the discovery and formalisation of a unique selling point immediately reduces the value of the concept, as there are only so many permutations of ideas that can be thought up before they stop being unique.

But that’s by the way. I have two thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, the idea of a selling point invariably depends on the market. Head and Shoulders is quite possibly the most well known shampoo brand in the world. It became popular on a simple idea — use me, and you’ll get rid of dandruff. If it was trying to appeal to natural hair weilding negro women, it would have to find another angle — maybe focus on its amazing detangling and conditioning properties (even though it would have to spend plenty of R&D dollars developing those first).

The point is, to answer a direct “what is your selling point?” question, you first have to decide what you’re selling. A man looking for a wife will not advertise his penchant for frequenting the VVIP sections of nightclubs with the creme de la creme of the entertainment world; that would be more appropriate if he was trying to convince wide eyed debutante trying to make a career in showbiz to get in bed with him for one steamy, amazing… (shut up Olumide.)

Secondly, there are products that sell in spades and shovels and all their mechanised equivalents that don’t have an easily recognisable or utterly unique selling point. If this was a criticism, the easiest target would be Apple. iPhones don’t have one amazing thing that differentiates them from Android phones, or devices from the much less used Windows Phone and Blackberry ecosystems, and yet millions of people swear by them.

I implied that the lack of a defined selling point isn’t a criticism, and I believe that’s true. The best products and services evolve to meet changing demands of their customers. Apple introduced a lower price point iPhone, and larger screen sizes. Head and Shoulders make a whole range of shampoos and conditioners for several hair types (non-nappy, of course). Coca Cola are forever coming up with variations to show they care about their customers.

All that isn’t to say that an identifiable selling point is a bad thing, or that you shouldn’t try to find one when you embark on a business venture. Far from it. If you can identify your USP, brilliant. If not, it really isn’t the end of the world. A USP-less product can still be amazing.

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