Why Unique Selling Points Don’t Exist
And what to focus on instead
Quick quiz: Which one of the phones below is the brand-new Apple iPhone?
Did you spot it yet? They all have the signature notch and lack of a physical home button Apple introduced a couple of years ago, but something’s a little off. For most of these phones, the design differences are slight and from far away you probably couldn’t tell them apart.
Exactly none of them are iPhones.
Maybe you passed the quiz, but isn’t it odd that when compared to the true innovator in this space, they pretty much all look the same?
Most brands seek to be original, but are they really?
All Products Are Unique, Except When They’re Not
Okay, so maybe you’re not into $1,000+ phones. Let’s try something else.
Last weekend I was tasked with an impossible decision: Should I buy running shoes by Nike, Adidas, or Asics?
I know, first-world problems again. They’re epic.
But seriously, I’ve been eyeing certain styles for months now. Whenever I walked into a shoe store, I scanned dozens of possible shoe choices. I’d pick up a shoe and I’d race through the mini-checklist in my mind to see if it passed.
After getting hounded by the sales associate, I’d leave with nothing. I needed more time, and the choices were too overwhelming.
We all go through buyer moments like this. Consumers must pick the winner out of dozens of brands and products in the same category — often, on the spot. And billions of dollars, millions of commercials, and thousands of books have been dedicated to this topic alone.
Why do we buy?
USPs Are Not the Answer
The perennial answer to why we buy is often summed up as the USP. Some call it the Unique Selling Point, while others call it the Unique Selling Proposition. It doesn’t matter what you use: They both function in the same manner.
The term USP was invented in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves, a pioneer in television advertising. His idea was that every advertisement should have a USP. In some cases, it was so effective that consumers switched brands.
Reeves came up with M&M’s “It melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” As for a USP, don’t all bits of chocolate do that? However, he did have a lot of big advertising wins he credited to USPs. In seven years, his little 59-second commercial for Anacin made more money than the movie Gone With The Wind had in its first 25 years.
By definition, Unique Selling Points (USP) are special features or benefits that make a product different from the competition. This difference is so significant that it influences the final buying decision. The idea is that consumers are sold on that difference.
But are we?
Nike tells me that their running shoes have advanced technology that propels me forward with every stride and cushions me when my foot hits the ground again. We’ll cram all those USPs into the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly (a clever play on their old technology, Nike Air).
Adidas tells me the exact same thing and calls their technology Adidas Boost (an on-the-nose description that sounds useful).
And finally, Asics echos the same messaging and calls their technology Asics Gel (not very creative, but it’s accurate).
Of course, they’re all basically saying the same thing about their product materials, ambitious company mission, and dedication to athletic performance. In reality, there’s nothing new or different here with any of them. And to be honest, maybe winning races has more to do with mental and physical training than any kind of shoe. I’m still waiting to learn about the scientific secrets from the world’s greatest long-distance runners who hail from Kenya. Trust me, it’s not the shoe.
Aside from the rare disruptor, it makes you wonder if there is anything truly unique happening here.
USPs Do Not Exist (Except in Our Heads)
For decades I clung to the idea that USPs were the reason why people buy. I kept telling myself that certain products were different. And because brand slogans and USPs are often one and the same, my beliefs about USPs persisted. For example, you’re probably familiar with the brands that match up with the following slogans (and whose competitors can practically say the same exact thing):
- “Delivered in 30 minutes or it’s free”
- “The ultimate driving machine”
- “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight”
Are these USPs the reason why you buy? In isolation, no. We buy because of lots of variables. Price, brand loyalty, availability, and style all come into play with decision-making. But most agree that USPs are a major factor why people buy one product over the other.
However, after discussing this topic with an influential UK brand expert, Jonny Bradley, I’ve changed my mind about USPs.
The Homogenization of USPs
As Bradley points out, compare any brand trio and you won’t find a genuine USP. Mercedes, BMW, Audi. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendys. Apple, Samsung, Huawei. USPs don’t exist in any of them. Just like running shoes, there is so much overlap that any sense of a USP gets muddled.
Basically, all the USPs are roughly the same, and so the final product is nearly the same. Because of this, we’re going to have to come up with something better than the word unique.
The problem is that uniqueness is at the heart of USPs. And with unique, we’re saying something is not like the rest.
However, there is a difference between having an original or unique creation and innovating.
Suffice it to say, all profitable companies innovate. They don’t have to invent something new. Nike never invented the running shoe. They just innovated on the design and built a $36B-a-year revenue machine with it.
As Jonny says, “Any product goes through a cycle of innovation and imitation.” And just because they do, that doesn't mean these innovations turn into real USPs. In some cases, USPs can tank a company.
In the past, Coca Cola tried to change its secret recipe. It appears that Pepsi destroyed Coke on countless Pepsi Challenge taste tests. (Bing repeated this bad marketing campaign with its Bing It On challenge with Google.)
You’d think that the ultimate USP for a cola is how it actually tasted, right?
Wrong. Arguably, Coke and Pepsi taste too similar to worry about taste tests. So Coca Cola decided that branding was the best strategy to maintain their market share. They rebranded their original recipe as Coca Cola Classic and pursued building better campaigns.
Over the years, Coke created several award-winning advertisements. They launched iconic campaigns with slogans that united Americans (“Red, White, & You”) and the entire world (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”).
Did all this USP indifference pay off?
Today, Coca Cola has a growing market capitalization of $227B while Pepsi is holding firm at $188B. It’s safe to say who’s winning the cola wars. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in Coca Cola’s secret recipe. With that much brand power, their patented USP might as well not exist.
Aren’t USPs Protected by Patent Law?
You’d think that patent law would keep USPs safe, but it doesn’t. Patent law is that thing that says “You can’t copy me, I have the documents to prove it!” How’s that working out for the business world? Recall how phones look the same and clearly knock off Apple’s brilliant iPhone patent.
In fact, many industries don’t even bother with patents. Let’s say that the typical lifespan of a non-evergreen product is 12–18 months. Is it better to spend a huge chunk of money on lawyers to protect the patent, or should you stay in the race and put it towards marketing? I think you know where I’m going with this.
In a year or two, even the most innovative products start to be flanked by lookalikes. And these lookalikes start eating up the market share of the originals. In many cases, patent law is useless.
A Forbes contributor, Stephen Key, writes that “At best you can establish perceived ownership over an idea. But you never actually own anything.” Key’s statement is significant as he himself has patented over 20 products and he’s the recipient of two Edison Awards.
Okay, so maybe you’re open to the idea that USPs don’t exist. If you’re not there yet, consider this: If they do exist, don’t you think we need a little more to go on to make a buying decision? Bill Cates, the founder of ReferralCoach.com, writes that “USPs are overrated.” Furthermore, he states on Hubspot that
“If a value proposition does not compel someone to take action or create movement on the part of your prospective clients, then it’s fatally incomplete.”
I love this idea because it’s right, and also it implies that a sale isn’t always instant. While it’s hard to say why you bought a pair of Nikes or a six-pack of Coke Classic because of a specific commercial you saw, we can attribute sales to the ubiquity of ads and brand messages through several platforms over time. This metric is what advertising execs call brand impressions.
Why Brands Are Trading in USPs for OESPs
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
As we’ve seen, Apple files patents regularly. Despite winning a few big patent cases, they don’t solely rely on patents to differentiate their products. If anything, you can argue that since copycats are inevitable, patents are initially used to slow the competition down.
To remain competitive, successful brands like Apple, Coca Cola, Nike, and Mercedes do something entirely different to stand out and get ahead. They intentionally establish and maintain a strong emotional connection with consumers with their branding and marketing. Bradley calls this an Owned Emotional Selling Point (OESP).
Consumers don’t always remember the technical details, funny ads, or special deals — but they will remember how they felt about your brand. It might have been a combination of things that got them there; however, it’s the feeling that leaves the strongest brand impression.
This is the essence of experiential marketing. It’s why live events — either webinars or in-person productions — make us feel like we’re a part of something and making a real connection. If the experience is done right, we associate positive feelings with the brand. From there, the brand DNA starts to mesh with our own DNA. We start to see that a brand aligns with who we actually are.
You just can’t get this kind of emotional pull with USPs. USPs are rational things like features and benefits, but OESPs are all about emotions.
Look at the technical aspects of a pair of running shoes. We’ll throw in a few popular shoe accolades: It’s the lightest, strongest, and most durable shoe ever! All of these are unique selling points. We can go on for days about the latest and greatest specifications. But after a while, all so-called USPs become boring technical details.
Owned Emotional Selling Points are far more exciting and they lead people to actually pull the trigger on buying. The emotional selling point of anything is how something makes you feel. We’re usually going for positive emotions, of course.
Do Nike’s make you feel like a winner after trying them on? Or maybe they make you feel cool: This shouldn’t be overlooked. We’re a tribe of people that cares about what others think, and trillions of dollars have been made with this idea alone.
In the Front Seat With an OESP
“Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the brand image.” — David Ogilvy
Confession: When I first drove a German sedan, I absolutely felt like I was the best of the best. I wasn’t, but it was the feeling that counted.
In hindsight, I think the car salesman who sold me my first expensive car only cared about OESPs. In fact, I can’t even remember talking about any USPs in our seven-mile test drive. No side chats about how this car was better than that car. No impressive statistics or accolades the car recently won. Maybe we talked about a few of the car’s advanced features, but I can’t remember. I do remember him directing me to pull right in front of this tall building on our route.
It was like a tower of mirrors.
I distinctly remember him saying something similar to this:
“Now slow the car down. Look to the left, see yourself cruising along in this car? You look great! You look like you’ve made it in life. How do you feel driving this car?”
By the time I finished that thought, I had already emotionally connected with the car and I was driving back to the dealership to process the paperwork.
Okay, to be honest, I went through a sports car phase a decade or so ago. I’m over it now. But to this day, every time I pass by that mirrored building, I think about that moment. I owned every part of the anchored emotion within. I was committed to it. And that emotion sold me.
All the car ads over the years, the salesman’s perfect pitch, and my own perception of success had converged. I felt understood as a consumer. And whatever buying decision I made, it was the right one.
Unconsciously, I wonder how many times and how many OESPs nudged me to make a buying decision — probably thousands.
Whether you call it customer empathy or what Wharton Professor Peter Fader calls customer-centricity, modern marketing is about making emotions the most important element in branding. Emotions are the heart of OESPs.
The Science of Brands and Emotion
Over a decade ago, Sally Hogshead conducted her first large-scale branding assessment. It revealed several data points that pointed to emotions being the driving force behind buying decisions. This was something we’ve all speculated on since the dawn of time, but now there was solid science behind it. Since then, her work has garnered over 700,000 targeted participants from companies such as Cisco, AT&T, Unilever, GE, Twitter, and Porsche.
Hogshead’s premise was that consumers identify with brands that trigger one of seven different emotion clusters. They are Passion, Power, Prestige, Trust, Innovation, Mystique, and Alert.
Based on something that conceptually looks like a brand chemistry set, any brand that aligns the right emotion clusters with the ideal customer wins. Hogshead’s research shows that campaigns that lead with the right dominant emotions get more views, clicks, and sales.
OESPs Are More Exciting and Human-Centric
At some point, we know that OESPs have a limit to their effectiveness. Generic USPs (which is intentionally oxymoronic) provide value in that they help process information in a buying decision.
I always thought buying was like an emotional sandwich.
Brands lead with emotions to hook you in. Then they pepper in the technical details and/or science so you can justify it in your mind, and they end with emotion again to get you to take action.
It’s a sinuous narrative that brand managers create. And it works because humans are complicated. We’re emotional and logical. We evaluate subjectively and objectively.
Just think what it would be like if we didn’t work this way.
What if we bought things scientifically every time?
Let’s go back to my running shoe purchase. We’ll set up a scenario where you’re going to buy shoes only using USPs (no OESPs).
You’d walk into the shoe store and ask the retailer to bring out the top five shoes you want to try. This is based on the type of running you do and the USPs that stuck out in your research.
Then you ask to be blindfolded. (This is true science here!)
You proceed to put the first pair of shoes on and ask for a guide to help you run back and forth in the store. During this running test, you’re scoring how the features stack up for each shoe. Staying blindfolded, you do the same for the other shoes and make notes.
Then finally, you tally up the scores to unceremoniously purchase the winner based on the highest score.
How time-consuming and boring was that? Technically, you probably bought the best pair for you. However, what if how the shoe looked was a major factor? Aesthetics are emotional. The obvious conclusion is this:
Buying without emotion takes all the joy out of shopping.
So what shoe did I end up with? The winner for me was the Adidas Boost. I was sure I’d go for the Nikes or Asics. I really liked the look and feel of the Adidas better. The black on black made me feel tough. Also, I didn’t want to get what everyone else was wearing in my area (I live near Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon). I was emotionally drawn to the Adidas.
The Owned Emotional Selling Point wins again.
Of course, we can’t do extensive tests with every purchase. I don’t recommend you test cars by driving them blind-folded! But you can feel good about defaulting to OESPs because we’re human. We’re emotional creatures by nature.
As Professor Dan Ariely says, we’re all “predictably irrational.” For example, in the last apartment complex I lived in, there were countless residents who drove late-model German cars. I drove around a clunker because I was saving for a down payment on a home. The rents averaged around $1,000 per month. It’s completely irrational to lease a car for $1,000 a month and pay $1,000 for rent. There is no equity in either and the interest adds up. (I know I’m simplifying this because homeownership involves taxes, larger utility bills, etc.)
Here’s a potentially better option.
Why not use the $1,600 for a mortgage on a home and then buy a reliable car for $400 a month? That’s the rational approach. However, have you ever driven a new Mercedes? On a purely emotional level, they’re marvelous! We make relationship decisions based on almost pure emotion too, why not cars? (— said the car salesperson).
There is nothing wrong with making emotional decisions tempered with a little commonsense. Some brands are just more fun than others and psychologically better for us. In the end, what you’ll find is that perception is reality. That’s what brand managers are counting on at least.
How To Sell More Products With Branding and OESPs
Maybe you’ve known about the decline of USPs for years now. So how does a company utilize the superior strategy of OESPs? I’ve executed OESPs in my company with great success using Jonny’s advice. All it takes is two steps:
1. Have a cause that is greater than your brand
Patagonia’s mission goes like this: “We’re in business to save the planet.” San Francisco Art Institute aims to “Encourage the artist in everyone.” Lululemon’s mission is “To elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness.” Using a greater cause has the dual effect of reaching more people and creating a strong community.
2. Own the emotion
This is the O in OESP. Own your brand statement or mission. I’m talking about authenticity and branding. Put it on your products, add it to your advertisements, and get it out to everyone.
When your brand owns the emotion, your customer will too. Therefore, the feeling customers get when they talk about your brand is strategic. It stems from your brand DNA and the values or mission you put into your work — which is repeated everywhere.
The term branding literally means “to leave your mark on something.” You’re physically and psychologically doing that with your brand to leave an impression. Once you’ve nailed the emotional part of that, the products practically sell themselves.
If you’re like me, you’re ready to say good-bye to product-centric Unique Selling Points (USPs). UK branding expert Jonny Bradley suggests that Owned Emotional Selling Points (OESPs) are better because they always put the customer first. They help brands communicate, align with customer emotions, and sell products in a more natural way. If brands ever want to be truly unique and remarkable in a hyper-competitive market, using OESPs should be at the top of their list.