Read the epitaph: Short for Unique Selling Proposition, the USP highlights a single benefit that is so unique to a product that people are persuaded to buy it. This seminal advertising philosophy was developed by Rosser Reeves, co-founder of the Bates advertising network and its former chairman, and expounded in his 1961 book, Reality in Advertising.
Mr. Reeves once said of his agency: “What this agency has done which is different to any other agency is apply reason to advertising.” The lines coined by Bates and based on a USP include Melts In Your Mouth Not In Your Hands for Mars M&Ms, and It Writes First Time, Every Time for Bic pens. In his hypothesis that a concept should contain a unique idea, the USP offered one of the most robust theories for producing effective advertising. But not any more.
Because the USP is dead.
And so are most of the products it served. According to Reeves, a USP must have three qualities: it must have a benefit that is unique to the product; it must relate directly to the customer; and it must make a clear proposition to the customer. So far, so good. But somewhere in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a transformation took place. Copywriters were struggling to find the ‘U’ in USPs.
What had traditionally been described as a unique selling benefit was giving way to a more abstract set of values. This is not to say that older brands were re-working their positioning; rather, a new generation of products appeared more and more handicapped for distinction. Not because they had nothing to offer, but because their promise was either too weak or not unique enough to stand out.
Which is why creatives looked to develop propositions based on a completely different set of criteria: The Brand Personality. This shift altered both the application and the perception of advertising. From the conservative to the fashionable, from the literal to the lateral, from the tried-and-tested to the experimental, advertising was making a difference unlike before.
So much so that much of latter-day cigarette advertising was called ‘beyond-reason’ advertising (bye-bye, Mr. Reeves). Which goes to show how Coke’s indisputable positioning, The Real Thing, migrated to Always and now to Open Happiness. Or how Mercedes’ Engineered Like No Other Car In The World shifted gear to Engineered To Move The Human Spirit only to accelerate to The Future of the Automobile until it recently parked itself with The Best Or Nothing in order to exemplify “perfection, fascination and responsibility” as core values for its brand of luxury. There are countless examples.
Modern advertising is not always about finding the uniqueness in a product. If you do, great. But more often than not it’s about branding your product with “uniquenesses” that are central to your brand’s personality and promise. Naturally, if this objective is achieved with the application of a traditional USP, then you’ve scored.
So what’s the term of reference we should follow now that the USP is dead? The SMP. Short for Single-minded Proposition, the SMP achieves everything that the USP set out to do — with one exception. The SMP argues that in today’s world, where products are no longer unique, any benefit (that’s right, any benefit) communicated in a single-minded and compelling way does the job.
This does not mean that agencies are restricted to saying one thing. Instead, it opens up multiple avenues to explore and articulate. it means that brands today can communicate several advantages as long as the take-home value of their message is single-minded. (Just think what two words, one bottle and staggering innovation did for Absolut). The SMP is not alone in arguing for this. More and more research today is demonstrating that while quality is the price of entry into the market, it’s originality that’s the price of entry into our hearts and minds. So, increasingly, the strength of a brand lies not itself but more and more in its branding.
That’s more power to the artists and poets in this field. And more votes to creativity as being a vital part of the selling process. Which is great news for agencies who want more sophistication in their advertising and are urging their clients to do the same. No easy task. But, in the mean time, we should really stop attending these USP funerals.
It feels a little dead out there.