What’s Your Unique selling proposition?

Do you even know what a USP is? It’s a Unique Selling Proposition; without one, your business is fighting an uphill battle for survival. By creating a USP, you give customers (or a group of customers called your target market) a reason to prefer purchasing your brand versus one offered by your competition. If this term is unfamiliar, maybe an analogy might help.

unique selling proposition

Let’s take a bin of apples at your neighborhood grocery store as an example of products available within a particular product offering. How do you choose between the apples in the bin? Do you randomly grab the number needed for this week’s shopping? Do you pick the ones that are the reddest or shinest? Since all the apples in the bin satisfy the same need in approximately the same way, it doesn’t make much difference, does it?

Now consider a mixture of apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and other fruit. Each has a unique selling proposition despite the fact that they’re all fruits. If you’re making a pie, for instance, the apples are your best choice because they bake up nicely in a crust without too much juice, which would result in a mess rather than a nice slice to put on a plate. If you’re making a smoothie, you might want bananas because they frappe into a nice, smooth consistency. Each has its own value and you can choose between them based on the unique properties of the fruit. Hence, it has a unique selling proposition.

protect your usp
Image courtesy of Tractionwise

The image above summarizes what you need in a unique selling proposition. USP is found at the intersection of what customers want, what you can deliver, and something your competition is able to do poorly or not at all.

First and foremost, it should be something your target market cares about. I once did some research for a Fortune 50 scientific company. Their engineering team developed a new gee-whiz product that offered a lot of features and benefits not available from competitors. Luckily, the management hired us to determine the market need for the additional features. Our results showed that their customers (we called randomly through their customer list to get feedback) felt the new product offered nothing of value and represented something that just might break down more frequently or require additional staff training to operate flawlessly. They viewed this product as a workhorse and the additional features didn’t make their jobs any easier. Hence, making changes or improvements is a waste of resources unless customers want what you have to offer. As an aside, the company did decide to introduce a new product, which failed miserably (just as our research showed it would).

Why worry about having a unique selling proposition?

As we already mentioned, customers are bombarded with various options to fix their problems and most markets include a number of competitors who say they can do that. A unique selling proposition helps your business stand out by highlighting what makes it different or better than competitors.

Competitive advantage

A well-defined USP gives your business a competitive edge. It allows you to articulate why customers should choose your products or services over those of your competitors. Ensure you offer a competitive advantage that really matters to your target market. The twin concepts of USP and competitive advantage are intimately linked, although they aren’t synonyms for the same concept. There are subtle differences between the two. Some experts claim USP is a subset of competitive advantage while others draw wider distinctions between them.


Branding is a key element of any successful product and acts as your brand identity, just like a name does for a person. It encapsulates everything that’s part of the brand image, including not only functional elements but also shorthand for your brand’s personality and a bundle of attitudes related to the brand based on advertising and word of mouth.

the right brand personality
Image courtesy of Sketch Corp

A USP contributes to building a strong and memorable brand identity. For instance, Starbucks offers a unique selling proposition related to its commitment to sustainable business practices that appeal to its target market. That branding is reinforced by its green color scheme. A USP is a key element of your brand to consumers as well as a rallying point around which your staff, investors, and other stakeholders can stand.

Effective marketing and messaging

A well-crafted USP provides a foundation for your marketing efforts. It helps guide you in which features/ benefits to stress in your marketing efforts since a clear, concise message will resonate better with prospective buyers than a laundry list of features and benefits you offer. Car companies are a good example of a product without a strong marketing focus, partly because the vehicles themselves are often manufactured from similar parts and may even be manufactured by a competitor and sold under several brand names. Try to think of the USP for a brand like Oldsmobile or even one of their car lines. I bet you can’t because they’re not unique in their offering, and if they are at a product level, that messaging gets lost in the miasm between corporate messaging and that of local dealers.

For example, Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, always used to say he sold hope, not makeup. Some airlines sell friendly service, while others sell on-time service. Neiman Marcus sells luxury, while Walmart sells bargains.

Focus and direction

Having a USP helps guide your business strategy and decision-making. It ensures that your efforts are aligned with what makes your business special, preventing you from diluting your brand by trying to be everything to everyone.

Finding a good unique selling proposition

First, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What problems do they face? Customers buy solutions, not products.
  2. If others offer solutions to a particular problem, how does your brand solve the problem better?

Pinpointing your USP requires some hard soul-searching and creativity. One way to start is to analyze how other companies use their USPs to their advantage. This requires careful analysis of other companies’ ads and marketing messages. If you analyze what they say they sell, not just their product or service characteristics, you can learn a great deal about how companies distinguish themselves from competitors.

Like this one from Sprout Social, a listening post on social media is a great way to listen in on the conversations consumers have about you and your competition. While this image only shows the performance aspects of your brand relative to others, such as share of voice, you can use the tabs at the top to discover conversations about the brands as well as look at how demographic variables impact your performance relative to your competition.

listening post
Image courtesy of SproutSocial

Once you understand your target market and how your competition frames its unique USP, you’re ready to start building your own unique selling proposition.

Identify your unique qualities

Determine what makes your product or service unique. This could be a specific feature, a benefit, a superior quality, a unique process, or even a distinct brand personality. If your products don’t seem unique, think about ways to adapt your brand using your company’s unique skill set to build on your existing products to develop a USP. We find many markets where products just don’t seem particularly differentiated from each other, so there’s a good deal of potential to come in and set your products up as unique.

Highlight benefits, not just features:

Focus on the benefits your customers receive when they buy your brand rather than just listing features. How will your product or service solve their problems or improve their lives? Emphasize these positive outcomes.

According to Hubspot, “features tell, benefits sell.” For instance, I might offer a device that has a storage capacity of 500 Mb. Is that enough to store the Library of Congress or my shopping list? Unless you’re an expert, you can answer this question. Yet the answer is critically important in making a decision between two products when one offers a larger storage capacity and another a longer charge life.

Emphasize emotion and values when developing a USP based on features. Show how your brand reinforces your customers’ values and beliefs, either through your company values or the benefit your product provides. For instance, Bomba gives a pair of socks for every pair it sells, which may align with customer values and drive their purchase decision.

corporate social responsibility
Image courtesy of Customer Insight Group

Be specific and clear:

Clearly articulate your USP in a concise and easily understandable manner. Avoid jargon or vague statements. The goal is for customers to quickly grasp what makes your business special.

Hence, you must test your USP with a small sample of your target audience to gather feedback. Do they understand your USP? How does your USP impact their purchase decisions?

Creating a tagline that shows your USP is a great start. Analogies work great here. For instance, State Farm uses the tagline:

Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there

We all know what a good neighbor is and how they provide value. We transfer that understanding to immediately understand the USP offered by the firm.

Ensure consistency across channels:

Maintain consistency in your messaging across all marketing channels. Your USP should be integrated into your website, advertising materials, social media, and any other customer touchpoints.

Revisit your USP

Markets change, and so do customer preferences. Periodically revisit and reassess your USP to ensure it remains relevant and aligned with your target market’s evolving needs. However, refrain from jumping on fads, as changing your USP too frequently is counter to the advice given earlier about maintaining consistency.

What makes a BAD unique selling proposition?

Cheaper. Cheap often means your brand isn’t very good. Instead, think about providing value – and deliver on your promise.

That’s especially true for shopping and specialty goods. If you’re selling oranges, being a little cheaper might provide a good USP, but selling cheaper jewelry might backfire on you. In his book Influence, Cialdini tells the story of a retailer selling “authentic” Indian jewelry near an Indian reservation. The stuff wasn’t selling until she DOUBLED the price, convincing would-be buyers that the jewelry was, indeed, authentic.

Better. Better is a loaded word – subject to the evaluations of others. If you’re using better as your unique selling proposition, your brand must have objective proof that it’s better than ANY other brand – not just some brands. And, the feature that makes your product better must be something consumers value as part of the solution.

Often, convincing your market that your brand is better than all the rest is an expensive proposition, better left to big brands with deep pockets.

What makes a GOOD unique selling proposition?

1. It solves a real customer problem. Look at the minivan—the most successful new car type in decades. It solved a real customer problem by providing a car that could hold lots of people and gear without being clunky or hard to drive.

Want a more recent example? Look at Airbnb, which offers affordable housing by renting out spare bedrooms, basements, and even couches across the world.

2. It’s easy to use. For example, Apple succeeded all these years despite its higher price because it provides a unique selling proposition – it’s easy to use. In a time when other companies offered free computer training, Apple made a computer that didn’t need training – it was intuitive.

A corollary is that it’s easy for consumers to understand your unique selling proposition.

2. It’s really NEW. You can add the word new to all your packaging, but if it’s not really dramatically different inside, you’re wasting your time. Again, the NEW has to solve a customer problem. Look at 3D TVs – they’ve stagnated in the market because, while they’re very new, they don’t really solve a customer problem. No one is out there asking for images to jump off their TV screens. Maybe the time just isn’t right for 3D TVs, but firms would be better off waiting for customer needs to change or satisfying a different need that’s not available currently.

4. It benefits the planet. Consumers want to believe in the brands they buy, as mentioned earlier. That’s why companies like Tom’s Shoes (which gives a needy child a pair for every pair sold) and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream (which uses local sources to support the economy) have such strong, loyal followings.

How do you create your own unique selling proposition?

  1. Think outside the box. Don’t do what everyone else does; just hope you can do it better. Do it differently.
  2. Don’t try to appeal to everyone. Find your sweet spot – those consumers for whom existing products just won’t do. Target your products (and USP) to just those individuals.
  3. Figure out what everyone else is doing. Too often, companies think their solution is unique only because they haven’t done due diligence to find those already offering it.

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