Unique Selling Proposition Vs. Brand Promise

Adam PiernoMay 28, 20195 min

Once, every brand had a unique selling proposition. The USP was the brand’s supposed competitive advantage. A beautiful notion from an idyllic time. Though most products do have differences from their rivals, they aren’t all differences that are relevant or important to their target consumers.

Instead, the USP became yet another repository for jargon or marketing fluff. Look at all the deodorant on the shelf at your pharmacy. There is no meaningful difference that couldn’t be copied if a rival cared to. The ingredients are mostly identical. Each of those has a USP displayed on the packaging or else buried somewhere in a Powerpoint deck.

If you worked at the company trying to sell deodorant, you would know the small details that make your product different. When you brief the agency, you would point out those differences and magnify them. And why not? From an internal perspective, those differences are what you and your team worked so hard on to develop this product. Those details would validate you. Or your boss.

But a strategist is also a diplomat. You have to find the information that makes it OK for stakeholders to understand that their chemical compound, though different, is not meaningful to the consumer. Research can play a role to identify, confirm or debunk a USP. In-home user tests, interviews, focus groups or surveys will help find the reasons why people buy your product or competitors. If you go in open-minded the research can guide you.

What would the USP be for a chocolate bar? It’s chocolate, nuts, crisped rice, caramel. There really isn’t anything truly ‘unique.’ Yet, we kept offering them to fill the space in the strategy for a USP. Tradition isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a waste of time in some cases. The Unique Selling Proposition has value if, and only if, the product actually has one. If not, leave it behind. As with all tools, take what’s useful for creating better work and skip what’s left. That’s why Snickers has success talking about hunger, and not a specific product detail.

It is worth spending time searching for a USP. It is a powerful connection to your target audience. The next best thing is understanding the market your product or brand serves and make sure your brand is the leader in that area. If your client sells furniture, for example, you may need to own ‘comfort.’ Or you may need to own ‘decor.’ But your client needs to be perceived as the best in the market of their customer need to be the category leader. Michelin may be known for safety, but if customers didn’t associate connect ‘safety’ with tires, sales would be down the drain and there would be an RFP out.

The Drivers Of Consumer Motivation

Some in the industry quip that there are only eight strategies to sell anything. That may actually be an overestimate. Phil Barden lays out the top six motivations that drive consumers and can be the basis for your strategy.

Barden backs this with neuroscience and a diagram of the parts of the brain activated by each motivation in his book Decoded. He lists the three primary implicit consumer (and human) goals as security, autonomy and excitement. He adds the additional goals of discipline, adventure and enjoyment. His feeling, and I can’t disagree, is that this list “is complete in the sense that nothing important is missing when it comes to analyzing the motivational drivers of categories, brands and communications.”

Understanding the implicit goals of consumers is why I don’t believe in the USP. The USP implies that the additive chosen by a food engineer is more important to purchase than the desire of the customer. It’s not. Usually.

Instead, I subscribe to the commitment a brand will make to the customer to meet their goal; explicit or implicit. Marketers want to build relationships with customers, they want to transcend the transactional and build loyalty. Customers probably don’t want this in all reality.  But if you want to be meaningful to customers, then you will want to write a brand promise.

The brand promise is quite literally the promise the brand can make to its best customers – and keep. The job in strategy is to build on a foundation of truth. But here’s how this idea differs from the USP. The promise has to meet the customer at least half way. Michelin tires promise to be the safest tires for your car. That’s a promise the customer cares about, based on implicit goals. In this case: security. A USP for tires might be the combination of reinforcement mesh and tread pattern providing advanced grip. Most consumers don’t care. They care about being safe on the road. When they’re researching tires, they might read how the tires provide that safety, but in all likelihood they will look at price and read reviews. If anything.

“And keep.” If those last two words won’t hold true in any draft of the brand promise, throw out the idea. The promise itself has to be true of course, but if it can’t be virtually guaranteed, that’s not the promise you want the brand to make. So it’s all about proving the promise. This can be the first stage of a campaign brief. This is why I rarely use service in any form as a brand promise. It’s too easy to fail – too many variables, too hard a promise to keep.

The Role Of Brand Campaigns

Michelin could simply demonstrate the stopping power of their tires with videos or even print ads to show how much farther other tires slid. It’s a powerful way to prove the promise. The campaign phase is all about building the triangle that connects the brand, the customer and their goals. The three things must all align to earn a sale or to build loyalty.

Campaigns demonstrate that the brand understands the customer and their goals. Often marketers talk about the emotional response of consumers to advertising. While emotion is important, it’s more important for the advertising or message to get consumers to feel they will be able to achieve their goals.

The brand promise is the communication of the explicit goals of the customer. This brand will let you do this. The campaign needs to be designed to touch the implicit goals Barden gave us above. The brand promise identifies the ‘what,’ the campaign presents the ‘how.’ If there’s an emotion to be pulled from the consumer, it might be “you get me and what I’m trying to do.”

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Adam Pierno. Excerpted and adapted from his book Under Think It.

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