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Steve Jobs

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The Dangers of USP

The Dangers of USP

Defining a unique sales proposition, or USP, has become part of business mantra. I’ve sat in many meetings with boards and senior management teams and heard someone challenge the group with a question like, “What’s our USP?” The response is usually the same – people grasp onto the question and begin furiously trying to either define or redefine their business/product/service USP as if it’s the missing magical ingredient for strategy.

The point of a USP is to help a product or brand stand out in a crowded market place because of the qualities that make it different. Whilst this is important there are some significant traps in overplaying USP:

Firstly, and most importantly, USP puts the focus on the business rather than on the customer, and this seems the wrong way round. The danger here is that corporate introspection can lead to ideas and thinking that aren’t aligned to customers. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, keeps driving his business to obsess about customers. In an article with Harvard Business Review he said, “we’ve made a number of decisions siding with the customer that have been questioned by well-meaning critics, Wall Street analysts, and industry analysts. I’m talking about things like free shipping, relentlessly lowering prices, Amazon Prime.” Amazon’s ideas and thinking have usually been driven by their deep understanding of their customers rather than by trying to identify what makes them different.

Secondly, the meaning of the unique part of USP is often strained when it’s used. I recently read a business article that said, “Tesco and Asda can genuinely use low prices as a USP.” Really? Both of them? Often others are doing something similar but fortunately uniqueness is not always important to customers. Continuing with the example of supermarkets, it’s often convenience and location that guide purchasing choices and not just so-called brand differences.

Whilst it is useful to identify USP it may be far more critical to discover how to make a difference to the lives of customers. Bestselling marketer, Bernadette Jiwa, writes in her book Difference, “People don’t want to be sold for the reasons you think your brand is better or best. They don’t want something different. They want something that makes a difference.”

Here are some questions to help you think through USP and difference:

  • Why is it important for us to clarify USP?
  • Why do returning customers come back to us?
  • What do new customers say persuaded them to purchase from us?
  • What do we do to find out about the difference we make to our customers’ lives?
  • What are the strengths of our organisation and how are we deliberately leveraging them for competitive advantage?