Branding and the Unique Selling Proposition

Successful branding has been researched since 1962, most notably by Rosser Reeves, author of Reality in Advertising, who found that the most successful brands (those that had the highest ROI) used the Unique Selling Proposition (USP).  In Reality in Advertising, Reeves defines USP in three parts:

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  1. The proposition is made: “Buy this product, and you will receive this specific benefit.”
  2. The proposition must be unique and offer a benefit that competitors currently do not offer, cannot offer or will not offer.
  3. The proposition has the ability to attract new customers.


This is the first thing to think about when developing your brand—your USP. Of course, it’s always easier to understand a USP (and thereby make one for your own business) after studying a few examples of perfect USPs… so here are some oldies, but goodies. In fact, they’re so good, I probably don’t even have to tell you what the product is. They’re branded on your memory (excuse the pun).

You’ll likely notice that these famous USPs are really promises. Nyquil promises to help you sleep when you are suffering a cold. The candy coated M&M promises it won’t melt all over you before you eat it, and FedEx promises overnight delivery.

Begin with the Customer

These aren’t just gimmicks. They reflect a real understanding of the customer’s wants and needs, which means that the first step in creating your USP is to know your customers.

If you’re not sure why your customers came to you, do what any big advertising firm would do—ask! And while you’re at it, ask them what they think you can do better, what they like about your product and service and what they find unique about you. You may be surprised at the amount of insight your clients can provide.

M&Ms did exactly this kind of research coming up with its USP. The candy was introduced during WWII and became very popular with GIs because the candy coating prevented the chocolate from melting in their pockets and making a mess. Though it took some research by advertising firm Ted Bates & Company to find this unique selling point, they did. More than fifty years later, it remains one of the most recognized USPs in advertising history..

Your Promise

The next question to ask is: What problem do you solve? What’s your promise? Notice that M&M’s doesn’t say anything about fulfilling your candy craving. Instead, M&M’s promises neatness and perhaps a touch of mystery (why doesn’t the chocolate melt in your hand, but only in your mouth?). M&Ms makes a promise that its competitors aren’t making.

Make sure the problem you’re addressing is unique to your business and specific to your customers.


Now ask: What are the biggest benefits of your product or service?

Don’t be lazy here—lowest price and best quality aren’t powerful and won’t lead you to the perfect USP. If you don’t believe it, think about any time you’ve been shopping. You’re looking for the best thing for your needs. You don’t automatically go for the cheapest or the highest quality.

As Alyssa Gregory, founder of Small Business Bonfire, explains, “Thinking from the clients’ perspective, these benefits should explain why your services are important to them and why they would choose you over another provider.”

If you’re not sure, then research. Know your competition inside and out. What do they offer? What are their prices? What are their delivery methods? How long have they been in business? How is your business different from theirs?

Testing your USP

You may notice at this point that you have a lot of words on your scratch pad. You’ve got some benefits and promises. You’re working on differentiating yourself from competitors by promising something unique and specific. Now is the time to be critical. Gather some trusted clients and test your rough USPs for believability and power, or as Roy Furr, president of Fresh Look, puts it—‘Bullshit’ and ‘So What?’

So What?’” according to Furr, “means your attempt at differentiation doesn’t matter to your prospect.” It fails to speak to your customers’ wants and needs and/or fails to really differentiate you from your competition.

A prospect calling “Bullshit” on your USP is an indication of the use of generic promises like “better quality,” or “better service.” These phrases are used so frequently in advertising, they hardly mean anything anymore—even if they may actually be true for you.

“You need to be specific about your advantage if you want to be believable,” says Furr. “List specific reasons why your quality or service is better, or why you are the leader.”


Perhaps most importantly, be patient. A perfect USP takes time. It’s not an easy thing to sum up what you do, differentiate your business and make unique promises in one tiny, memorable phrase. But the value it adds to your brand is well worth the effort.