The Origin of the Unique Selling Proposition

The origin of the unique selling proposition

Rosser Reeves (1910–1984) was an ad executive and early pioneer of television advertising. He was committed to making ads that were simple, direct, and often annoying (I can’t swear he was actually committed to being annoying per se, but one wonders).

His most typical ad was probably that for Anacin, a headache medicine. The ad was considered grating by almost all viewers, and yet it was remarkably effective, tripling the product’s sales.

Reeves’ ads were focused on what he called the unique selling proposition (USP): the one reason the product was needed or was better than its competition, often in the form of a memorable slogan.

In his words, “A unique selling proposition is a statement that addresses a specific benefit which cannot be claimed of any other product and which must compel sales.”

Brand messaging is not selling

The origin of classic marketing theory is mass-marketing via radio and television. Even though there are many channels to utilize today, much of what is still taught in business school revolves around these roots and the goal of casting a wide net.

Selling on the other hand, is a two-way dialogue. It begins with deep diagnosis and is consultative based on the needs of an individual customer.

In fact, when we give salespeople a unique selling proposition as their focus, they use it. Disastrously.

Salespeople will dutifully go to customers and repeat it: have PowerPoint, will travel.

If the USP doesn’t convey value to a particular customer, then the conversation with that customer ends. Slogans won’t sell complex solutions.

Next Level Selling

The unique selling proposition was designed to sell very simple, low-cost, consumer products via broad-spectrum advertising.

In selling more complex products and services, we can’t expect the buyer to do the hard work of connecting our solutions to their world. Conceiving a “one-size-fits-all” statement that will compel sales of complex, custom, business-to-business solutions is a pipe dream.

At the next level of selling, we invite dialogue and make the connection.

Marketers can provide invaluable messaging assistance to help sellers make the general connection in particular verticals. But they need to understand what exactly the salesperson is (or should be) trying to do.