A History of the Unique Selling Proposition

With your competition literally a click away, higlighting a unique benefit of your product or service can make a big difference.

The idea of a unique selling proposition (USP) has probably existed since prehistory. A spear maker surely sold the “only weapon that wouldn’t break after piercing a mammoth.”

Dove Soap - Unique Selling Proposition

Nowadays, some experts contend the unique selling proposition died, replaced by a unique unique spiritual proposition or unique story proposition.

These seem like an evolution of the original USP rather than its bell toll, though.

Let’s take a look at some highlights from the history of the USP.

1882 – Ivory Soap – 99 and 44/100% pure

After independent chemists compared Ivory soap with top-notch castile soaps, they concluded that nearly all of Ivory’s ingredients were pure. Harley Proctor, son of Procter & Gamble co-founder William Procter, decided to advertise around the soap’s pureness.

1891 – Ivory Soap – It floats

Often rumored to have developed from employee error, James Gamble, son of company co-founder James Gamble, developed floating soap in 1863. It took 28 years for the company to market the soap to customers who had tired of hunting for soap in murky water.

Lucky Strike - Unique Selling Proposition1917 – Lucky Strike – It’s toasted

Though Don Draper of “Mad Men” tries to take the credit, Lucky Strike started differentiating its brand by calling it toasted. Toasted as a unique selling proposition started when an advertising executive walked near the Lucky Strike factory and smelled tobacco cooking.

1920s – Schlitz – Water purification

Schlitz vaulted from fifth in market share to a tie for first by highlighting its water purification process. Though purifying water wasn’t unique to Schlitz, no one had taken that angle when telling their brewery’s story.

1929 – Cremo Cigars – Spit is a horrid word

Attempting to sell its machine-made cigars, Cremo hired the Lucky Strike ad team who found a unique angle. An ad showed a cigar maker licking a cigar with the line, “Spit is a horrid word, but it’s worse if on the end of your cigar.” Cremo owned the five-cent cigar market within 12 years.

1954 – M&Ms – Melts in your mouth, not in your hand

Rosser Reeves coined the term unique selling proposition and created a slogan for M&Ms still known today. Rosser said brands could attract customers by offering a strong, specific benefit that a competitor does not offer.

1960s – Shell – Platformate

To demonstrate the role that platformate played in gas mileage, Shell showed to identical cars driving in the desert. The car with platformate gas traveled farther. Shell didn’t say that all gasoline at the time contained platformate, and taking it out required much effort.

Avis - Unique Selling Proposition

Avis updated its USP after its success.

1962 – Avis – We’re number 2!

Avis embraced being an underdog. “When you’re only number two, you try harder. Or else.” Avis went from losing $3.2 million to making $1.2 million in 12 months and within years narrowed the market share gap between itself and Hertz to 49-36.

1986 – Dominos – Fresh pizza fast

If you ordered from Domino’s and didn’t get pizza within 30 minutes, it was free. That unique selling proposition separated it from the competition, but it didn’t work forever. After a Domino’s delivery driver got into an accident, the company discontinued the guarantee.

1990s – Pampers – Driest diaper

Unique selling propositions can go wrong. Pampers long claimed to have the driest diaper and poured money into keeping it that way, but eventually the market shifted. The Huggies brand won for a time by making an emotional appeal.

2000s – Zappos – Being nice

If you want to buy shoes online, why not go to the most customer friendly site? Zappos prides itself on a generous return policy and the best customer support available. KISSMetrics notes that Zappos doesn’t try to be the nicest AND cheapest store. It specializes because no company can be everything to everyone.

Chipotle Take a Stand2013 – Chipotle – Natural

Chipotle mentions its name only at the end of a three-minute animated video, but its unique selling proposition will make it memorable. In the video, a scarecrow witnesses restaurants pumping meats with hormones. That inspires him to start his own restaurant featuring fresh, natural ingredients.

Enough marketing history. Succeed in the present with Mitch Joel’s webinar!

Image: Stewf, Tau Zero, mag3737 (Creative Commons)

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