If you’re in marketing, you’ve probably heard the phrase unique selling proposition (USP), even if it was 20 years ago in marketing 1001. The term was coined by Rosser Reeves in the 1950s and was the focus of his 1961 book Reality in Advertising. In addition to looking like he’s straight out of Mad Men, Reeves was also the brother-in-law of David Ogilvy. He had a successful career, penning lines that still stand today, and by the end he was Chairman of the agency he founded, at that time the largest agency in New York. In his day Reeves and his USP approach held a great deal of influence, however today it does not hold the same place in marketing.
Reeves completely discounted the viewpoints of Symbols for Sale, and did not believe creative executions and brands with intangible consumer value could drive business results for clients. Rather he believed in identifying one way in which a product outperformed and directly communicating that to consumers. He defined the USP as:
- Unique: Something that competitors cannot offer
- Selling: It must directly sell, not just create brand affinity
- Proposition: It must be put to the consumer directly as a deal. But this product, get this benefit.
Advertising is the art of getting a unique selling proposition into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost.
– Rosser Reeves, 1961
His approach did produce strong results at the time, and the USP is still used in strategy development prior to adding on the brand and creative layers of the go to market strategy. But the value of most consumer brands is now derived from brand affinity and preference, rather than this rational approach of a cost/benefit.
Reeves also put a strong focus on proving his value to his clients, something that is still important today, if perhaps much more complex. He coined the terms Penetration and Usage Pull, which are simply ad recall and ad effectiveness. These measures are still in use today, and agencies also haven’t stopped trying to rebrand common measures as proprietary metrics!
Over 50 years later, the USP still holds up as a part of product and strategy development. But successful campaigns must incorporate the insights put forward in Symbols for Sale. Consumer decision is much more emotional than rational, and creativity and brand matters.
Next we’ll look at the JWT planning guide and see how it holds up 50 years later.