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USP: Are you only five minutes ahead of your competitor?

Mark Beard - Thursday, June 03, 2010

USP: Are you only five minutes ahead of your competitor?

The term unique selling proposition (USP) is colloquialism created by advertisers to describe the process of finding (or creating) either a tangible or intangible benefits unique to a particular brand or business.

It’s popularity amongst marketers is understandable given the individualistic nature of democratic economies in which the term emerged and flourished. If we are individuals, why then should products not be individual? It seems only natural that for a product to succeed in must be different?

USP is also consistent with the idea of market positioning – a concept popularized by academics like Phillip Kotler who ascribing that products/services/brands can be created to hold a unique place in the minds’ of consumer relative to competition.

We are led to believe by marketers (and I conceded guilt on my part) that having a USP is a pre-requisite of success, as I myself write:

Differentiation is more than just adding ‘bells and whistles’ to your product, rather it is the process of developing true uniqueness. A unique selling proposition (USP) is a unique feature that establishes your market position. Strong positioning statements require that you establish differences between your products and those of your competitors.
(Beard and O’Hara; 2006, pp.56)

Yet what does it mean to be unique?

Consider this definition:

“…existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics… having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable.”
(http://www.dictionary.com)

Consider this anecdote:

Recently a corporate client of mine (operates successfully in a hyper-competitive price-based service industry) asked… “What do you think our USP is?”

I responded by saying… “whatever your USP is… it’s only 5 minutes ahead of your competitors”.

At play of course are deep philosophical question as to what it means to be unique, yet the “truism” of USP is so ingrained in marketing thought that rarely is it questioned – it is simply assumed to be true.

Marketers believe that if we apply USP, greater economic reward will follow. In the case of my client, after studying the “USPs” of several of their key competitors we found little difference between any of them. Success it seems relates to the personality of the customer-facing elements of that business, not in transient, easily copied and price-discounted “features”.

A post-USP world?

Differentiation and market segmentation – phenomena that underpin the idea of USP evolved as means of exacting rents from markets. Meaning, that either by adding utility or perceived value to a product one could charge a higher price for it. While normative for modern consumer, this process of differentiation was not always seen as fair.

In agricultural and commodity markets that dominated simpilier (past) ecomomies it is/was not easy to convince people to pay higher prices for greater perceived value, moreover, it is also seen as unfair. Classical economists were keen on the term “exacting rents” because it intrinsically denotes unfairness.

USP is the first casualty in the battle of web-based marketing supremacy

Every market in today’s global economy is awash with competitors who claim to be unique. Search any term in Google and watch as a plethora of competitors offering products and services with little or no discernable difference will attempt to get your click. 

So how to attract customer/fans/patrons?

First of all, if you are looking for the answer, I don’t have it. All I can do is assist in helping you ask questions.

Importantly, prescriptive approaches and checklists of marketing success are oxy-moronic. If marketing phenomena were scientifically provable then everyone would have the same advantage, and thus no advantage at all.

Consider the thoughts of Kapferer

When products were rare, the USP (unique selling proposition) was the key concept. As we leave behind brand image, positioning and personality behind we enter the modern age of brand identity. (Kapferer; 2004, pp.106):

So perhaps look to brand identity, which is seen to mirror human identity by combining personality traits and cultural phenomena as a source of uniqueness.

Your uniqueness as an artist cannot  be “only 5 minutes ahead your competitor” since no two people nor artist are alike.


References:

Beard, M & O’Hara, B. “Music Marketing, PR & Image Making”, Music Sales, 2006

Kapferer, J. “The New Strategic Brand Management”, Kogan-Page, London, 2004.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unique


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