The problem with Unique Selling Propositions

For a long time, the world of marketing was very taken with the idea of unique selling propositions. The idea was to find the thing that's unique about you, compared to other people in your market, and position yourself on that.

The term unique selling proposition (USP) was first proposed in the 1940s as a theory to explain why certain advertising campaigns were successful in convincing consumers to switch brands.

An example is M&M’s classic 1954 slogan “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand".

Like a lot of consumer marketing concepts, the Unique Selling Proposition doesn’t translate well into a business-to-business environment. There are four primary reasons for this:

  1. Unique Selling Propositions encourage us to look externally for validation, by comparing ourselves with competitors as the main yardstick of our own value. This is isn’t very helpful, and it also has negative psychological effects.
  2. A Unique Selling Proposition is often very superficial; really just an attention-grabbing slogan, like “melts in your mouth, not in your hand”. This is fine if you’re selling a $2 packet of chocolates, but doesn’t work so well when you’re selling a $2m IT system or $200m construction program.
  3. Business development in business-to-business markets is way more complex than simply “selling”. The purpose of business development is to create value that customers can buy, and selling is just the transactional bit that follows on from that. 
  4. Finally, just because something is unique, doesn’t make it valuable. The world is full of unique things that no one bought, like Jell-O for salads, toaster bacon, and blue French fries. (All real products that tested well with consumers, but tanked horribly when they made it into retail stores.)

Last week, I looked at how the sales environment is changing due to the effects of market disruption.

In this new sales environment, you can forget about unique selling propositions. What you need to find is your commercial value proposition; the connection between what you know and can do, and what makes commercial sense for your customers to buy.

Robyn Haydon is a business development consultant specialising in business that is won through competitive bids and tenders. Her clients have won and retained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business with many of Australia’s largest corporate and government buyers.

Is it time to pimp your proposals? Stop wasting time and money on proposals that go nowhere. The Pimp My Proposals program will give you the feedback, content and structure you need to build compelling proposals that win business. Learn what you’re doing wrong, and how to fix it. Email info@robynhaydon.com or call 03 9557 4585 to find out more.