Forget USP. Perhaps what your brand really needs is a unique perspective

Unique brand perspective

When Rosser Reeves first proposed the Unique Selling Proposition many decades ago now, the world was a very different place. Products still had the potential to actually be different, advertising was largely confined to mainstream channels and brands were, for the most part, identifiers. But with the evolution of best-practice manufacturing, the fragmentation of channels and the increasing development of brands as monikers for consumer lifestyle, I can’t help wondering whether the USP is now redundant.

Clearly I’m not the only person whose had thoughts along these lines. In this lengthy and detailed post, Paul Simister summarises and evaluates the arguments he’s seen advanced by others to replace the USP. Among the suggestions:

  • A short statement to differentiate your business based on what you stand against.
  • USPs don’t exist in markets where the businesses are more interested in copying each other than in being different.
  • Create a Unique Story Proposition that focuses on what matters to the customer and what matters to you

Nothing is different for long

Ironically as the performance pressures on CMOs mount, the onus to achieve differentiation, given the evolution of market dynamics and economics, has never been greater … or harder. I think though that we must now assume that any product that shows any level of distinction will in time be caught, matched and even surpassed by its rivals. So the future doesn’t lie in fashioning competitor-proof products. Nor does it lie in fashioning slogans that capture people’s imagination. It seems to me that too many people are trying to evolve an outdated formula to a landscape that bears no resemblance to the context within which it was fashioned.

For the most part, consumers don’t want to be sold to anymore. So it’s not a Selling Proposition that they’re interested in anyway (was it ever?). Yes, they still want to buy and, increasingly, they assume excellence and upgrades. In a social environment, though, where quality from the middle market up at least can be considered largely a given, consumers want to be excited and involved. They want a say in what happens next. They want the brands they are aligned with to align with their values and their hopes for the world.

Building brands around viewpoints

In response, brands need to fashion their products round their viewpoints rather than looking to drive preference around their features. And that’s led me to wonder whether, as strategists, our goal is no longer to position brands in relation to function but rather to platform brands as promoters of a worldview, even a world change. In essence, to ditch the Unique Selling Proposition in favour of the Unique Brand Perspective – an outlook on the world, and a hope for the future, that drives everything the brand does.

In a recent interview, Unilever CMO Keith Weed spelt out the frustrations he has had with the way things have been traditionally organised: “the real tension you have in companies is when marketing is in one silo, identifying what consumers need and driving demand, while sustainability is in another trying to reduce environmental impact, while Corporate Social Responsibility is in another working on the company’s social contribution while communications is telling its own, possibly different, story. In a connected world, this kind of internal disconnection is a hindrance not a help … Instead, we wanted CSR to be an integral part of our business, embedded in everything we do, and so activities formerly isolated within CSR became strategic initiatives directed toward nutrition, water, hygiene, health and self-esteem.”

Unilever’s decision to combine oversight of marketing and sustainability doesn’t just speak to a new construct for sustainable growth it seems to me. It also points to a broadening of the competitive context – a call to judge brands on what they aspire to for others as much as what they aspire to for themselves.

A different kind of dialogue

The temptation is to frame this as purely philanthropic. Some, for example, might see this as the next iteration of CSR. You could also argue it’s where purpose needs to go next – from being about what the company wants to achieve in the world to becoming what can be achieved in the world through the company.

The Unique Brand Perspective idea sets up a common narrative between consumers and brands on the future both want

That’s good. But it doesn’t have to be that. Intel have fashioned their business on a unique perspective – Moore’s Law. It continues to drive everything about how Intel works. What I like about the Unique Brand Perspective idea is that it sets up a common narrative between consumers and brands on the future. It doesn’t just ask the parties to imagine, or even to agree – it asks them to pursue not just true north but world north. A world “we” (the brand, the company, the workforce and its whole community of stakeholders) agree with and are agreed on.

It’s certainly worked for Intel. As Joel Hruska observed, “It’s important to realize, I think, just how odd semiconductor scaling has been compared to everything else in human history. People often talk about Moore’s law as if it’s the semiconductor equivalent of gravity, but in reality, nothing else we’ve ever discovered has scaled like semiconductor design … we’ve never built a structure that’s thousands of times smaller, thousands of times faster, and thousands of times more power efficient, at the same time, within a handful of decades.”

When you buy Intel, you buy into a world that will go faster. Every purchase becomes a step in that direction globally. More than a donation. Not just a contribution. An investment. And that’s what brands need to be asking their consumers I believe – not what do you want to buy, but what do you want to invest in? What do we all want to see move forward? Maybe that’s the question that links strategy and execution. Maybe that helps answer Tom Asacker’s call for a ‘how’ to match the ‘why’.

How to fashion a Unique Brand Perspective

Here’s eight questions that could help your brand fashion a Unique Brand Perspective.

  1. What do you want to see change across the world? (not just what do you want to put money into changing?)
  2. Why is it in your business to care? (i.e. where’s the alignment and what level of empowerment do you have as a brand to deliver difference)
  3. What part will you play in that change (beyond sponsorship or inclusion in your CSR programme)?
  4. What part will your customers play? (To reference a New Zealand parlance – how will they help the boat go faster?)
  5. What’s the business case for such change? (How will you make money through championing this change?)
  6. What are your talking points on that change?
  7. How do you report on the change you are making in the world as well as in the market?
  8. Whose thinking adds credence and perspective to your viewpoints?

Acknowledgements
Photo of “Look up” taken by Kevin Dinkel, sourced from Flickr

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