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Lead Your Team Strategy

What is a Unique Selling Proposition?

What is a Unique Selling Proposition?
Credit: Ruslan Grumble/Shutterstock

Ask any marketing expert about a unique selling proposition (USP), and they'll tell you it's something that differentiates your product or service from others like it. This is accurate, but understanding and defining a USP for your business can be a pivotal decision: It involves establishing an identity that is part of the bedrock of your company.

USPs can be anything – a unique product feature, a greater company mission, stellar customer service, a brand story. This can make it difficult to define a strong, meaningful concept for your business. At the heart of the USP, however, is creating a core company identity that extends from your product or service. This can create propensity behind your products. It gives what you do an oomph that cannot be constructed or faked, and customers will be drawn to products made with purpose.

"​Your USP is all about what makes you unique in a way that is both relevant and appealing to your target market," said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at the University of Wollongong in Wollongong, Australia, and startup consultant.

Your USP is not necessarily your company's slogan or marketing message, although it can act as this in some scenarios. Instead, a USP is more tangible. It can work as a backbone for your business decisions, processes and overall culture.

FedEx has one of the most recognizable USPs of any company: "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." This quick sentence is not just a surface level promise, but the impetus behind FedEx's overall mission as a company.  

Whether you're starting a new business or looking to shake up an existing product lineup, developing a USP is a crucial step in the lifecycle of your product and business. According to experts, the overall process can be broken down into a few steps: analyzing your competitors, putting yourself in your customers' shoes and brainstorming emotional concepts for your business.

Chrys Tan, founder of Chrys Media, said that analyzing your competitors is a good way to get an idea of the whole market you're operating within.

"Instead of focusing on what products they sell, see what ads they are running or what their marketing messages are," Tan said. "This will help you define what each company's Unique Selling Proposition is and how they distinguish themselves from each other."

By analyzing competitors' ads, you can get an idea of how they want to be perceived. This is a crucial step in understanding a USP and considering where your business fits into the market.

The next step is putting yourself in your customer's shoes and analyzing your product and business. This can be both the most important and most difficult step. Considering what drives and motivates your customers is a good way to start, according to Tan.

"You need to know what your customers really want, and not what you think they will want or will like," Tan said. "Are your existing customers choosing you over your competitors because they like your service, reliability or maybe it is the quality of your product?"

Because this is a difficult thing to do, some experts recommend going a step further by brainstorming new angles to think of your role as a customer. Steve Geick, a senior digital specialist with Metric Digital, advises using this question to get a fresh perspective on who your customers are: Who is the kind of person that, if they had this product and you took it away from them, would feel some sort of pain? This will give you a more informed idea of who you're serving, and provide you with a concrete angle to analyze your own products and business.

"You have to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose life would be improved by your product," Geick said. "This question helps us build out specifically who that person is in terms of their needs and media consumption, what kind of similar brands they're shopping with, and so on. Then we use that to build out the company’s initial audience."

After considering your competitors and your audience, brainstorm different qualities of your company, your intentions and consider how you can espouse one quality to an impactful emotional concept. This bridge is what separates great USPs from company mantras that just aren't compelling.

"The subconscious motivates through emotion, not reason," Geick said. "We have to translate every idea into an emotional concept. And with that empowering story, [businesses] are able to connect to their target at the right time and place, and at the deepest possible level to influence his behavior."

Remember that your USP doesn't necessarily have to center around a product detail, but can encompass a unique aspect about your business has a whole. By playing up this quality to your target market, you can stand out.

As with any marketing concept, it can be easy to get lost in the theory and process of it all. Here are a few real-world examples of USPs to help get your brainstorming started.

  • Avis: "We're number two. We try harder."
  • FedEx Corporation: "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight."
  • Domino's Pizza: "Fresh hot pizza, delivered in 30 minutes or less or it's free."
  • Target: "Expect More. Pay Less."

While business owners won't find traditional templates for writing a USP online, they will find many options that will help walk them through the process of defining their USPs. Sites to visit for help include:

Matt D'Angelo

Matt D'Angelo is a B2B Tech Staff Writer based in New York City. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in Journalism, Matt gained experience as a copy editor and writer for newspapers and various online publications. Matt joined the Purch team in 2017 and covers technology for Business.com and Business News Daily. Follow him on Twitter or email him.