The Death of the USP?

No Competitive Advantage

Is a USP as big a deal as it was?  (Photo credit: Search Engine People Blog)

There was a great post on Mark Schaefer’s {Grow} blog the other day and it really set me to thinking. Entitled ‘The One Core Secret to Social Media Success’ Mark says in order to win in the social media space you need to know where you are going to get your rich content from.

This led us into a brief exchange on the value of the USP (unique selling point / proposition) or competitive advantage. I really don’t think enough people spend enough time looking at this area of their business. What you have to offer, and how that is different to everyone else is paramount.

Where it all started

Traditionally, businesses were advised to be either cheapest or different. This often manifests are cheap or luxury, or cheap or rare. What you can’t afford to be, and this is to be avoided at all costs, is somewhere in between.

Example: Aldi is a ‘cheap’ supermarket. They own ‘cheap’. Consequently, they win when people are looking for ‘cheap’ food for the family. Apple on the other hand, own ‘innovation’ and coolness’ positions that are actually enhanced by the fact their products are priced at the top end of the scale.

‘Cheap’ Apple products would ruin the cachet. In the same way that if Aldi chose to drive their image up market, it would ruin their winning position also.

There are any number of businesses ‘in the middle’. As someone that runs a media operation, I probably shouldn’t complain, as this typically results in a business needing to ‘buy’ its way into share. The louder a company shouts, the more it stands out, and the more people will buy from it.

Sometimes that ‘volume’ is the USP in itself.

The race for the Middle

There are plenty of businesses that have seen the ‘middle’ as the safest place and a sensible compromise. BMW for instance. They’ve always been positioned as a leading sports car manufacturer. The Perfect Driving machine!

Is that the case now? They sell lots of cars to be sure. And cars seemingly that meet every type of customer need. But what has that done to the brand? Its no longer seen as a sports marque. Maybe they have successfully re branded as something else, but I think its limited their ability to move top end product.

Who would buy a £90K plus BWM M6 sports coupe, when you could by a Porsche 911 Carrera 2 for the same money? (Sorry, no more about cars!)

Porsche 911 Carrera S

A gratuitious car pic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, its a difficult tightrope to walk. A lot of my work with my clients in this area is about picking one end of the spectrum and sticking to it. With one caveat. If you are going to be the cheapest, you’d better be the cost leader too.

This isn’t about winning in any way other than in winning people minds. Winning the battle for position. Owning the ‘quality’ position or the cheap position or whatever is appropriate in the mind of your customer.

All Change

But then along came the internet – the great disruptor!

What position do Amazon own? Probably the position that they are the place to go for the cheapest stuff, buts its more complicated than that, they’ve carved out a position as a price comparison site in a way – but even for more top end products too.

Its now a regular thing to see someone stood in a retail store on their smart phone checking the prices of goods on Amazon or eBay or whatever. Amazons position is that they have ‘everything’ in stock (or can get it) and its the cheapest you’ll get it – what does that do to everyone else? Even the manufacture?

But its not only Amazon, people’s normal reaction is to ‘Google’ stuff when they want to buy things. They’ll do it from an  ‘information search’ and peer review perspective or for a simple price comparison. There is no where to hide any more.

Is there another way? 

But what about the question of trust?

A simple blogging platform can position you, or your company as the most trusted in your field. This is especially valuable for B2B marketers, who intuitively understand there is an element of the market that will pay a premium for trust.

Trust in terms of your ethical stand point with respect to your investments or suppliers or trust that you will simply do the job you are being paid to do.

Or from a customer service point of view, you might trust a company on the basis of its interactions with its clients on Facebook or Twitter. Trust that it genuinely values you and your business and puts you, its customers before profit.

Your website, its podcasted testimonials or video instructions or the customer forum where you’ll find honest and open community sourced answers to FAQ‘s. This content will position you as the people to go to for genuinely unbiased advice.

That’s both an incredibly powerful position to have, and an extraordinarily difficult one to achieve.

But the internet, and the social web particularly, is what makes this possible. And maybe, just maybe, being the cheapest, or the best, or being different in some other way isn’t enough any more.

Maybe you can be exactly the same as every other widget manufacturer in the market, but demonstrate that you are the most open and honest of the lot. If you have taken customer service to such a personal level you may genuinely be able to leverage a premium for it.

Have some personal accountability 

Whatever, you have to get yourself into this mode of thinking. Its not enough to drift along, or wait for others to fail so that you can succeed in their place. You have to be more present than that .

Take responsibility for your position and even your personal position and more importantly today, take responsibility for the conversations you have with your customers to convince them of your position.

Take responsibility for your success and the success of your business, don’t just leave it up to dumb chance.

Leave a comment on below, or email me directly on [email protected] I’d love to hear what you think!

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8 replies
  1. Lauren @ AchieveIt
    Lauren @ AchieveIt says:

    I agree people need to take more responsibility for their actions, but first they need to have a clear idea of where they are going and what they want to accomplish. Sometimes people dive in and can’t see “the forest for the trees”.

  2. Mike Bersin
    Mike Bersin says:

    A well argued and thought out position as ever, Tony, and a joy to read. I wonder how much it’s a question of emphasis? Many products or businesses; 90% of beers, most mobile phone SPs, the majority of mid-range cars, have no USP at all. So the creative has to make that difference in the mind by making the product or service attractive and desirable in a style appropriate to the target market. The internet brings additional ways to establish and build that brand “personality”?

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      I’d agree Mike and I think that’s largely been an issue for local and regional advertisers that haven’t been able to buy lots of volume of media, and who have firmly inhabited the middle ground: The creative has to do all the work.
      A brilliantly creative ad that contains a powerful USP is a thing of beauty! A brilliant creative ad without one, a wasted opportunity

  3. Colin Kelly
    Colin Kelly says:

    great blog Tony. You mentioned Amazon and the position it occupies. For me, more than the products, Amazon holds the position as ‘best delivery company’. I know, whatever I buy, it’ll come much sooner than they tell me it will, which is probably quite soon anyway. And they’ve never TOLD me they’re the best delivery company, they’ve just proved it time after time after time, every time they deliver something to me.

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