The USP (Unique Selling Proposition) And Rosser Reeves

by Paul Simister on March 15, 2011

I’m sure you’ve heard that your business needs a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) because the idea is banded around by most marketing consultants and coaches.

Unfortunately the meaning of USP tends to change depending on who you listen to although the point about differentiating your business and your offer from competitors is consistent.

The Origins Of The USP

Do you know where the term originally comes from?

It was developed by advertising agency Ted Bates & Company and promoted in a book…

Reality in Advertising,” by Rosser Reeves published on March 12th, 1961. (Read my review of Reality In Advertising)

Rosser Reeves was the CEO of Ted Bates.

Rosser Reeves & the USP

Realityy In Advertising; The Classic Book On the USP

That’s right the concept of a USP is now 50 years old.

The Rosser Reeves Rules For An Effective USP

Rosser Reeves identified three rules for a USP:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer.
  2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer.
  3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions.

Are The Rosser Reeves USP Ideas Still Applied?

It’s a good idea to look at a few advertisements and marketing pieces – newspaper, TV, direct mail and websites – and see whether they make an impact on you as a potential customer and whether they follow Rosser Reeves rules.

Is there a proposition? Does the marketing say the equivalent of “if you give me your money and buy this product or service, then this is what you get back in terms of benefits?”

Tombstone Advertising Doesn’t Work Because It Ignores The Rosser Reeves USP Ideas

Often I think you’ll see or hear advertising which makes no offer or proposition. It’s just says – “this is our name and this is what we do.” Some marketers call this wasteful marketing which lacks an offer, “tombstone advertising”.

To avoid picking on anyone, I’d better use me as an example.

My tombstone advertisement would read

Paul Simister,

Business Coach,


So What?

Does the promise include something unique?

If you just promote generic benefits, the potential customer has no idea why he or she should buy from you rather than one of the ten of competitors. In fact he may be so confused, he can’t make a choice and will either withdraw from making a buying decision or will pick one or two potential suppliers at random. See Yellow Pages Bingo.

Is the proposition strong enough to move the masses?

Either the proposition attracts, repels or leaves potential customers indifferent. It’s that last one that is the big problem – bland, boring promotional messages which leave the reader thinking “so what?” even when they have given their full attention to the offer.

Using Your USP Effectively

Your USP should become a constant theme in your promotions as it establishes a clear positioning in the minds of your prospective customers. All marketing messages get stronger through repetition and a short USP can stick in the memory so that when the need arises, your name is that one that springs to mind.

The Abuse Of the USP

The USP is an important concept but it’s also abused. I thought it was ironical that when I was reading Reality In Advertising, Rosser Reeves said that even back in 1961, the concept was not being applied well.

Your USP is “Why you should buy from me” which is put into your marketing but too often the USP is seen as a small part of marketing.

This is nonsense and leads to what I call shallow differentiation.

It’s something that looks good and sounds good but in the end probably means nothing.

What you need is deep differentiation.

And that’s the big idea of the business which drives everything in it and all the decisions.

Differentiation and the USP shouldn’t be something you bolt on after you’ve built the business, recruited the staff and designed all the systems and processes just because you’ve realised you need a nifty little phrase to use in your marketing.

Decide On Your Differentiate Strategy And Then Craft Your USP

Instead, if you do it properly, how you decide to differentiate your business should be the driving force for everything else. If you want fun to be an important part of your core business identity, then you should go out and recruit people who are funny, happy and smile a lot. Otherwise you’ll find yourself having to keep telling your staff to smile, laugh and joke and it will feel forced.

Or if speed and short lead times are an important part of your differentiation and USP, then you design it into your systems and processes. It becomes a critical part of your choice of suppliers. The need to be quick consistently is the basis for the decisions you make.

Writing your USP isn’t a small part of your marketing which can be left to your marketing director or even your marketing agency or a copy writer. Not if it is going to be authentic.

Everything You Do Should Reinforce Your USP

It is your business and should be understood by your customers, your employees and your suppliers. Everything done in the business should reinforce your USP.

If not, you reduce the USP down to the level of a marketing trick designed to manipulate customers.

What Do You Think Of The USP Concept?

I’d like to know what you think.

Was Rosser Reeves right to emphasise the importance of the USP?

Paul Simister is a differentiation coach who helps small business owners to profit from differentiating their businesses, being distinctive in the eyes of their customers and standing out in a crowded marketplace.

You too can move past your profit tipping point by answering the seven big questions of business success.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

potens001 April 14, 2012 at 3:02 am

I like your proposition that one requires their USP to be deep, not bolted on or an after effect. It should represent what the value proposition of the firm is to the client. The value transaction is that I trade something of superior value to you for something of superior value to me; on both accounts the cost to each party is lower than the expected return. This is quite unlike what Aristotle and Marx suggested – that market exchanges are transactions of equal value. The resolution to this was offered by Mises: human action would not get underway in a world of equal values.

Consumer: according to subjective value theory in Austrian economics, applied to marketing, when I offer you a good or service, that should provide you greater value than your pecuniary cost: you receive marginal greater value than you expend. Thus the marginal value of the service or good received provides greater value than the monetary (or marginal) cost for the item. The difference is psychic profit, which is intangible or abstract, but to you well worth the cost (in dollars, pounds, euros, etc.).

Producer: the same is true for a business: the marginal value of the revenue received is greater than the marginal cost; the difference is profit. In this case, though the profit is visible and tangible, represented as money, it is still really abstract because we value money only because of its future exchange value (not because of its present value in use).

One has to read Rosser again and again, until the notion of a USP sinks in. It is the USP that says to a client *my* (i.e. unique) *proposition* (i.e. tangible or abstract good or service) will provide you with value greater than the cost to you (so that one of your needs, wants or requirements will be sated or satisfied.) For example, do you have a need to same time in communicating with others? One solution is to buy a computer with internet access, for emailing. Which do you buy? You will probably choose one, a brand or provider that you are aware of, that answers all of your needs, such as ease of use, low cost, maximum features and addresses all of the concerns you have in order to solve your problem – of communicating with others. The PC market is now one of the most mature, with competing providers offer ever greater levels of technology at a lower cost. And this is even more illustrative of the need for a firm to present their USP in the best possible way.

Rosser’s book is quite a focused presentation of the concept, and well worth the read. I found a copy on a used bookshelf in Brisbane for $9! I was about to pass on buying it, except that, due to my early dabbling with direct response marketing, I realised it must be something important. So I bought it. The cheapest one on Amazon at present is USD59.95 (April 14, 2012).


Paul Simister April 14, 2012 at 6:15 am

Thanks for your very detailed comment.

This “greater value” concept can be a big mind-shift changer because it means you have to look at the transaction from both sides.

You’re right the – unique selling point has to communicate the customer value very clearly, quickly and consistently so the buyer can easily understand and appreciate why they should buy.


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