In this final entry in the series I’m going to close out by looking at the pay-off, the crescendo, the exclamation mark at the end of the positioning statement – the USP or unique selling proposition.
But first, and for one last time, let’s take a look at this element in the context of the complete positioning statement.
FOR [the ideal customer] WHO [has this specific pain or problem] OUR [product name] IS A[product category] THAT PROVIDES [this main benefit and reason to buy] UNLIKE[the primary alternative or competitor] OUR PRODUCT [has this unique selling proposition].
USP is one of those over-used terms that has found friends at all levels of responsibility throughout sales and marketing organisations. I’ve heard everyone from line of business managers, to sales people to CEOs use this term. Everyone feels they have a handle on it and over time the term has come to generically mean “differentiator”. Whilst I’m in favour of strategic marketing concepts finding friends throughout an organisation, there is a considerable amount of subtlety and craft missing from the “common” understanding of the USP. So let’s start with some definitions and perhaps a little bit of history.
Rosser Reeves – what a great name. He sounds like he should have been some shady 1940s London underworld gangster. But he wasn’t. Instead he was an advertising man, one of the first in fact and it was he who brought us the concept of the unique selling proposition. For him, its use and definition were rooted in (print) advertising and as such the formal definition assumes that the USP is being used in some form of promotional campaign. There was also an implied assumption that we were dealing with business-to-consumer advertising too. Since then we’ve broadened the definition to think of it as any general proposition made via any medium (adverts, web site, emails, phone calls, face-to-face conversations, etc.) whether that be business-to-business or business-to-consumer based. Whilst the use of the USP may have changed, the disciplines and thought processes used in its creation are still valid today.
The definition below is taken from the book Differentiate or Die (survival in our era of killer competition) by Jack Trout and Steve Rivkin. In this book the authors refer to Rosser Reeves’ 1961 work Reality in Advertising from which they quote Reeves’ three-part USP definition:
- Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”
- The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique – either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.
- The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions (i.e. to pull over new customers to your product).
As I mentioned above, whilst many of these disciplines are still valid, there is now so much competition in just about every market category, segment and sub-segment that being “unique” is increasingly more difficult. So it’s no surprise that many of the USPs I see when reverse-engineering vendor’s positioning statements are often just SPs – with little or nothing unique about them.
When looking at the USP in the context of the positioning statement its important to remember that the “OUR PRODUCT” positioning element is typically paired with the “UNLIKE” section. The UNLIKE element sets up the main alternative and the OUR PRODUCT element describes the USP that the alternative doesn’t have.
As shown below:
UNLIKE [the primary alternative or competitor] OUR PRODUCT [has this unique selling proposition]
The biggest challenge in defining this element of the positioning statement is in defining that unique space (number 2 on Rosser Reeves’ list above). With product categories, segments and sub-segments so granular across many markets and with ultra competitive competitors competing within each of those segments, finding a position that only you can own is not the work of a moment. In addition its important to remember that we’re not just trying to find a unique space, but a unique space that has compelling value to the consumer/customer as outlined in Reeves’ point 1 above.
In reality what tends to happen (in my experience of the infrastructure software space) is that the first entrant to the market (first mover) aims for something unique which is then “flatteringly” copied by later entrants to the market. To later entrants this makes sense as they want to have some of the pie of the first movers and are happy to trade uniqueness for being perceived as similar to the market leaders. Understandably it makes sense to “look” like the first mover. This tends to lead to what I call “standards-based marketing” and simply creates a homogeneity of messages and propositions amongst the market protagonists. This leads to little real differentiation and leaves prospects studying highly technical features to really understand the differences between products.
- OUR PRODUCT removes up to 20% of data centre costs whilst reducing your carbon footprint
- OUR PRODUCT starts reducing risk from day one.
- OUR PRODUCT not only integrates with your existing systems but also provides comprehensive management capabilities
- OUR PRODUCT ends world hunger (Well maybe not – but you get the idea)
Real world example
(If you have a specific interest in the SOA and ESB market you might find this section interesting…) In our latest REPAMA Segment Analysis Study we looked at how a number of ESB vendors approach the market. The vendors and products studied included Oracle’s Service Bus, Progress Software’s Sonic ESB, TIBCO’s ActiveMatrix Service Bus and Microsoft’s ESB Guidance. Reverse engineering these vendors’ positioning statements gave some interesting insights and as an example I’ve listed Microsoft’s USP section below:
OUR PRODUCT provides a superset of ESB functionality, extending the ESB pattern to include modelling and execution of business rules, workflow, and adapter integration.
Here Microsoft selects a pretty strong USP. They claim that UNLIKE other ESBs they provide extended functionality. Whilst other ESBs may legitimately say that they also offer extended functionality, these vendors may not actually be making that claim. So this certainly passes Rosser Reeves’ test above.
The basis for this claimed USP is that their ESB Guidance is underpinned by their BizTalk product – which features broader functionality than other “simple” ESBs. I think this is a pretty well constructed USP – despite the fact that the rest of Microsoft’s marketing for the ESB Guidance is pretty poor. Perhaps this is a function of the non-product nature of ESB Guidance.
In summary when defining the OUR PRODUCT element we’re looking to communicate a specific benefit that will be delivered that none of the competitors or alternatives is able to offer, all of this couched in language that compels the prospect to take action.
So that’s it for the OUR PRODUCT element and for the positioning statement series too. <More information can be found in the Lustratus REPAMA Guide here>
It should be borne in mind that Lustratus’ focus is on the high-tech software industry and whilst positioning as a concept will transfer to just about any business to business industry, many of the classifications we use assume that we’re dealing with a technical audience for infrastructure software. So please bear that in mind for your own industry.