Hand grenade in the marketing foxhole

I belong to a couple of paid forums for marketers and copywriters.

There’s this one topic that seems to set everyone off. It’s weird, because this concept is covered in almost every course or book on direct marketing, and it’s one most of the “gurus” seem to agree on.

But bring this up in the forums and it’s like you’re pulling the pins from a fistful of grenades and lobbing them into everyone’s basement office.

What’s the concept?

It’s the “USP,” which usually stands for unique selling proposition. (Some top copywriters teach a slightly different version—more on that in a minute.)

It’s kinda funny watching smart, level-headed consultants lose their cool and start spouting off on this one.

The loudest voices are always the “USP deniers.”

They’ll whine that the whole USP idea is snake oil. That you don’t really need one, and trying to craft a USP is a complete waste of time.

Besides, it’s haaaaaard. And nobody ever succeeds at coming up with a real USP.

(For proof of this, they’ll sometimes point out that everyone who asks about USP on the forum fails to come up with one. Nevermind that whenever someone asks for help, the USP deniers come out of the woodwork to tell them what a waste of time the whole thing is… See the vicious cycle there?)

From what I’ve seen, a big part of the controversy is that there’s disagreement over what a USP actually is.

In many cases, people are trying to write a pithy slogan that encapsulates their business and sets it apart from the competition.

The textbook example that you’ll often see cited is Dominoes Pizza, which built a small empire on this USP:

“Fresh hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less or it’s free.”

There’s a huge problem in aping their approach though:

Dominos had a very simple business. Their customers all pretty much wanted the same thing—pizza. Maybe they wanted a bottle of Coke and some breadsticks too, but it’s still pretty straightforward.

Many businesses are much more complicated. They sell a dozen different products to 20 different industries. They’re consultants who tailor their offerings to a client’s specific needs.

In these cases, coming up with a single slogan that can sell all of your different offerings across your entire customer base is a fools errand.

That’s why direct marketing gurus like Dan Kennedy, John Carlton and Perry Marshall teach a different version of the USP.

“Unique Sales Position”

This version of USP is about narrowing down your focus.

You take the specific needs of ONE slice of your customer base…

And the specific, unique qualities of ONE product or service you sell…

And then combine them into a gutsy promise—usually involving a guarantee of some kind.

With a good USP, you can carve out a brand new niche for your business where you’re automatically #1—because there’s literally no one else to compare you to.

Quick example:

Marketing consultant David Rothwell did a lot of AdWords work for his clients—nothing unusual there. Then he realized that most of his clients were ecommerce businesses. Ecommerce presents a different set of challenges that most other AdWords consultants weren’t equipped to solve.

He shifted his consulting practice and respositioned himself as The AdWords Guy for Ecommerce. Instead of being just another AdWords consultant, he was now the world’s leading expert in his new niche. His business has exploded as a result.

Yes, it’s difficult to come up with a USP like this.

It’s going to take time, thought, and (gasp) hard work.

But when you get it right, you’ll watch the rest of your marketing snap to attention.