Development of this “central idea,” or what is often called a unique selling proposition, is one of the copywriter’s most difficult tasks, The USP (as it is often abbreviated) originated at the Ted Bates advertising agency in the early 1940s; as its famous originator, author, and agency vice-president, Rosser Reeves, has indicated, however, it has been picked up by hundreds of agencies and has spread from country to country. Unfortunately, it has also become a very misused concept; frequently, it is applied loosely and without understanding to slogans, clever phrases, unusual pictures or sound combinations-in short, to almost anything deemed “different” in copy, layout, or production. We hope our interpretation of the USP will come close to the one intended by Rosser Reeves, but every student of advertising creativity must ultimately develop his or her own.
A USP, Reeves claims, gives leverage to an advertising campaign-that extra tug that pulls consumers over the line of indecision or confusion to specific product preference, and then to brand loyalty. Now consider the three words individually.
“Unique” refers either to a unique feature of the brand itself or to a claim not currently being made by competing brands (even though they could if they so desired!).
It is important to point out that today’s Federal Trade Commission does require substantiation of advertising claims, and may take issue with anything presented as “unique.”
“Selling refers to sales value. The claim-whatever it is-must be strong enough, important enough, relevant enough, believable enough to convince consumers that it is in their own best interests to try the brand in question. Consider vegetable juice again, and suppose that V-8 had been developed by a person named Valdimir Van Vaulkenburg! Unique? Certainly-but the consumer’s reaction will merely be: “So what? Who cares?”
There is no sales value in the name Vladimir Van Vaulkenburg. Even if he represented a well-known company, it is doubtful in this day and age that consumers would buy his juice without some idea of its taste and/or nutritional value. On the other hand, a number of factors motivate consumers today, such as health, convenience, and the desire to care for loved ones; these are the kinds of qualities copywriters should latch onto and develop in the food and beverage line.
“Proposition” refers to a promise: that if the consumer buys a certain product, with the unique feature or claim attached (selling point), he or she will receive a specific benefit. In other words, the USP matches a selling point with a consumer benefit, and does so in a unique way.
USPs are often difficult to grasp and apply-but they make or break most advertising campaigns. They are really so crucial to creative (and overall communicative) success that they should pretty well fill their respective advertisements. A maxim for copywriters is: one solid USP per ad-and if “additional” selling points and benefits are included, they had best be few in number and relatively minor in importance. (Otherwise, they overpower the USP.)
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