What’s Your Unique Selling Proposition (and Why Does It Matter)?

What's Your Unique Selling Proposition? Here's a Definition and Why It Matters

I’ve got a quick question for you. Warning: it may sound a little confrontational at first …

Why should anyone buy what you’re selling?

“Because it’s a great product,” you might answer.

Or: “Because I’m good at what I do.”

Or maybe even: “Because they need something that solves their problem, and my solution is at least as good as any other.”

All valid and admirable answers. They’ll probably even get you sales—if you’re selling to people who know you, who are interested in your business because it’s your business.

But you need more than those basic truths if you’re going to actually convince strangers to buy your product or sign up for your service.

You need a unique selling proposition.

How do you get one of those? I’ve put together this post to point the way. I’ve also gathered together three of my favorite resources for defining your unique selling proposition and improving your messaging. Click below to download:

  • 5 Fun Writing Prompts to Help Discover Your USP
  • 14 Questions to Find and Reach Your Target Market
  • Our Landing Page Copy Creative Brief to help translate your USP into your next great landing page

What’s a unique selling proposition?

First popularized by ad exec and TV advertising pioneer Rosser Reeves in the mid-20th century, the unique selling proposition is an old-fashioned concept that is, if anything, more relevant than ever in a world where your potential customers can evaluate scores of competitors within a few minutes online.

Reeves wrote a famous (and still widely read) book called Reality in Advertising, and that title alone tells you a lot about his approach. Whereas many companies did and do rely on vague emotional appeals or abstract brand imagery, Reeves insisted that the most effective advertising was rooted in real promises about how products would improve customers’ lives. And the best way to make that promise to your audience is to create a unique selling proposition.

Each of those three words is crucial to the term’s meaning, so let’s unpack them one by one.

  • Unique: To create a good unique selling proposition (USP), you don’t just need to know your product—you need to know your market and your competitors. Even if you’re in a field where a bunch of different people are doing more or less the same thing, it’s your job to choose an angle that makes you stand out from the crowd. (This can even be something that competitors have but don’t play up.)
  • Selling: Just because it’s unique doesn’t mean it’ll influence sales. You might be the manufacturer of the world’s largest cowboy hats, but you won’t sell many unless there are plenty of giant-headed cowboys to buy them.
  • Proposition: You should be able to rephrase your USP as an if/then proposition stating what will happen when someone buys your product.

Many famous taglines reveal a core USP when you put them under the microscope. Let’s try a couple:

“M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

  • Unique: At least some other candies do melt in your hand, and M&M is the only one reassuring you that theirs don’t.
  • Selling: It’s annoying to have chocolate-covered hands. Most people would prefer to buy candy that doesn’t leave their hands a mess.
  • Proposition: If you eat M&Ms, your hands will stay clean.

“Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.”

  • Unique: Visa is accepted anywhere customers might need it, unlike its competitors.
  • Selling: One of the most important benefits of a credit card is convenience, so this speaks to a crucial part of the buying decision.
  • Proposition: If you use Visa, you’ll be able to pay with a credit card wherever you go.

Now, you don’t need to be (or hire) a high-paid copywriter in order to come up with your own USP. It doesn’t need to emerge fully formed as a dazzling slogan.

It just needs to be a unique promise you can make your prospects about what they’ll experience as customers. Once you have that, you can work your USP into your website, ads, emails, and landing pages in different ways depending on the context.

What happens when you don’t have a unique selling proposition?

Granted, some businesses and products don’t necessarily need a unique selling proposition to thrive.

Take your local gas station (if you’re a driver). If it’s exactly the same as every other gas station in your city, that’s not going to stop you from going there. In fact, it probably has to work harder to lose your business than to keep it.

Has gas. Is open. Sounds great!
Has gas. Is open. Sounds great!

But unless you’re selling a true commodity that has a lock on a certain segment of buyers, marketing without a USP usually means one of the following things for your business:

You’ll lose ground to your competitors. If you can’t be indispensable to your customers, the right USP can at least communicate that you’re irreplaceable. Otherwise, your customers are likely to drift away toward similar companies promising unique value.

You’ll have a harder time gaining long-term customers. Sure, the new customers you get might be easier to keep once they see the quality you have to offer firsthand. But a good USP can make it a much surer thing. It’s a way to inspire customers to think, “Oh yeah—that’s why I chose this option”—every time they come across your messaging. It lays the foundations for not only a one-time purchase (or an opt-in), but years of loyalty.

You’ll have less measurable success marketing online. When your ads and your landing pages have a strong USP, your call to action practically writes itself. You’ve already answered the question of why someone should buy—now you just need to ask them to do it. Expect that to translate into higher conversion rates and lower cost per lead or sale.

How do I find my unique selling proposition?

If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve already thought up a dozen unique aspects of your product to draw on in your unique selling proposition.

Your task now is editing. While it might be viable to construct a USP like “the only X that does Y,” you can’t generally expand that to “the only X that does Y, Z, A, B, C, and D” (unless maybe you’re selling Swiss Army Knives or Dr. Bronner’s soap).

Actually, Swiss Army's current messaging is more along these lines: "Whether you’re exploring the city, the ocean, the mountains or even space, the Swiss Army Knife is the companion you can count on."
Actually, even Victorinox Swiss Army’s current messaging is more along these lines: “Whether you’re exploring the city, the ocean, the mountains or even space, the Swiss Army Knife is the companion you can count on.”

But if you’re still racking your brain, stop and ask yourself a few questions. Let yourself free associate, even. This is a great time to get creative and generate lots of ideas you can analyze more closely once you have a batch of drafts.

So, does your product or service …

… do something unique? This might be subtle—even a minor improvement on competitors’ products can be positioned to set you far above the rest.

Or it might just be a matter of framing. Here in Minneapolis, a recently opened shop known as The Herbivorous Butcher has gotten national attention by dubbing itself the world’s first vegan butcher shop. Granted, there are other stores specializing in vegan faux meats—but this is the only one presenting itself as a butcher shop, a unique angle that carries over into the store experience itself.

If this suggests that developing a good USP can be a bit of a race against time … well, it can be. Once you’ve planted your flag, the next business that tries to claim that ground is going to look a little silly.

… come from somewhere unique? For many products and services, customers care about the story behind what they’re buying. If your product is sourced from somewhere special, or if your services are special due to your unique professional and life experience, consider drawing on that in your USP.

… serve a unique market? Fitness for nerds. Social media for accountants. Life coaching for chefs. If you serve a particular niche no one else pays close attention to, this can make for a strong USP.

… get delivered in a unique manner? Maybe it’s not so much about your product as the entire experience surrounding your product. That could mean spectacular customer service, amazing atmosphere, an impeccably easy user interface, or cool extra perks. It could even be as simple as your low price or your convenience (though be careful with these, as they’re easier for competitors to undercut).

In all these cases, you don’t need to be the one and only person who could make this proposition—you just need to be the only one who does.

Remember, a USP isn’t the same thing as a slogan, and you’re not stuck with the first USP you try forever. You can even try testing messaging based on a couple of different USPs early on, which can be as simple as A/B testing a high-profile landing page with different headlines.

In fact, let’s take a closer look at how your USP interacts with your landing pages.

How should a unique selling proposition fit into my landing page?

Start looking around and you’re likely to encounter many ads that don’t contain a clear unique selling proposition. But you’re extremely unlikely to see an effective landing page without a USP or something akin to it baked into the page.

That goes for sales pages but also for opt-in pages, webinar pages … anything that makes a request of a visitor, from their email address to their time. It’s still an exchange of value for value even if no money’s changing hands (yet).

So once you’ve created your USP (or a couple to test against each other), think about ways to bake it into your …

  • Headline: This is the obvious spot, but you’d be surprised how many landing pages keep things vague up top.
  • Bullet points: Here’s where each aspect of your USP can really stand out and shine. You have the space to really substantiate the claim your USP makes when you use bulleted copy to present your offer.
  • Call-to-action area: Remember the if/then USP format I mentioned above? That can become an irresistible promise when it’s used to set up your call-to-action button. Use language or concepts from your USP to reiterate what people stand to gain when they opt in.
  • Videos and first-person content: If you’re speaking directly on your landing page, either on screen or via a sales-letter format, this is another ideal place to include and expand on your USP—and make it seem heartfelt.

By paying attention to how you can use your USP throughout your landing pages (and the rest of your website), you’re creating a more coherent and compelling experience for everyone who lands there.

Are you ready to create your USP (or share it with the world)?

For more step-by-step, fill-in-the-blanks guidance on developing powerful USPs for your business, be sure to download our free pack of 3 worksheets on discovering the best messaging for your products and audience. (Some of these exercises are even pretty fun, I think!)

And before you go, I’d be thrilled if you’d share a USP you’ve created for your own business in the comments! Whether it’s still in progress or you’ve used it successfully across dozens of campaigns, it’ll make for an illuminating example.