Positioning Is Dead!

Redefining USP as “Unique Selling Personality”


Focus, focus, focus.

That’s what I like to hammer home to both my clients and graduate marketing students when I talk about positioning.

Politics, marketing on steroids, provides prime examples of this single-minded approach. Ronald Reagan projected an unrelenting optimism and belief in American freedom to overcome the doldrums of the Carter years. (His slogan very well could have been “Make America Great Again.”) Coming on the heels of the first Star Wars films, Reagan drew black and white comparisons between the light side of The Force (the U.S.A.) and the dark side (the Soviets) that were easy for people to understand. Bill Clinton defeated Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, by sticking to the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Bernie Sanders is all about tearing down the financial establishment and Donald Trump is all about the evil immigrants.

Relentless focus catapulted all these politicians to success, or at the very least, to exceed expectations exponentially.

It’s the same in the marketing world, where Volvo means safety, Apple is creativity, Lululemon transforms style into confidence and Tesla is about living the future today.

Is this still the right approach in the age of multiple platforms? Storytelling is de rigeur, but does this mean that you must tell the same story over and over again?

David Brooks, in his recent New York Times op-ed piece titled The Danger of The Single Story, cites a Ted Talk of the same title by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that points to the dangers of reducing “complex human beings and situations…to a single narrative.”  Brooks explains that, “Her point was that each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity.”

Yet this is precisely what we do in marketing. With the understanding that a “kitchen sink” positioning (tell them everything that’s great about our brand!) will ultimately dilute your brand’s message and run the risk of confusion as to what you actually stand for, we understand and practice the fundamental act of branding as this reduction to “one.”

This approach dates back to the emergence of the “Unique Selling Proposition,” or USP, developed in the 1940’s by adman Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency. The point was to meaningfully differentiate a brand from its competition. In Reeves’s own words, taken from his book “Reality in Advertising,” the USP should allow “each advertisement (to) make a proposition to the consumer—not just words, product puffery, or show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.”  The proposition must be one the competition cannot or does not offer. It must be unique—either in the brand or a claim the rest of that particular advertising area does not make.”

While not specifically stating that these unique claims should be rational, they most often were. Look at nearly any ad from the 1950’s and 60’s. You get fewer cavities with Crest. Use Head & Shoulders to get rid of dandruff. No more “ring around the collar” with Wisk.

Over 50 years later, more than a vestige of this thinking remains. Many advertisers are still looking for that rational silver bullet while trying to justify value for the money in very concrete ways. Turn on your TV or visit company websites for proof.

The first thing you see on the Yoplait website is “25% less sugar.” Not to be out-USP’d, the Dannon site toggles between two messages: “Reinvent a classic? We did! Brand Dannon has reinvented our classic non-fat yogurt, making it better than ever! The new Brand Dannon is made with creamier yogurt, delicious fruit and quality ingredients!” (Begging the question, of course, what was it made from before?) The second message invites consumers to “Taste Why It’s Dannon. Our yogurt is as unique as the people who love them (sic). Made only with quality ingredients, every yogurt is a commitment to high quality, delicious food.”

Are you still awake after those tantalizing descriptions?

The problem is that in most categories these days, nearly any product entry will get the job done. Dannon and Yoplait are both high quality products with different taste profiles – but not so different. And neither are so much better – if at all – from the store brands. The cheapest possible personal computer will allow you to access the Internet, write email and create spreadsheets as well as the priciest MacBook Air. Virtually all toothpastes, the ones with fluoride anyway, will fight cavities as well as the next one.

Is there a cost to this clarity? Aren’t brands “complex beings” as well?

They certainly are! Dannon and Yoplait are not Chobani. You might argue that Chobani revolutionized the market with a rational benefit by bringing higher protein, Greek style yogurt to the mainstream. But it’s so much more than that. Like other great brands, Chobani has a rich back story that centers on the vision of a passionate founder. And as Dannon and Yoplait continue to fight it out over which has more “goodness” or “richness” or “quality,” Chobani is making big news by sharing profits with employees.

I always like to think of brands as living things, pushing clients to give equal weight to the task of identifying the human values and personalities they inhabit as much as their reasons for being. In the case of people, it’s not just what we say, but how we say it. Indeed, studies show that body language and tone of voice are far more important factors in what we communicate to others.

It’s no different with brands. We can talk about “quality” or other unique points of difference until we’re blue in the face. But it’s our brand body language that governs the effectiveness of our communications.

If marketing is now a “conversation” taking place in the very transparent realm of the Internet and social media, consumers will inevitably choose those brands with which they are most comfortable. It’s still important for brands to do what they claim to do and to provide value for the money, but that’s just table stakes. What we react to most is brand personality.

We still need to focus. But in a 24/7 world of constant communication and so many ways to connect, even the simplest packaged goods products need to be more than a one note song.

Just as the more multi-dimensional concept of brand positioning largely replaced the USP, the classic brand position has now been replaced by what Jim Stengel, in his book “Grow,” calls a “Brand Ideal” or “Brand Principle.”

“A brand ideal is a business’s essential reason for being, the higher-order benefit it brings to the world. A brand ideal of improving people’s lives is the only sustainable way to recruit, unite, and inspire all the people a business touches, from employees to customers. It is the only thing that enduringly connects the core beliefs with the fundamental human values of the people the business serves. Without that connection, without a brand ideal, no business can truly excel.”

This line of thinking has profound implications. Creative briefs still must tightly define the “what” of the desired communication.  But the higher order marketing question has been transformed. No longer should it be, “Is that execution on position?” Rather, the question must be, “Does that execution embody the brand personality and the brand ideal?”

  • Nick Cavarra
    Posted at 23:42h, 04 May Reply

    But then there is Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hilary… Fuckin’ Donald to blame for those…

  • Jean-Pierre Lacroix
    Posted at 08:23h, 05 May Reply

    Jeff, I don’t think positioning is dead, its what part of the position we need to leverage. It always amazes me that the emphasis of most brands is around the direction and not the brand DNA, the essence of being. If brands focused more on the essence that should be solving a timeless challenge for their customers, they truly would differentiate themselves. I agree with you that for brands to succeed they need to move well beyond conventional positioning and my experience reviewing these almost all look the same.

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