Whenever I sit down to write one of these columns, I worry that, at best, I’ll just be adding to the noise. After all, there isn’t exactly a dearth of blogs, columns, articles, books, conferences, tweets, clubs, pamphlets or banner ads about marketing, branding and advertising. Anything I’m about to write here has probably been said or written before, quite possibly in listicle form. But I cannot bring myself to use an optimized search engine to verify this, lest I be paralyzed with self-doubt by the voluminous number of links it returns.
Chances are, however, that you’re not still reading this column because you believe I will at some point – probably the third sentence from the end – reveal a Golden Nugget of Brandification Truth guaranteed to take your own marketing efforts from yawn- to yahoo-inducing. Assuming you’re not waiting for an oil change and willing to read anything (yes, I did once read my own column under similar circumstances), you find something about the elliptical writing style I use for this particular column to be compelling, entertaining or at least mockable (which I suppose counts as entertainment). And, yes, you do hopefully glean some useful knowledge from the whole ordeal. But the point is this: This column doesn’t have what MBAs from 1983 would call a Unique Selling Proposition. What it has instead is a Unique Selling Personality. And that’s the type of USP most brands truly, often desperately, need.
The original USP – the propositional kind – remains valid. It just doesn’t apply to every product or service extant, at least not in a meaningful, marketable way. It’s one thing to advertise a patented feature no one else can truly claim, and quite another to make “customer service that really serves the customer” your branding foundation. You may very well have the best customer service in the history of retail, with CSRs who routinely reject stock option-laden offers from Zappos because the shoe giant’s standards just aren’t quite up to their own. But is anyone going to believe that claim on a prima facie basis? In a marketplace saturated with variations of “we care,” “we’re here for you,” and “because we care, we’re here for you,” the answer is prolonged, derisive laughter.
This is where the other USP comes in. Not to wholly supplant whatever tenuously unique proposition you may have, but to give people a reason to care about it. To appreciate it. To like it. To, more importantly, like your brand. After all, most of the brands we love or at least prefer have a personality that sets them apart. Target’s personality makes it feel more upscale than Walmart. But is it? Not by any objective measure. Which is the point. When it comes to having a winning personality, it’s subjectivity that counts.
For example, let’s take a couple of little-known brands that sell commoditized sugar water. We’ll call them Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Test after test has shown that, in a blind tasting, people prefer the slightly sweeter sugariness of Pepsi. Once upon a time, this led to some good advertising (Pepsi Challenge, anyone?) and poor business decisions (New Coke, nobody ever?). But for these two products that are essentially the same, loyalties – often fierce – run deep. And a lot (but not everything, since marketing is a mix, after all) of that has to do with the personalities the brands have developed over the decades. Coca-Cola is it, the real thing, a way to open happiness. It’s a Normal Rockwell Santa or a day at the beach without inappropriate Speedo sightings. Pepsi, however, has long pushed the youth angle. It’s for those who think young, who have fun, and is the choice of a new generation. Although that generation is now in its mid-forties.
So, between a proposition and a personality, which is the ne plus ultra of USPs? (I ask this only for people who skipped to the end.) It boils down to this: A brand can thrive with a good product and a great personality, but will be hard pressed to match that success long-term with only a great product and no personality. Because when you make the brand itself compelling enough to warrant trial and reinforce loyalty, you can shoot for the moon product-wise (or be disruptive if you’d like a current business catchphrase) without worrying that your next launch may be your last. Cue the New Coke reprise.
This column originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Omaha B2B magazine. For some reason, they don’t post it online. Apologies.