Keeping the U in USP

My eldest son, Daniel, is caring, intuitive, and sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings. Daniel seems to know how to make people feel good just by being there, being himself. It’s part of what makes him unique.

In marketing, we call the unique aspect of a product’s (or service’s) personality its Unique Selling Proposition or USP. It’s what makes it stand out from the competition and give consumers a reason to buy it. And the more unique (better differentiated) it is, the more others may want to emulate it.

If you expect that your USP will stay unique for the long haul, you’re sadly mistaken. Because your USP is vulnerable to imitation, you have to be ready to make constant improvements to your product so it will remain special and desirable.

Updating the “U”

Your product’s biggest strength could wind up being its Achilles’ heel. It could lull you into a sense of security and complacency, which could slowly but surely eat away at your product’s uniqueness … and the power of your USP.

In Message #1717, Michael Masterson refers to the gradual disintegration of a product or service’s quality as “incremental degradation.”

Incremental degradation can happen because of something you do … or because of something you don’t do … or simply because of market forces that you can’t control. That’s why you always have to innovate – combining top-notch service with new features. Without continual innovation, your product risks losing its USP … and becoming bland, ordinary, and unoriginal.

You could try to maintain the status quo, but the natural tendency of a market is for constant change, growth, and evolution. Aside from that, there is one overriding reason why you must constantly strive to improve your product and make sure your USP stays unique: competition. If you leave things as they are, you can bet your competitors will either “creatively swipe” your ideas (as management guru Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, puts it) or they will create ideas and products that improve upon what you already offer … and which may be more attractive to customers.

Netflix, for example, developed a unique way of doing business – allowing subscribers to pay a monthly fee to rent unlimited DVDs via its website. But though this business model is protected by two patents, Blockbuster is now doing the same thing. A reminder of how easily “unique” products and services can be adopted by another company.

Fix It Yourself Before Someone Else Does

If you have a great product, service, or business model, now is the time to look at ways to improve your USP … before someone else copies it and you have to. One way to stay ahead of the hungry pack is to target your own weaknesses.

Let’s return to our friends at Netflix.

I love Netflix. Its USP is very appealing: no more trips to the video store … no more late fees … and no cost to return the DVDs. (Return postage is prepaid.) But this business model is not difficult to copy. In addition to Blockbuster, there are more than 10 companies in the United Kingdom alone that offer similar services.

So what could Netflix do now to differentiate itself from the competition?

Well, one problem with the Netflix service is the time it takes to mail the DVDs. You don’t get your next movie until the company receives the one you sent back. But they could ameliorate the time-delay problem by offering a new feature. Subscribers could note on their online accounts that they’ve just mailed back a DVD … and Netflix could immediately send out the next DVD in the queue.

The benefit to a subscriber is obvious: You get your next movie faster. The benefit to Netflix is better stock management, as the subscriber tells them when they can expect a DVD. Netflix also strengthens its USP. The risk to Netflix? The DVD may get lost in the mail or an unscrupulous subscriber could keep it – but the company already has procedures to handle those situations.

The point is, if Netflix can lessen the time delay, they have a chance to leap ahead of other DVD-by-mail services … and regain their “unique” position in the market. For a while.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Here’s another example.

One of the strengths of is its extensive range. This is also one of its greatest weaknesses, because it can overload people with a bewildering array of choices.

My wife and I are currently researching infant car seats. Like all parents, the main feature we’re looking for is safety. But allows me to browse hundreds of seats by many features … except by independent safety rating. Adding such a feature would be enormously helpful.

By studying the core reasons people buy certain products, could improve its search tool – and possibly its sales – by categorizing products according to those core buying reasons. Helping people actually find what they want – one relevant needle in the huge haystack of choice – will significantly strengthen’s USP.

IKEA Got It Right!

Founded in 1943 in a small Swedish town, IKEA now has more than 230 furniture stores in 35 countries … and it continues to grow.

IKEA’s website introduced a cool search feature recently – “Ask Anna” – which is one of the best search engines I’ve ever used in my 13 years on the Internet.

Try it. Visit and type in a search term. I clicked Ask Anna and typed in “baby furniture.” I was immediately directed to a page with everything I needed. Simple, quick, and effective. “Office desks.” Done. “Bookshelves.” Found.

IKEA saw clearly how confusing its vast array of products can be – and this new search feature allows for a nearly painless Web experience. (Now, if only I could put their flat-pack furniture together!)

IKEA has made a very successful business out of providing people and businesses with affordable, well-designed furniture. Helping customers find what they are looking for online is just one way the company has stayed on its toes and out of reach of competitors.

When working to improve, enhance, and innovate your company’s USP, keep the following in mind:

1. Change is good. Whether you drive the change or are at the mercy of change that you didn’t initiate, it must happen for progress to be made. All nature – including the nature of the marketplace – abhors stagnation.

2. The best changes are based on your customer’s needs. So, when brainstorming for ideas, focus on changes that will best serve your customers and fit well with your core business model.

[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing in Baltimore.]

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.