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The value of employing a unique selling proposition in your business

In a world where advertisers are constantly heard offering “low prices” and “great service,” advocates of unique selling propositions note that there is nothing special about “low prices” and “great service” because most competitors are claiming to offer them.

“It’s the kiss of death,” said Mark Dahl of Accountable Marketing, a marketing consultant located in Columbia, Missouri. “When everyone is offering the same thing, why should the customer make their purchase from you?”

Dahl has spent most of his career helping companies identify just what makes their organization unique to capitalize on those offerings. He offered three examples:


1. A supermarket — “Do they have another feature that Walmart doesn’t offer?” Dahl asked. “If they have an outstanding butcher, they should consider focusing on the quality of the meat to attract customers.”

2. A service provider — A plumber or other service provider could decide to offer 24-hour emergency service if no one else in the area does, as one of his clients did. Dahl notes sustainability is important, and challenged whether the plumber could really deliver on this offer. There needs to be a clear definition of what plumbing needs truly represent an “emergency.”

3. An attorney — “I worked with an attorney who emphasized an ability to be successful regarding one law regarding paternity tests,” Dahl said. “They attracted numerous clients emphasizing this specialty rather than just offering the same services most attorneys offer.”


Over the next several months, BPN will cover unique selling propositions with the help of several retail propane marketers from around the United States. The marketers will share the tactics that make their company unique in their specific market areas. In our March Marketing article, hear from Dan Richardson, president and chief executive officer of Conger LP Gas in Tifton, Georgia.

The concept of the unique selling proposition was first introduced in 1960 by Rosser Reeves, author of Reality in Advertising. He proposed the concept as a theory to explain a pattern in successful advertising campaigns of the early 1940s. Reeves said to be successful, a unique selling proposition must satisfy three criteria:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the customer. Each advertisement must say to the reader, “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot or does not offer. It must be unique — either a uniqueness of brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions (i.e. it should entice new customers to use your product).


Examples of classic unique selling propositions include, “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” (M&M’s); “Good to the last drop” (Maxwell House); and “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s). These were highlighted by Bob Bly in the November 2005 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

As for the first of the three criteria, Bly notes that strong unique selling propositions have a benefit — whether direct or implied. Weak ones don’t.

State Farm’s “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” has a benefit. If you have a problem and are insured by State Farm, they will review and pay your claim promptly, giving you the money you need sooner.

Bly noted that the second criteria does not mean the company must be the only one making the offer. In the case of M&M’s, other companies later made candies that would not melt in your hands, but M&M’s owned the position already. The others would have to say, “We also melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

It can also be something that multiple competitors offer, but no one else claims as a benefit in their advertising. For example, a beer offered that the bottles were washed in live steam and stated, “Beer so pure, the bottles are washed in live steam.”

While most beers use live steam to clean bottles, the beer-drinking public is not very aware of this; therefore, it appears to be unique.

The third criteria, according to Bly, is that a proposition must create a significant advantage over other products in the same category. An example was given of a piano factory that installed a metal bar in each piano to prevent warping, “Wood warps over time.”

The factory foreman explained. “The bar stabilizes the piano to prevent warping. That way, this piano will sound the same in 20 years as it does the day it is first played.” Bly noted that the unique feature (the stabilizer bar) coupled with a powerful benefit (preservation of sound quality) became the basis for a successful advertising campaign.

Dahl said that while Nike’s “Just do it” campaign makes no direct mention of a specific benefit, it was a successful campaign due to a significant amount of advertising that successfully positioned its brand in the eyes of consumers.

“Everyone knows the ‘Just do it’ statement and the trademark swoosh symbol,” he said. “It could be argued that Nike created a subtle unique selling proposition message that implies a benefit to athletes as well as everyone else — if you wear the Nike brand, you are empowered to do about anything you set your mind to.”

Also, Dahl believes the mention in the third criteria of “mass millions” can be amended to better fit your specific company. “An advertiser with a small business likely doesn’t need ‘mass millions’ to be successful. It may be that attracting 500 regular customers makes you extremely successful,” Dahl said. “That can still be applied as the customized goal for your business rather than ‘mass millions.’”

Pat Thornton is a 25-year veteran of the propane industry, with 20 years at Propane Resources and five years at Butane-Propane News. He has served on the PERC Safety & Training Advisory Committee and the Missouri PERC Board of Directors.

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