Rosser Reeves coined one of the strongest, most popular advertising and brand building philosophies of all time. It was called the USP or “Unique Selling Proposition”. This is the story.  

In 1961 Reeves, an advertising man as revolutionary as he was controversial, coined the phrase the “unique selling proposition” to capture his notion of what he thought advertising is all about and to position his agency, Bates. [Great agency. Gobbled up by WPP. Killed. May it rest in peace].

The back story is that the “creative revolution” had just begun.  Championed by Bill Bernbach, the notion of advertising being an art - and the art of persuasion - was just beginning to take hold. Reeves violently disagreed. His background was Albert Laker’s definition that advertising is “salesmanship in print” and this new trend he called “show window advertising”, “product puffery” and “fancy creative copy”. 

This is how he put it: “Let's say you have $1,000,000 tied up in your little company and suddenly your advertising isn't working and sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it; your family depends on it. Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up.” 

Strong talk. Who could argue that they didn’t want sales to go up? Never mind that “fine writing” can do that. The argument was logical, persuasive, gripping. Reeves had found a perfect platform on which to pitch his book “Reality in Advertising”.  This book laid out the three basic principles for successful USP advertising: 

1.Each advertisement must 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." And when the message is locked down; repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. 

2.The proposition must be one the competition cannot or does not offer. It must be unique—either in the product or a claim that the rest in that particular advertising area does not make. Famously Reeves said: "you must make the product interesting not just the advertising different".

3.The proposition must be strong enough to move the masses, that is attract new customers and retain existing ones. 

The genius of Reeves’ USP is its focus and relentless quest for “uniqueness”. Same calling today, different words. Words that we’ve drummed into our heads: “differentiate or die”.  

USPing as Reeves taught it, was about finding or investing the money into creating a distinct and compelling tangible attribute to set the brand apart. This attribute then would be the brand’s “reason for being”. [The big “why” as Simon Sinek would put it 50 years later]. Then Reeves argued that the product or service should be built around that USP and beyond that, that the entire business should be built around it. [Eerily similar to Sinek’s “how” and “what”].

The legacy of this legend repeated one more time with feeling. Find the product's unique attribute. If there isn't one, create one. Then communicate that USP - the product's unique reason for being, what the product uniquely stands for, what the product can uniquely promise - hammer it home.  Frequency, frequency and more frequency; that’s the name of the game. Under Rosser's leadership Bates naturally ran very long - lasting campaigns, which of course was great for business because the agency made a 15% commission every time the ad ran. 

Reportedly clients questioned the big money Bates was making “for doing nothing”. To which Reeves retorted that he wasn’t doing nothing but rather working relentlessly to stop the client shooting himself in the foot by changing the advertising all the time. Given the reality in advertising today, Reeves would be shooting left, right and center like crazy.

Andrew Halley - Wright. Independent Brand Consultant.