The USP Is As New As German Romanticism.

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If Rosser Reeves, had known in 1940 – when he came up with the USP idea – that Roland would hold him in such high esteem even today, he would have adopted him as his son. Emphasizing the uniqueness of a person, product or service, the USP is based on an ingenuity metaphor as it was sought before and after WorldWarII in marketing and during German Romanticism by writers and intellectuals.


The downfall of USP started as early as the 1960ies. That was when it became clear that the newly flourishing capitalism created lots of capital, but unfortunately not the same amount of ideas. More and more similar products were available – in the beautiful German marketing language they were called Me-Too-Products. To be sure, the old ingenious products such as Coca Cola were still on the racks, but the succession was somewhat slow in coming. Pepsi decidedly had nothing to offer that Coca Cola had not offered before them. Yet perhaps – thought Pepsi – it was possible to attack and weaken Coca Cola.

That is what Pepsi did, thereby causing a universal breakthrough for a successor to UPS: positioning. Instead of an ingenuity metaphor, it had a war metaphor. Consequently, the key book accompanying this movement was “Positioning – The Battle For Your Mind”. Instead of more or less real uniqueness, what mattered was the struggle to make the customer aware of your product. Pepsi chose the slogan “The Choice of a New Generation” and tried to make Coca Cola look “old” at all costs (especially by using comparative advertising, which at the time was already allowed in the USA).

In the Pepsi adverts, the young hippies drank Pepsi, the old potatoes drank Coca Cola. Being nowhere near as clumsy in its application as it sounds on paper, the extremely clever Pepsi advertising methods worked. For a time, Pepsi took the place of Coke as top market seller in the USA. However, extending the marketing effort world-wide was just too much, so it only worked locally. Besides, Coke had become nowhere near as weak as Pepsi would have wished. From what Pepsi did, the buyers concluded that Coke, indeed, had to be quite a strong number if it was able to provoke this kind of reaction.

Today, the technique of positioning is still the prevailing one. Basically, you have three players: leaders, followers (they take advantage of what the leaders cannot cover, mostly small specialities or niches), anti-leaders. Leaders who establish the generic usefulness of a product, such as Coke, Tempo, or the only modern leader Google, are a dying species. It gets more and more difficult and costly to outline the additional value along with the basic usefulness (as followers do), and in this country, the American competitive spirit of an anti-leader strategy just cannot be found.

Thus, what remains for many is the price, which is a tactical, rather than strategical positioning – mostly as a last exit. That is the one aspect of brand erosion. The other is the internet and Google. Google modifies the brands, i.e. by being reduced to keywords, they are de-branded. Generally speaking, the internet is not useful for branding, only for transaction advertising.

So my dear Roland, what remains? A new metaphor, the theatre metaphor. You can see an enterprise as a fascinating character, like they are described in theatre and film scripts. Not like in TV spots, where you only see uncomplicated, exchangeable smileys, but with rough edges, as we love (or hate) truly fascinating characters.

You need to combine this with actual usefulness and an actual offer. If you transfer this idea to your initial USP post, Coca Cola is a fascinating mixture of imperator and redeemer. In other words, it is the mythological concept of a brand representing the American Way of Life. You wrote that you already look forward to the serious part of your entrepreneur’s diary. I am afraid the other part will always catch up with you, because characters are never just one-dimensional.

SIX
(Translated by EG)

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