Great Moments in Advertising Part 4

In this issue:

  • The “Unique Selling Proposition” brainstorm Rosser Reeves used to revolutionize ad copy – and to install a bald-headed general in the White House …
  • 4 reasons why Reeves’ USP approach sometimes fails direct marketers …
  • 4 unorthodox ways to make USPs work for you – by BREAKING Rosser Reeves’ sacred rules …
  • And much, much more!

Dear Business-Builder,

As The Guru struts to the podium, the crowd rises as one, slapping their flippers together and barking like a gaggle of starving seals – each one praying that The Great One will grant him just one fish…

The Guru clears his throat – three hundred eager sycophants instantly collapse into their chairs … and three hundred pens hover over three hundred yellow pads, ready to record every golden word.

“I am,” declares The Guru, “about to reveal the single most effective selling tool any direct response promotion has ever employed.”

“Gasp!” says the adoring crowd.

“Really!” says I to myself.

“It’s called ‘The Unique Selling Proposition,’” says the guru.

 … And for the next 60 minutes or so, The Great One loaded up those poor folks with more bunkum, hokum and hype than any carnival barker I ever saw. No real marketer who makes a living and takes lumps creating real promotions in the real world would have bought a thing that puffed-up poseur said.

The crowd, however, obviously wasn’t composed of real marketing folks or even serious students; just pretend ones. That’s OK – The Guru isn’t a real marketing guy either. He just plays one on TV.

And boy, did these pretend marketers ever eat this pretend marketing expert up! He had them repeating his key phrases … jumping up and repeating his key phrases … touching each other and repeating his key phrases.

I half-expected the guy’s next command to be, “Put your backside in … stick your backside out … yell, ‘Unique Selling Propositions Rule!’ and then shake it all about!”

Nevertheless, when The Guru’s USP hoochie-coo dance ended, the pretend marketers in the audience gave the blithering idiot another standing ovation!


I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all: Rosser Reeves’ brainchild – the Unique Selling Proposition – is one of the most over-hyped, misunderstood and misapplied concepts in marketing today.

Nevertheless, you gotta give old Rosser his props. His approach WAS a massive breakthrough for advertisers. And yes, understanding the concept behind it IS crucial for salespeople of all stripes – including direct marketers like us.

That’s why I paid $250 for an out-of-print copy of his little 153 ½ page-book a while ago – and it’s why we’re going to take a nice long look at Mr. Reeves and his brainchild today…

“Congratulations, Mrs. Reeves
– it’s a bouncing baby boy copywriter!”

Rosser Reeves was nothing more than a gleam in his daddy’s eye when Albert Lasker hired Claude Hopkins as his chief “salesman in print” in 1908.

 … In fact, Lasker and Hopkins were already shouting product benefits in their headlines and ad copy on the very day Reeves was born in 1910.

Nineteen years later – after leaving the University of Virginia in 1929 (how depressing!) – Rosser Reeves set out to become a newspaper reporter. However, being an astute and ambitious young man, Rosser quickly realized he could make much, much more money in advertising, and promptly moved to New York.

By 1940, a 30-year-old Mr. Reeves had been named VP and copy chief at the Ted Bates ad agency, where he did his most famous work: Still-memorable TV and print ad campaigns for Viceroy, Anacin, Carter's Little Liver Pills, Listerine and Colgate toothpaste.

Impressed? Get this: In 1952, Reeves’ unique approach to creating TV spots was used to help send General Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House!

The Bates guys obviously knew which side their bread was being buttered on – and named Mr. Reeves Chairman of the Board in 1955.

Wow – at just 45 years old, Reeves was chairman of one of the world’s largest ad agencies!

How did he do it? Reeves answers that question in his 1961 best-seller, Reality in Advertising …

Evolutionary – NOT Revolutionary

Looking back over his work, it’s clear that Reeves was heavily influenced by Albert Lasker and Claude Hopkins. Rosser was a firm believer that to be effective, advertising must present the product’s benefits in a compelling way.

What Rosser did was distill and adapt the concept of “Salesmanship in Print” to accommodate short-copy print ads and even shorter copy TV spots. In fact, I guess you could say that Rosser Reeves is the father of the modern-day sound bite!

Now before we consider Rosser’s astonishingly powerful secret, let’s try to keep two things in mind …

First, Reeves was no direct response guy. His job was to create memorable print ads and TV spots – ads that consumers would remember when they were shopping (or voting!).

Second, unlike Lasker and Hopkins, much of Reeves ad copy was done for 30-second TV spots – so longer copy extolling product benefits was definitely out.

And, there was a crucial third element that led Rosser to discover the Unique Selling proposition: As Reeves recounts in his classic, Reality in Advertising …

“A story goes that old Calvin Coolidge, sitting patiently in a stern little New England church, listened attentively to a minister who had preached steadily for two hours. A friend later asked him what the sermon was about.

“’Sin,’ said Coolidge.

“’What did he say,’ persisted the friend.

“’He was against it,’ said Coolidge.

“The story has a value to advertising men, for it illustrates a reality principle made crystal clear by a study of hundreds of penetration case histories. The principle is this:

“The consumer tends to remember just one thing from an advertisement – one strong claim, or one strong concept.”

And so …

Given his mission to have consumers REMEMBER his product when shopping, and …

The fact that TV and magazine ads severely limited his ability to present a full reason-why sales argument, and …

The fact that consumers only remember one thing from each ad anyway …

 … Rosser hit upon the idea that made him famous:

Select the ONE benefit that lifts your product head and shoulders above the competition … distill it into a memorable slogan or “Unique Selling Proposition” … and repeat it – mercilessly – in your advertising!

According to Reeves, a USP is a memorable statement about a product that is …

Unique: A claim that no competitor can make about his product – or failing that, that no competitor happens to be making about his product.

A Selling Proposition: The “reason why” the prospect should buy your product – or as Reeves put it, “buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

Mr. Reeves also maintained that USPs can be communicated either with sales copy or with a photo or other illustration – and that they should be powerful enough to sway brand-loyal customers to your product.

The results of Rosser’s insight were explosive. In his years at the Bates agency, Reeves created Unique Selling Propositions (or USPs) that sent his clients’ sales rocketing into the stratosphere.

No wonder: Reeve’s ads made it impossible NOT to remember his clients’ products – and not just when shopping, either!

I first saw Rosser’s black & white TV spots claiming “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand” and “Helps build strong bodies 12 ways” a HALF-CENTURY AGO – and to this day, those slogans instantly blast images of M&Ms candy and Wonder Bread onto the little TV screen in my brain.

You have tons of unique selling propositions stuck in your brain, too. Let’s see what happens when I say …

“Fresh, hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less,”

I bet “Domino’s Pizza” sprang to mind – right?

How about … “When your package absolutely, positively HAS to get there overnight.”

BANG! The name “FedEx” pops into your brain.

No doubt about it: If you’re limited to short copy … if you’re not asking prospects to order now … if you’re pinning your hopes on prospects remembering your product when shopping … Unique Selling Propositions work!

Why Reeves’ USP Approach
Sometimes Fails Direct Marketers

Now, don’t get me wrong here … I have tremendous respect for Rosser Reeves.

If every creative director and copywriter on Madison Avenue was required to memorize Reality in Advertising – and slapped silly every time he or she violated its precepts – the major agencies would explode their mainstream retail clients’ sales and market share in no time flat.

But did Mr. Reeves ever intend for us direct response ad writers to adopt his objective of making the prospect “REMEMBER JUST ONE THING?

Heck no – and for four reasons:

1. Reeves was limited in that his mandate was to create ads his prospects would REMEMBER when shopping because they were not being asked to order now. But we direct response marketers ask for the sale NOW – by phone, return mail or by asking prospects to click a link.

That means, we’re freed from the mandate to create promotions that our prospects will remember.

In fact, if a prospect doesn’t buy my client’s product, I’d just as soon he forgot he ever heard of it! Otherwise, when I send him a new promo, he’s likely to think, “Oh – this is the thing I already decided NOT to buy” – and trash my promo before he gives it a fair chance.

2. Reeves was limited to one-page print ads and 30-second TV spots. But in direct response marketing, we generally have plenty of room or time to present all the reasons why prospects should buy.

And that’s good; because in test after test, 24-page self-mailers generate more new customers at a lower cost than shorter #10 component packages … long landing pages sell more stuff than short ones … and 30-minute infomercials are more cost effective than 30-second spots.

3. Reeves’ USP approach limited him to presenting one benefit and burning it into prospects’ brains through repetition in his headlines, body copy and tag lines.

But as we saw last week, each product we sell offers dozens, perhaps scores of benefits: Practical and emotional benefits … positive and negative benefits … current and preventative benefits – and more.

For most of us, hanging our hopes on promotions presenting a single USP would be silly.

4. Reeves’ short-form ads appeared to be just what they were: Ads. That was OK – they shot straight into the brain before the page or the channel could be changed.

But we’re confronting our prospects with longer copy. And many of us have found that disguising our promos as value-added reports – “Advertorials” – and/or appealing to the prospect’s fears, frustrations and desires in our headlines is often far more effective than shouting a USP.

 … So is Rosser Reeves’ Unique Selling Proposition
totally worthless for us direct response marketers?

 … Or could it help boost YOUR response NOW?

Using Rosser Reeves’ USP breakthrough could make you A LOT of money – but only if you use it correctly.

Try this …

Turn EVERY benefit in your copy into a USP: Every benefit in your copy is already a selling proposition – so why not go the extra mile and ask yourself, “How can I make this benefit seem unique to this product?”

Develop a USP for the company and/or your spokesperson: Make a list of all the benefits of dealing with the company behind the product. In a health catalog for example, I created a USP for the company featuring its 24-hour shipping policy – something competitors don’t promise – and used it as a header on every spread.

Ditto for spokespeople. In my promotions for Martin Weiss’ Safe Money Report, I developed Martin’s USP: “America’s #1 Investor Safety Advocate,” – and repeated it throughout my packages. He was instantly differentiated and lifted above the scores of investment advisors who pack your mailbox with promotions.

Turn your premiums, offer, guarantee and shipping policy into USPs: Find ways in your promotion to demonstrate how superior, value-laden and unique every component of your offer really is. If nobody else offers as big a discount … as strong a guarantee … if your premiums provide information and advice nobody else does … and if you ship faster than the competition – and especially if you’re the only one in your industry to offer free shipping and handling – why not shout it from the rooftops?

If you’re using a USP lead, test a BUNCH of them: Why? Two reasons: First, you’ll know which ones resonate best with your prospects. And second, you’ll discover that several of the USPs you’ve developed for your product work equally well, each attracting a different segment of your market universe.

Then, rotate your best leads in each monthly promotion to keep your control strong.

Hope this helps …

Yours for Bigger Winners, More Often,
Clayton Makepeace Signature
Clayton Makepeace
Publisher & Editor

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10 Responses to Great Moments in Advertising Part 4

  1. Greg Gunter says:

    Nice piece. I really like these posts that deal with theory, strategy and practice.

    I made a “nice point” comment in the margin on the idea of turning every benefit in our copy into a USP, and created a little mnemonic to help me remember it:

    Make sure your benefits are “On the CUSP”: A Collection of USPs.


  2. Chad Kettner says:

    Clayton – you’re the man. This is a great article…and I just finished your audio interviews as part of the Desktop Copy Coach program – awesome stuff! You gave me so many ideas for propelling my copywriting business to the next level. Now it’s up to me to implement.

    You, my friend, are the master!

  3. Michael says:

    Even more than talking about USP’s, this article hits upon what I like to call EEP’s – Unique Emotional Propositions, for that’s what drives people to buy. I think some get so tied up in the USP…that they forget the emotional and most important part of it…and many times end up selling the features instead of the powerful emotion you can build with the benefits…

    Thanks Clayton…for another great piece

  4. Michael says:

    forgive the typo…that should read UEP’s…duh…fingers aren’t hitting the keyboard properly today..:)

  5. Clayton,
    As always, a great analysis. I would add this:

    USP by its nature and in practice is seller centric. It’s created by and from the company’s perspective, usually languaged and communicated in “seller speak.” It’s projected from the seller out to the buyer. We cannot know if our USP works until we test it.

    I discovered early in the game that when I asked them, people told me why they buy. Of the thousands of companies I have consulted with, I have more fingers and toes than the number of companies that ask customers the billion dollar question,

    “Why do you buy from us?”

    The answers to this question transform your USP. When you get and use customer words, feelings and benefits, you connect better with new/potential buyers than if you use company language.

    I call this the USA – Unique Service Advantage – the real advantages / emotions / reasons people actually buy, communicated in their words, expressed using their language.

    We really don’t know for sure if the USP(s) we pick or those we think are best really connect with our buyer until we test them.

    The USA is battle ready. Ask 20 clients why they buy, and you’ll have insight and intelligence that quickly translates into immediate connection with new buyers, and a shorter path to new revenue and profit.

    When you know your USA(s), you can use these four powerful words that have instant influence:

    “Our customers tell us…”

    If you haven’t asked them, you can’t say your customers tell you.

    Integrate USP and USA, and you get the best of both worlds.

    Thanks, Clayton for always inspiring conversation.

    You’re a game changer.

    Mitch Axelrod

  6. I’ve been in sales, sometimes it seems like 200 years. No one I sold to ever slapped his knee and cried out: “Immo buy this because … it’s washed in live steam, it doesn’t roll, delivered in 30 minutes, built like a rock, … or whatever USP is claimed. Sure thing, USP may be the story that the SELLER wants to push, the story he wants to use to differentiate a products … but 99 times out of 100 it has no relation to the decision making the buyer’s MIND. It rarely succeeds in resonating with true buying triggers. It may be used in the rationalization process, in the cognitive dissonance phase (after the purchase) but as an expressed, outright buying trigger, I have never seen it. Buying is a complex matrix of emotional and rational. Rarely expressed in any sort of single USP. If it were, selling would be the easiest thing in the world. It’s not the tool that toggles the buying switch. And indeed, Rosser Reeves himself towards the end of the book can’t make up his mind what USP really is … could be a color, could be a design, could be the twinkle in the eye of the pretty lady, could be this, could be that … he’s as confused as we are. Anything that increases sales is a USP? Well, that’s a great operational definition and as useless as tits on a bull. Ries and Trout did good thinking on positioning and maybe a better thought-framer is USP as Unique Selling Positioning. Dunno. But you gotta keep the buyer resonance in the formula, otherwise it don’t fly.

  7. Johan says:

    Wow, what can I say Clayton. You really can word it to get me going. I read and never skim letters of yours.

    Man you’re so sane, advice is always above the “Gurus” hype and 3 year old talking.

    And this was a read, funny as heck too.

    I wonder, who’s the guru, I’ve had bad taste in my mouth recently. Too. Haha.

    Well wishes.


  8. Solomon says:

    Hi Clayton,
    It’s really phenomenal to read how the word USP is abused to no end. I really hate some cliches which are used by ad folks with obviously no deeper understanding of it.
    It’s no wonder, you’re the greatest of copywriters in the world! Thanks for the great insights shared here in your article!

  9. This makes a lot of sense. It’s why lists of fascinations make sense in direct mail–and sometimes even in press releases–here are a couple (well, each one kind of doubles up, actually, because a press release is limited in length) I just put in a press release for a book on computer consulting:

    • How to set rates that meet or surpass your financial needs AND stay within the norms for your market (pp. 72-76), how to determine lucrative niches that bring top dollar even in a recession (pp. 38-39), and how to stay current and in demand as your industry changes (pp. 40-41)
    • What “deal-killer” clause you should absolutely never sign, even if you lose the contract—and how to negotiate it away (p. 133)

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