No matter what your business is, you need a unique selling proposition.
Yes, even if you aren’t selling anything. Your blog or free report needs a unique selling proposition as much as your product or service do.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know to create a highly effective, compelling USP. Plus, we'll take a look at many practical examples to get inspired. Sometimes, we can learn the most from looking at good (and bad) examples of how others have done it.
What is a Unique Selling Proposition?
Let's keep this simple and straight forward. First, let me clarify the term: I prefer using the term "unique selling proposition", but it's interchangeable with "unique selling point" and sometimes also called a "primary benefit statement". I'll also use the acronym USP to mean the same thing.
But now to the more important part: what is a unique selling proposition? It's your answer to one simple question:
The better your answer to this question, the stronger your USP. It's that simple.
Whatever your product is, you are offering something. Some benefit or solution.
And you’re probably not the only one offering such a benefit or solution. Your prospects are well aware of this, so the question “why should I choose you?” is on their minds, when they look at your offer.
Especially if you are a startup and you’re up against larger, older and more established brands, having an answer to the above question is absolutely crucial.
Your USP is one thing that clearly separates you from your competitors. Something only you offer.
Keep in mind that this is equally true whether you are selling something or not. Your visitors also need an answer to the question: “why should I read your blog instead of a different one?” or even "why should I follow you on [insert social platform] instead of someone else?"
Another way to look at it is that having a strong USP is about having a good answer to the question "why should I spend my limited time/attention/money with you?"
Big, Boring and Successful - Can a Business Succeed Without a USP?
In their book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing“, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout emphasize the importance of being first to market. According to them, it’s better to be first than to have a better product.
A unique selling proposition is extremely important for any business, but one thing that can throw you off is that you’ll often see market-leading companies that don’t have a very good (or any) USP. In fact, you’ll find small, innovative companies battling against big, boring giants in most markets.
If those giant companies don’t have a good USP, why do you need one?
Because the giants were first. That’s their USP, even if they never state it explicitly. They were the first or one of the first in a (now) big market. They were in a position to gain massive amounts of brand recognition and it’s something you can’t replicate – unless you create a new market.
Trying to create a new market is a huge gamble, which is why I don’t recommend attempting it.
The take-away is: you need a USP, even if your big competitors don’t seem to have one. Sure, you can do without one, but having a strong USP will make marketing and selling your product a million times easier.
The USP Checklist
With this next step, we’ll make your USP more practical and more measurable.
A good USP needs to fulfill these five criteria:
- It needs to be unique. No surprise there.
- It needs to be desirable.
- It needs to be short enough to fit into a single sentence.
- It needs to be clear and specific.
- It needs to be spicy.
Let's look at each of these factors in a bit more detail.
Factor 1: Unique
This is, of course, the entire point of a unique selling proposition. Your USP needs to be something that no one else is offering and it needs to set you apart from your competitors.
Factor 2: Desirable
Your USP needs to be something that your ideal prospect cares about. This means that it doesn’t have to have universal appeal (remember: never try to please everyone), it only has to appeal to a specific group of people.
Factor 3: Short
The end result should be one simple sentence that perfectly summarizes what sets your company apart from all the others. Your USP needs to be short because it needs to be communicated early on.
Your USP does not equal your headline or your tag line, but ideally, your headline and tagline should communicate or at least hint at the USP.
Any visitor needs to be able to learn about your USP within a few seconds and above the fold. If they have to scroll half-way down the page to find out what’s unique about your business, you’ll already have lost most of them.
Factor 4: Specific
Avoid fluff-words and conceptual words (e.g. “monetize latent brand equity” might be unique and short, but it’s not at all clear). When you write out your first drafts for your USP, always ask yourself: “how can I make this more specific?”
Don’t talk about how your product saves time, tell me how much time it saves. Be very clear about your statements and write like a human being. Avoid buzzwords and lingo.
Factor 5: Spicy
The last factor, spiciness, is difficult to nail down. A USP can be unique, desirable, short and clear, but still be bland and forgettable. A USP has the spicy factor when it’s really memorable, when it makes you smile or when it has emotional appeal and speaks directly to your own experience.
Conversely, spiciness alone doesn't cut it. Too often, we see an overly clever tagline or pun that, yes, is funny, but doesn't convey any value or make anyone want to engage in business.
USP = Headline?
So, how do you know what a business' USP is? Do you just read the headline? Is a USP simply a headline?
Yes and no.
Your USP is a concept and that concept may be communicated in the headline, but that’s not the only place it will be communicated.
The USP needs to be communicated above the fold, though. This may be accomplished with a combination of headline, sub-heading, images and more, but don’t make your visitors scroll down a long page before they can learn what’s unique about your offer. If a visitor takes a 10-second look at your homepage and they don’t know what you do or what’s unique about you, then you need to improve how you communicate your USP.
Lazy Unique Selling Points You Need to Avoid
Now that we’ve seen some practical examples, let’s dive a little deeper into the topic.
A typical go-to USP is “lowest price”.
Newbies love to go for this one when they don’t understand business costs (they look at a competitor and think “I could do that for cheaper”) and don’t realize prices should be based on value, not on margins.
You should never compete on price.
If you do, you start a race to the bottom and you don’t want to be involved in one of those.
As a startup, you also have the odds stacked against you. Bigger companies with established brands and bigger budgets can almost always out-cheap you.
Another USP to avoid is “we offer more”, which is really just a “lower price” USP in disguise. If you tack more features on to your product, offer more storage, more content, etc. than your competitors, that’s a nice bonus, but no more.
Sometimes, offering more can be a good secondary selling point, but it should never be your main or only selling point.
Know Where the Sale is Made
Your USP doesn’t need to do all the selling, all by itself. In fact, it doesn’t need to sell your product at all. That’s what all of your other sales material is for.
The USPs job is not to convince people to buy your product. Instead, its job is to act as an anchor in your prospects’ (and even customers’) minds.
You know how you can read a book and just two weeks later, all you can remember are some of the core concepts?
Your visitors experience the same thing with your website. They won’t read all of it to begin with and they’ll forget most of what they read within hours. The USP is the one thing you want them not to forget.
The Small, Trivial and Overlooked USP
A USP doesn’t always have to be big. Sometimes, a seemingly small or even trivial factor can make for an effective USP. Here’s an example:
Wunderlist is one of thousands of to-do list applications. Their USP is noted in the sub-heading (what a waste of a main headline, by the way…) and becomes clearer in their video: Wunderlist is pretty.
The USP can be summarized as: “Your beautiful and simple to-do list.”
Let's do our analysis:
We can ignore the “simple” part of the claim, because every single task manager and project manager in existence makes this same claim. It becomes a non-factor.
Whether a to-do list is pretty or not might seem trivial, but dig a bit deeper and you can see why it’s desirable to some people. For example, maybe you’ve just spent a fortune on a brand-spanking-new iPad and now you’re looking for something to show off its capabilities.
Are you going to use some ugly but practical to-do list?
Hell no! Give me that HD image background!
The video they use might have the x-factor, but I think they could definitely be more specific about the fact that their app looks better than the competition’s.
Here’s another example of a USP. Get a load of this weirdo:
Personal branding is a form of adding a USP to any business. For me, this has always been part of what I do. That’s why I often appear on video, I transparently share my own experiences and opinions etc.
A great example of personal branding is Gary Vaynerchuk, who very successfully promoted his family wine business with personal videos. Gary is energetic, highly expressive, charismatic, entertaining and at least a little bit weird. He’s also very knowledgeable about wine and can share many valuable and interesting insights.
These qualities make up the USP of the Gary Vaynerchuk brand – the things he brings to the table, that you can’t get anywhere else.
In most cases, personal branding leads to a USP that is neither short nor specific. It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why Gary has so much success with what he does. There are many facets to a personality and they all play a part.
Personal branding done right is always unique and the desirability comes from the attributes of the person in question. Finally, the x-factor here could be summed up as “charisma”.
If all this makes you think that you can’t possibly do personal branding because you aren’t interesting or charismatic enough, you need to read this.
How to Come Up With a USP and Ensure that it’s Awesome
How do you come up with a great unique selling proposition?
The USP should be a big part of the reason why you even set out to create your business, product or website. Maybe you were looking for a solution to a particular problem, but couldn’t find exactly what you were looking for, so you decided to create a solution of your own.
Maybe you were fed up with all of the other websites in a specific niche being so damn similar and missing the most important points, so you started a website of your own.
In this post with examples of successful online business models, I also wrote about what not to sell. One of the things to avoid are “me-too” products. Simply copying an existing business, thinking you can get a piece of the exact same pie is not a recipe for success.
The same is true for any business that doesn’t start out with a customer focus.
If you create a website or a product because you want more money, you need to change your focus.
At the outset of your business, you need to focus on what you can offer your future customers and why they will be better off buying from you, than from anyone else.
On Reinventing the Wheel
Most ideas are not original. Often, a new product is like an older product, but different in some aspects.
Thrive Leads is not the first list-building plugin for WordPress. Not by a long shot. But we weren’t happy with any of the existing solutions. Most of them didn’t offer the kind of customization or targeting options we were looking. And A/B testing is usually either absent or lousily implemented. Those are just two of the reasons we set out to build a product and both are part of the unique selling point for Thrive Leads.
Testing Your Ideas
Tim Ferriss is famous for his “4-hour” line of books.
What’s his USP? A combination of his personality and the 4-hour concept: big goals compressed into a minimal time-frame.
He didn’t just luck out with this idea, either. Before he published his first book, he ran AdWords PPC campaigns, testing several potential book titles against each other. In the ads, he made it seem like the book was already available and he ran the tests until he could clearly determine which title got the most attention (the highest CTR). “The 4-Hour Work Week” won the test, even though it was not his personal favorite.
To test the appeal of your USP, you can do the exact same thing. Alternatively, you can run a survey (like I did to determine the title of my free guide) or find any other means to get feedback from your potential future customers.
Unique Selling Point Examples
With that said, let's get to some examples, to get a better idea of how to (and how not to) do USPs.
Here's a quick video with my thoughts on a pair of examples:
I advocate creating and selling products in active, evergreen markets, so that you can build something once and sell it for many years to come. That also means that you’ll be up against competing products and businesses. We aren’t trying to create something completely new and revolutionary (which requires great creativity and comes with a high risk of failure), but to build on concepts that we already know to work. If you can understand a market and you know how to craft a good USP, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of most entrepreneurs.
Please note that the examples below make no statement about the quality (or the success) of the actual products or websites in question. You can have a successful business with a rubbish USP (see “first to market” in the USP post). The USP is one (important) component of many, in a business. If you get it right, it makes things easier. There may be examples below of businesses that have a great USP, but fall short in other aspects and vice versa.
The Invoice Dude website wastes a lot of valuable real estate by being repetitive and overly descriptive in the headline and sub-headings.
With “Online Billing and Invoicing Software” as the heading, half of the following line is redundant. Since the heading is so generic, we’ll use the sub-heading as the representation of the product’s USP:
“Invoice Dude is an online billing software specially designed for small and medium businesses”
The description is reasonably short, but that’s the only thing it has going for it. As mentioned above “online billing software” is far too descriptive. It does nothing to separate this product from myriads of competing products and because of that, it should not take up so much valuable space on the homepage.
The biggest issue with this message is that it tries to appeal to too many people. From the two sub-heading lines, we learn that the product is for “individuals”, “small businesses” and “medium businesses”. That encompasses probably 99% of all businesses in the world.
To make it worse, the claims are not backed up. “Thousands of individuals and businesses” like Invoice Dude, but we have to go looking all the way down in the footer to find a single testimonial. The product is “specially designed for small and medium businesses”, but it’s not clear how or why Invoice Dude is supposedly better for my business than a plethora of other invoicing products.
Digging a bit deeper, it seems that one factor that sets this product apart from others is that the hosted version is free, without limitations, forever. Only the self-hosted version comes with a fee. This could be a very strong selling point, but it’s severely under-advertised.
More Invoicing Software Examples
- Invoicera – “Online Billing and Invoicing Solution”
- FreshBooks – “Say Hello to Cloud Accounting”
- Zoho Books – “Online Accounting Software/Accounting Made Easy”
- InaInvoices – “Cloud Based Invoicing Software/Save time and money…”
Highly generic and replaceable messages all around, as you can see. With further digging, some of the above solutions do have USPs that set them apart, but they all do a very poor job of communicating them to new visitors, within the first few seconds (or even minutes, in some cases).
BillFaster has its USP right in the name: it’s all about speed. The core message, that this is a billing software with which you get your desired results very quickly, is repeated throughout the copy on the homepage and in many of the feature descriptions.
We can use the subheading as a representation of the product’s USP and run it through our checklist:
“Professional invoices in 7 seconds.”
The statement is clearly very short and very desirable (no one wants to spend more time than absolutely necessary, with billing software).
So far so good, but is the message also unique? Using speed as a USP is tricky, because speed is potentially an empty benefit – a claim everyone makes and a benefit no one would ever advertise the opposite of. BillFaster handles this perfectly, by adding a lot of specificity to the copy.
If the statement was “Fast Online Billing Software”, it would be generic and forgettable. But the statements made on the site are much more specific than that:
- “Invoices in 7 seconds.”
- “Up and running in 30 seconds, no training required.”
- “Reduce time spent on bookkeeping by 80%”
These are powerful, unique and attention-grabbing statements. They turn what could have been a bland and generic USP into a killer value statement that gives BillFaster a clear edge over the competition.
The only thing that’s missing is the X-Factor: the statements are not particularly catchy and they don’t leave you feeling like you’ve just witnessed something special. However, especially for something like billing software, this may just not be necessary at all.
HappyFox is a helpdesk solution and as such, it is placed in a very competitive market. While it’s clear that there is some focus on customer happiness, the actual primary message on the page is quite confusing. Why are your customers “sticky”? And do you aspire to be “shiny”?
The tagline is a bit less mysterious and serves as a better summary of what might possibly be the intended USP:
“If you keep them happy, you keep them coming back.”
The main issue with this example of a selling proposition is that it isn’t clear or specific enough to fulfill most of the criteria in our checklist. There is a hint of desirability in the message: we do want to make sure our customers are happy and we do want them to keep coming back.
Beyond that, the message fails to convey any details. How exactly does HappyFox make my customers happy? What systems are in place to increase return customers? Where is the proof that it works?
I picked this as an example because it’s a great illustration of how it’s much more important to have a clear message than to have a clever one. Your website visitors should not be left thinking: “that sounds kinda good, but what exactly am I signing up for?”
More Helpdesk Examples:
- Tender Support – “Organizes your customer care so you can focus on delivering the best service possible.”
- SupportBee – “The easiest way to manage customer support emails.”
- SirPortly – “The ultimate solution. Makes handling all your customer support a breeze.”
- ZenDesk – “Supporting customers has never been easier.”
It seems that many helpdesk services struggle with formulating a clear, concise message that sets them apart from the crowd. There’s a lot of emphasis on “easy”. This is fine, except it does nothing to separate one solution from another, since it’s a claim everyone makes. There’s also a lot of focus on features, rather than a simple, core benefit.
The best example of a strong USP in the space (that I could find) is the following:
I believe that HelpScout could do a better job of placing their USP front and center, on their homepage. As with some of the video examples above, it takes a bit of digging to find what really sets this solution apart. The deciding factor can be summarized as follows:
“Invisible Helpdesk: like email for your customers, like a helpdesk for your team.”
The “invisible helpdesk” claim is brilliant for many reasons. First, it’s short and catchy. Once you have watched the video and read some of the copy on the homepage, you’ll be left with this one idea, one concept that neatly summarizes it all and that idea is: it’s an invisible helpdesk.
What it translates to is that you have a solution that you can manage like a helpdesk with your support team, but that looks like normal email communication to your customers. This raises an important question: do my customers want a helpdesk? Or do they just want help? Do they want ticket numbers, account registrations, automated replies etc. or do they just want a friendly email from a member of my team?
This doesn’t only set HelpScout apart from the competition, it makes you consider that there might be something fundamentally wrong with every other solution out there. That’s a beautiful thing and it’s a great example of an “X-Factor” in a USP.
NovaMind is one among a seemingly endless collection of mind mapping programs and I’ve picked it out as a particularly bad example. The homepage features a very extensive image slider. Image sliders have repeatedly been shown to be quite ineffective as is, but the way they are used here is hilariously bad: each slide contains a generic stock photo, along with a generic line of text like “life planning”, “meetings” or “knowledge management”. I honestly couldn’t come up with anything more bland than that if I tried.
The closest statement I could find, that could lend itself as a USP is the following (found on the second-to-last slide):
“Visualize your information to get things done.”
NovaMind might be a great piece of software, but the website does a very bad job of conveying any kind of value, let alone a clear USP. While the statement I picked out isn’t very lengthy in itself, you do have to sit through 13 nauseatingly boring slides to find it. That disqualifies it for the “short” criteria.
As for the desirability, we do want to get things done, but that’s not specific enough to be truly desirable. Plus, the other half of the statement is ambiguous in this department: do I want to visualize my information? I’m not sure.
The X-Factor is very difficult to define, but you can sure tell when it’s missing. The NovaMind site portrays the very opposite of an X-Factor: it is bland and instantly forgettable.
More Mind Mapping Examples:
- MindMeister – “The leading online mind mapping software. (no signup required for the demo)”
- Xmind – “Professional & powerful. World’s coolest mind mapping software, best way to brainstorm, most efficient solution for saving time.”
- MindJet – “83% of the Fortune 100 use Mindjet to work inspired. (move ideas to execution quickly and confidently)”
- MindGenuis – “Designed to meet your business needs. Thousands of people worldwide have been using MindGenuis for more than 10 years.”
- Visual Mind – “Improves effectiveness and productivity. Every day.”
- Mindomo – “Mind Mapping Made Easy. Thousands of people are using Mindomo to organize their work, solve problems and find the next big idea.”
- Bubbl.us – “2 million mind maps created, 1.5 millions users and counting.”
As you can see, there’s a strong emphasis on statements along the lines of “we’re the best/most popular/have the most users”. As usual, when everyone makes the same kind of statement, it becomes meaningless. MindJet make the most of it and manage to stand out by making their claim very specific. If you want to brag in your USP, that’s the way to do it.
I don’t know how popular The Brain is, but it’s a great example of a USP-based product. Instead of creating another among a million and one mind mapping products, the creators of The Brain decided to take a different angle: this app is not for mind mapping, it’s for storing and finding anything and everything in a brain-friendly way. It’s digital storage, organized the same way your brain is.
Note that the basic concept is the same. You could call this a mind mapping app. But in a crowded market like this, it’s cleverer to use a new angle and set yourself completely apart from the competition.
As the USP statement, we’ll go with this:
“Your digital brain: organize and find everything the way you think.”
The weakest part of this statement is the desirability. Yes, I want to organize and remember things, but it doesn’t exactly get me excited. If you watch the video on the site, you’ll see that it does a very good job of presenting a problem and then offering The Brain as a desirable solution – it just takes a bit more than a headline and sub-heading to get the information across.
Having said that, this example does manage to tick all the boxes: it’s completely unique, compared to the competing products, it’s very specific and the whole “works like your brain” concept is fresh and very memorable.
You’ve now seen what difference a good (or bad) unique selling point can make, especially in a crowded market. As stated before, a strong USP is not absolutely necessary for a successful business, but it makes almost every aspect of it easier, so it’s well worth pursuing.
What’s your biggest take-away from these examples? What USP are you working on or what changes do you want to make to the USP of an existing product, business or blog? Let us know by leaving a comment!