I had always thought of USP as the heart and soul of a brand, the one thing a consumer takes away from the advertising. It doesn't have to be directly stated, yet it is the essence of the brand.
But then again, maybe I'm wrong. I got a call the other day from another legendary agency guy, Bill Tragos, chairman-CEO of TBWA*International. He wanted to complain about the headline we put on my column a couple of weeks ago. The headline read: "Unique selling proposition falls prey to ads as entertainment."
Bill's point was that USP is not only outmoded and antiquated but also "repetitive hyperbole." I think he got that idea from one of Ted Bates' ads of the time for Anacin-"Anacin gives you fast, fast, fast relief."
The thrust of my column was that advertisers these days seem content to entertain and don't bother much with selling. Bill said that was "a phony argument. There's no such thing as advertising that works if it's pure entertainment. But entertainment that works is great advertising."
I was shocked-shocked!-when Bill said that his famous brands such as Absolut vodka don't have a USP. I would have thought that Absolut's USP was that the brand is appropriate for every possible occasion. Every brand has a USP, whether you want to discover it or not.
Bill says he equates USP "with the worst days of advertising. USP is about repeating the big lie."
How did three little words manage to stir up such pique?
The Unique Selling Proposition was first enunciated in Rosser Reeves' book, "Reality in Advertising," published in 1961. Before it had even hit bookstores, the book won Ted Bates & Co. the $6 million Mobil Oil account. What the book is about, we said at the time, is the "Bates-Reeves theory of advertising. It is a theory that has both its adherents and imitators. It is the basis of the Bates claim that it has never lost a client, and it accounted for agency growth from $14 million to more than $140 million in a dozen years.
"These are impressive qualifications, and `Reality in Advertising' is an impressive book. It is written without equivocation and without modesty. It has the ring of authority and the stamp of assurance in every sentence. This massive assurance is likely to upset a good many readers, who may find it startling that Moses was able to get along with 10 commandments, while it takes Reeves 36 chapters."
Rosser Reeves' book made a lot of sense (maybe because he was the brother-in-law of David Ogil-vy, who said he was ordering 450 copies-"one for each member of my staff and one for every client.")
Readers are adjured to "think of USP not so much as something you put into an advertisement. Think of USP as something the consumer takes out of an advertisement." What's wrong with that, Bill Tragos?
But just to show you that Bill isn't completely paranoid about USP, our own publication warned against the ad community hopping on the USP bandwagon. "If all the agencies in America were to flock to the USP standard, we'd need fast-fast-FAST relief. The air would be hideous with the echoing claim and the diagrammatic complaint, and the poor audience would be cowering before the most tasteless and strident barrage of commercials in history."
We said we were glad the book was written. "Undoubtedly, it will provide some fuel for the flames of those who dislike and deplore advertising. But, at the same time, it will serve as a dousing in cold water for those (and there are too many of them) who think the primary function of advertising is to amuse and entertain, rather than sell."
And that was precisely the point Bill Tragos called me about 36 years later.