USP? Story? What’s the difference

Recently I entered discussion on USP and positioning of a certain brand. That got me thinking about story and USP, their differences and usages.

When talking about stories and branding question may arise, what is the difference between this and other marketing vehicles or techniques? Primarily USP and positioning concepts?


Developed in 1940ties, USP, or Unique Selling Proposition, came out from production era. Products were produced in great numbers to achieve economy of scales and sales function of the company had to sell them. Advertising was function of sales, rather then marketing.
USP is short and clear statement of difference, reason to buy or switch brands. It communicates a benefit that no other product in the category holds, i.e. ‘Product A cleans your stains’

Advertising has to be in line with USP so it communicates it clearly. USP is a concept that helped achieve differentiation of the product on the marketplace, but today, USP is hard to formulate and is thus virtually abandoned as a concept. Products are many, easy to copy and provide relatable benefits that are hard to differentiate in a unique way.


In 1969. Jack Trout posted an article about Positioning and introduced it into marketing vocabulary. Positioning in short is oriented to consumer perception of the product. Due to overwhelming advertising clutter (imagine it was a problem in 1969!) products have no enough power to break in the minds of the consumer. So to beat this, Positioning as a concept was invented.

It was proposed to align specific niche that product is holding with mental concept that is to be created in consumers mind. For instance, classic example is Avis slogan “We are no.2. We try harder”. Idea is to pick an attribute not held by competition and own it in consumer’s mind. If all the attributes are taken, either take it from another brand or make up another one. To put in in real examples, Coca Cola was ‘Real Thing’ while VW Beetle used ‘Think small’ positioning. As you can see, positioning aim is to reduce information processing by even more shortening the mental imprint it wants to achieve in the mind of the consumer.


So how does storytelling relate? Let’s use an example of a Hollywood pitch. A Hollywood pitch was a concept, used extensively in 1980ties to pitch movie ideas in Hollywood. Since producers had no time to read all the scripts, writers or any one with an idea for a movie, had to devise a 3 minute pitch. If you couldn’t formulate the essence of the movie in under three minutes, you were toast. As a result 80 gave us lots of concept movies like: kid is trying to be a karate master, creatures are turned to monsters at midnight and wreck havoc, family holiday goes nuts, when alcoholic uncle comes to babysit, etc.

In order to ‘sell’ the idea, writers had to devise a USP that would differentiate the story from the rest. Going further down the line, we are coming with even shorter pitches, called concepts like godzilla movie, batman movie, western-meets-SF movie, etc. So we got into positioning game.

Storytelling is saying: let me express everything I stand for. It doesn’t summarize benefits, it doesn’t reduced to basic level, it just tells it like it is. Big idea is gone, we cannot solve communication problems we had with old solutions entirely. In a fast-paced world, shortening our message will not get us through the door. So we have to talk, engage in dialog and tell  our story. We can do it since all the tools on the Internet are used just for that, engaging in conversations. We can make videos that are longer than 30″ and tell the story. PR is a great way to tell stories in traditional media, if we could only abstain from official press releases.

In essence USP and positioning loose their usefulness because of three concepts outlined in the book ‘A Whole new world:Why right brainers will rule the future’ by Daniel Pink and they are: Automation, Abundance and Asia. In essence products are to many, too cheap, in too much varieties and can be made in ways that are become ever easier to copy. Because of that simple messages are not the solutions. You will not sell your product or service on tag like ‘We make your theeth white’ or ‘It’s best buy in the category’. What you have to do is engage the consumers and tell them why you are right solution for them.

Could you buy cheaper? Yes

Could you  buy better? Probably if you try hard harder, you could find it.

Could it be more beautiful? Yes

Could it be more convinient? Yes

For all your needs you can find better, cheaper or more advantageous solution than the one before you. Why should you buy it? Because it connects with you, you share the same values as the founders of the company or the brand. You think that it would make you more popular. These are just habdful of reasons to buy and these cannot be established with one-word or one-liner message. So you have to comunicate stories of your brand.

I shared my two cents, so please tell me yours.

I'm currently working as an Account Planner in Direct Media. I'm interested in leveraging brand stories through digital media and helping brands fulfill their potential.

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