USP in times of ecosystems

3 mins read

Digital transformation often means tackling projects with new partners. For example, you might use an external platform to organize your IoT services. Or, think about the shipping solution recently introduced by IBM and Maersk. It is a blockchain-enabled solution designed to promote more efficient and secure global trade. According to press reports, many partners like 20 port operators, customs authorities and competitors have already joined. Representatives of IBM speak of meanwhile 1.5Mio events on the Blockchain per day [1].

The systems are becoming networked. In the virtual world, it can be harder to create uniqueness for the customer.

So, for ~80 years people have been talking about the “unique selling proposition”. People use the term as if it were the only thing needed to succeed in the market. As in saturated markets, the focus anyway shifts away from technical characteristics and towards values ​​and symbols, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the term.

What is the significance of the unique selling proposition in today’s world and where can you find it?

The term exists since 1940. It was introduced by the advertising pioneer Rosser Reeves. In 1961 he lined the term with a theory in the book “Reality in Advertising”. The author came from the advertising industry with a focus on television ads. He worked with large manufacturers of consumer goods [2].

According to Rosser Reeves, a unique selling proposition must have three qualities:

(1) it has to say what it does for the customer;

(2) it must be unique;

(3) it must be relevant to the clientele.

In his book, he lists some examples of USPs based on technical characteristics. But, he also shows good examples where there was no technical uniqueness. For example, for years a manufacturer of mouthwash had successfully established itself on the market with the slogan “STOPS HALITOSIS!”. The competitors couldn’t match the verbal USP. To say, that their products do the same is a bit weak of a USP. Even with slightly modified USP, simplicity and catchiness was in favor of the creative and somehow blunt market participant.

And it worked: because the same slogan was repeated over and over again. In this example, you see, that the actual USPs is created in the minds of customers and not by the efforts of the organization. You can help your customers in creating the USP by making the phrase as catchy as possible and then to stick with that.

What does that mean for today, in the era of ecosystems? Can you achieve a USP with technologies like IoT, blockchain, augmented reality or big data? Not really. Regardless of what you do, partnering, establishing joint ventures, acquiring companies, and organic growth initiatives, create relevance for the customer. Do it by using a clear identity, value set, and purpose for a long period of time. With that in place, you will succeed in achieving “deep innovation”, such as digital transformation, technological change or mastering the generation change.

Why? Because the customers, ecosystem partners and other stakeholder will have a consistent image supporting the uniqueness of your organization. The identity becomes integral part of the USP.


[2] Reeves, Rosser (1961). Reality in Advertising. New York: Alfred A.


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