By identifying what makes your company unique and letting everybody know about it, you take a key step in successfully marketing your organization. Unique selling propositions (USPs) allow prospects to understand why they should buy from you and reaffirm to customers why they should continue doing business with you.

This article defines a unique selling proposition and explains how to develop USPs for your business. It will help you understand what can differentiate your business from competitors in the eyes of your current and potential customers.

Why should customers buy from you and not your competition? The impact of the answer is a powerful tool in focusing your company on delivering the promise of the USP, thereby helping to improve your company's performance.

An excellent example illustrating the impact of a USP is the Domino's Pizza message: made-to-order hot pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less — guaranteed. That's how Domino's stands out from the competition. It makes Domino's unique and distinctive. It's how Domino's took over the delivered pizza market. It clearly differentiates Domino's in the eyes of potential customers and keeps current customers coming back for more. Notice though, Domino's did not promise the pizza would taste good! What Domino's did do is develop and unify the company “systems” to ensure the stated USP is met. The customer can measure what is promised.

Well-developed USPs clearly answer the questions your prospects and customers may have about why they should do business with you. USPs also help you answer some important internal questions:

  • What positively differentiates my business from the competition? What is, or can be, distinct or unique about my business?

  • What are the focal points around which the success of my business and profitability is built?

  • What do I need to focus my management and employee team on to deliver the promise(s) of the USPs and improve my internal company performance?

  • How do I communicate my USPs to my marketplace and then connect them to my business performance?

A USP is always stated in terms of the benefit(s) it delivers to your prospects or customers. You must be able to state it clearly and then fulfill it effectively. It's not a gimmick. You are making a promise to a prospect or customer that you do things a certain way, and that they will get certain results. It must be credible, not just words or puffery.

How many USPs do you have? What are they? How do they work? How are they used? You should have at least one USP. Remember, a USP is one or more reasons why prospects or customers should buy from you instead of your competitors. Ultimately, your USP(s) will need to be in front of your prospects and customers at every possible opportunity: inside and outside sales, brochures, advertisements, invoices, fax header sheets, catalogs, newsletters, your Web site, on delivery vehicles, posted on the walls, etc. It should be a key part of your sales pitch.

Although the concept of USPs is relatively easy to understand, coming up with a USP can sometimes be tough. It must truly be unique and set you apart from your competitors. It must be perceived as an advantage and a benefit to prospects/customers, and it must by significantly different from what your competitors are offering. Some of our clients have expressed it as a matter of value and a level of customer intimacy their competitors don't have.

Don't make price your only USP. You must have a basis for competing that goes beyond price. Combine price, if necessary, with more value: something your competition doesn't do, doesn't offer, would find difficult to do or can't duplicate. It's important that the USP(s) not be easily copied.

To come up with a USP, you first need to know what your competitors offer. This is not a new concept. You can't compete if you don't know what you're up against. Take some time and check out what they have. Do some competitive research in the form of a customer-satisfaction survey or a competitive analysis. You may be surprised by what you learn. You might discover what you could offer that the competition doesn't.

You need to determine which benefits are most important to your prospects and customers and which benefits are most difficult for your competition to duplicate.

To develop a meaningful USP, think about answering the following three questions:

  • What is it that your customers seek? What are their met and unmet needs?

  • What are your competitors offering or promoting as “unique and distinctive” to them?

  • What USP(s) could your company realistically and consistently execute and take pride in?

By understanding the needs of the customer and what the competition provides and promotes, your company can identify the unmet needs in the market. What do your customers want that is not being provided by the competition, or the competition isn't doing well? In other words, “Go where the competition is not!”

The following exercises will help you get the ball rolling and begin thinking about why prospects and customers choose to buy from you.

Exercise 1: Your Company's “Ideal” Customer Profile. Grab a notepad and list your 10 “best” customers. Next, list those characteristics that you feel make them your “best” customers. You will gain insights into what needs you are fulfilling for your customers.

Exercise 2: Your Company's “Worst” Customers' Characteristics. Identify your 10 “worst” customers, including those that may no longer be active customers, and list those characteristics that make them your worst customers. You will gain insights into those customer needs, or demands, which you might not want to meet, and therefore not have as your USP.

Exercise 3: List what you believe to be — or could be — your company's unique and distinctive strengths. Work hard to identify what it is about your company that sets it apart from the competition and makes it truly unique.

This exercise is usually difficult, so spend some time and really give some honest thought to the ways you feel your company is unique. The key to this exercise is to think about your company in terms of what it does or could stand for that is truly different from other companies in your marketplace.

Once you identify these unique characteristics, you can begin to select those customers who truly appreciate and value what it is that your company uniquely offers.

Write down every idea that you and your team come up with. Don't worry about how silly they might seem, just brainstorm with the data you have. No thought is too far fetched at this point. Sometimes those “silly ideas” that you laugh about are actually things your competitors don't offer and can sometimes be incorporated into a USP.

The next step is to nail down your list. Be creative and really think here. That alone will make you more competitive even if others use the same approach. Why? You are now more competitive within your industry because you now offer things some competitors may not.

If you're having trouble coming up with unique offerings and strengths, try finishing the following sentences. Please note there is a similarity in each of the following incomplete sentences by design. They're designed to help stimulate and prompt your immediate “first-in-mind” thoughts. Pick whichever sentences work best for you.

  • My company is the only electrical distributor in my competitive selling area that

  • My company is unique and distinctive from other electrical distributors in my competitive selling area because

Now, for every unique strength you listed ask yourself, “So what?” Why is the strength you listed important? Is it truly unique and distinctive? Prove to yourself that the strength you listed is really unique and distinctive by starting each sentence with:

We are the only ones who

We are different because

The completion of the statements above does not have to be just a phrase. It could be a set of performance standards, but it's best to have one clearly written sentence. Don't worry about that now. Just get some honest thoughts on paper.

The life span of a USP can be limited. They will not last forever. A competitor could eventually duplicate or better your advantage, so USPs need to be reviewed at least every two years. A periodic customer satisfaction survey and/or competitive analysis can help.

Unifying systems to execute a USP. Domino's Pizza had to develop and unify its company systems to ensure its USP was met consistently. Domino's made sure a system — organizationally, procedurally and from a technology perspective — was in place to support the execution of its 30-minute USP 100 percent of the time.

This “continuous improvement” focus was to squeeze out all the waste in processes that did not provide value to the customer and support their proclaimed USP.


Howard W. Coleman and Steven Prisco are principals with MCA Associates, Derby, Conn., a 20-year-old management consulting firm that works primarily with wholesale distributors on implementing continuous improvement solutions focused on business process re-engineering, supply-chain management, sales development and processes, information systems and technology, organizational assessment and development, and succession planning. E-mail hcoleman@mcaassociates.com or visit www.mcaassociates.com.

Examples of Unique Selling Propositions (USPs)

Here is a sampling of USPs that some distributors have successfully implemented.

  • Daily truck deliveries within a specified and consistent 15-minute window every day.
  • Daily express delivery prior to the beginning of the workday.
  • Electronic inventory management at the customer's job site or stockroom.
  • Guaranteed delivery in an hour for customers within a 15-mile radius (fee based).
  • Business management services to contractors, including bidding and quotation software education; accounting systems, collections and cash flow management education.