Roadside billboards are used for out-of-home advertising. Picture: THE TIMES
Roadside billboards are used for out-of-home advertising. Picture: THE TIMES

A drive along the M1, looking at one billboard after the other, with the radio on, listening to one commercial after the other, can leave you wondering about marketing. Inane, irritating and, of course, the old complaint: “They’re selling me things I don’t need.”

In their determination to enrich the businesses they work for, marketers often seem to do the opposite to society, degrading it.

Advertising counters this – sometimes – by being original, unexpected, funny and, occasionally, very beautiful.

But now there’s a new force to save us all: the death of the unique selling proposition (USP).

Let’s take a step back. Rosser Reeves developed the USP in the 1940s. An ad agency’s job was to bring the promise alive. It worked. The USP made a fortune for the Ted Bates agency and its clients. Famously, an Anacin TV commercial is reputed to have made more money for its client in seven years than Gone with the Wind made in 25.

These days, however, USPs are hard to come by. Global competition and the rapid commoditisation of any competitive advantage mean that manufacturers are floundering in a sea of similarity. The USP is almost unviable as a methodology.

If advertising can’t bring some promise alive, what then? It seems to me that a handful of brands already know the answer.

Bring people, not products, alive

The key is to inspire consumers, affirm their values, and enrich them in some way. Here are three examples.

First, a brand that reassures women they do not need to look like a garden rake. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has been running for 15 years. In its inaugural year, sales increased to $2.5bn. Now they have reached $4bn. More enriching than trying to find a USP in the soap’s surfactants.

Then, washing powder. Encouraging mothers to let their children explore – and get dirty – is a lot nicer than talking about enzymes. And it works – OMO’s Dirt is Good campaign has given OMO double-digit growth, year on year, for over a decade. 

My favourite example is Johnnie Walker. Reminding people that life requires grit and determination – “Keep Walking” – has helped the brand become worth more than the next four brands combined. Incredible. It surely would not have achieved this result by punting an intrinsic property.

The essence of these brands is that they aren’t selling customers “things they don’t want”. Instead, customers get to experience something valuable about themselves.

The big take-out

USPs and selling a product based on its intrinsic properties is a thing of the past. Is there another way to think about developing brands? To formalise brand development that gives the consumer something more – an affirmation, a valued experience, something that enriches society and enriches the brand’s shareholders at the same time.

It’s a completely different game. Once you get it, there’s no going back.

Because they are primarily emotional rather than rational, I call these brands Repetitive Pleasures©.

It’s as if there are two sources of revenue. Customers pay for the actual product and, at the same time, they pay a premium for an affirmation that matters deeply to them.

The brands that enrich society enrich their shareholders.

In my experience, it’s more difficult to develop a Repetitive Pleasure than a USP. It requires a small team of people to venture into the unknown, to face their doubters and naysayers, and bring back a new way for consumers to look at their world.

It’s about aiming to enrich society, rather than degrade it. That’s a worthwhile way to spend your day.

  • Mark Varder is strategy director at Varder Hulsbosch