PERSPECTIVE: Dismissing usp as old hat can lead to less forcible work

You don’t have to be a genius to work out what lies behind Bates Dorland’s decision to reclaim its heritage (Campaign, last week) by reviving Rosser Reeves’ concept of the unique selling proposition. Dorlands is, of course, trying to come up with its very own usp.

You don’t have to be a genius to work out what lies behind Bates

Dorland’s decision to reclaim its heritage (Campaign, last week) by

reviving Rosser Reeves’ concept of the unique selling proposition.

Dorlands is, of course, trying to come up with its very own usp.



For those who don’t know, Reeves, a copywriter who became head of the

then Ted Bates agency, was perhaps the most influential adman of the

late 50s and early 60s. Reeves believed that the consumer could remember

only one thing from an ad, so finding something that was unique, that

would sell and that could not be copied by the opposition, was a pretty

good place to start. Moreover, Reeves believed the usp worked best if it

was rational and function-related.



Looking back now, original Reeves lines like ’Melts in your mouth, not

in your hand’ (for Mars’s M&Ms), or the famous one for Bic biros,

’Writes the first time, every time’, sound incredibly dated today.

Certainly, the classic Reeves trademark of clipboard-wielding scientists

would be laughed out of court - although, even today in ads, a man in a

white coat is a universally recognised symbol of authority. Today there

is something very American and hard-sell about Reeves’ style, something

so incredibly ... well, boring. But who’s to deny that for the time -

the era of the Cold War, brainwashing scares and Vance Packard’s the

Hidden Persuaders - Reeves hadn’t caught the zeitgeist?



Surely then, you could argue, the usp is irrelevant today? I’m not so

sure. In fact, to my mind, reclaiming the usp is a bit like going back

to basics. It’s what we all need to do from time to time. Like all good

concepts, it is capable of standing the test of time.



Spending an evening watching TV, one is struck by two things: first, too

many ads still obviously lack an idea and, second, style is too often

used as a substitute for content. Whatever else you may think about it,

the concept of the usp imposes a discipline upon the agency: it has to

find an idea off which it can sell. Too often in this country we pretend

selling is a dirty word but, in fact, such an attitude can be no more

than an excuse to avoid thinking properly about the product.



What’s interesting, of course, is that some of today’s best-loved and

well-known campaigns have their roots in Reeves’ usp. Take the new

Levi’s ad, ’mermaids’, based on the simple idea that only Levi’s makes

jeans shrunk to fit. Indeed, the whole Levi’s campaign is based on the

usp.



Or take Wonderbra (good for the cleavage); Boddingtons (creamy beer);

BMW (German engineering) or Tango (the instant hit).



So it’s a shame the new Dorlands ads for Heinz (Campaign, last week),

based on cloying family values and cliched soundtracks by Ladysmith

Black Mambazo (where have we had both those ideas before?) totally

ignore the usp. It makes you wonder. Did they forget to tell the

creative department what they were doing?



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