Today the USP is NQE (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

If you have ever had to pack and move, then you understand.

I am moving into a new office. Being a bit of a pack-rat, I came across some files I used during my time on the marketing faculty of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a decade ago. That offered a moment to revisit an icon of advertising history and to share with you how a traditional assumption about persuading consumers applies today.

The icon is Rosser Reeves. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then just consider that Reeves was one of the real-life models for the Don Draper character in “Mad Men.”

From the 1940s into the 1960s, Reeves advanced his concept that successful products needed a “unique selling proposition” or USP — a single, logical reason to show potential customers your product is superior. Reeves then would drive that USP into consumers’ heads with high repetition through advertising.

Reeves and the agency he co-founded — Ted Bates & Co. — successfully used the USP concept for client brands such as M&Ms, Viceroy, Anacin, Carter’s Little Liver Pills and Citizens for Eisenhower. The technique worked so well that in 2003 my students could recite M&Ms “melt in your mouth, not in your hand” even though the TV ads had not run for years.

The USP technique is still widely used today, although you might hear the terminology dressed up a bit as “value proposition.” However, it has also run smack into the new realities of media as well as new research about the ways people think about brands.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman has led the way in explaining how, in most cases, people aren’t that rational in making decisions. His book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” summarized a line of research that generated the field of behavioral economics.

Kahneman says consumers process information through two separate systems of thinking. As he put it, System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” System 2 involves some amount of mental effort, particularly with “the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” Kahneman concludes that as consumers we operate in System 1 unless forced to transition into System 2. In his day, Reeves crafted messages that assumed System 2 thinking.

I lean toward Kahneman’s view, with an emphasis on the particular situation. I think we, as consumers, spend much of our time on autopilot — especially when exposed to marketing messages.

In fact, when I was on the academic side, some assumptions about how audiences process ads had already begun to change. A popular model (the “elaboration likelihood model,” in case you wondered) assumed that a consumer would use either “central” or “peripheral” thinking when exposed to an ad. Unless something about the product, brand or situation was inherently engaging to that consumer — and prompted central or logical thinking — then the ad would burn little if any of the consumer’s brain energy.

I don’t think the USP model is necessarily wrong after 60-plus years, but I do consider it NQE: not quite enough. It just doesn’t explain the majority of persuasive opportunities in 2013 when it comes to common consumer goods.

There are certainly times when System 2 thinking applies — for example, when a purchase decision involves complexity, risk, significant cost and/or justifying the choice to other people. In the business-to-business marketing realm, potential buyers often need some level of proof or objectivity. This is not because business buying teams are always coolly rational, but rather because they have to explain their decisions. Social media involve some System 2 processes as well. As communication expert Don Schultz reminded me, it requires conscious choice to decide whether to share a post and with whom.

In today’s environment, it’s inefficient to pound a rational product story into consumers’ heads when they are typically on autopilot. The challenge is to blend the intuitive and the rational in a two-system reality. n

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.