Advertising started with the snake-oil salesmen in the Wild West.

They didn’t really have anything to sell except bottles of coloured water, which didn’t actually do anything.

So all that was important was how these salesmen could charm the gullible public.

They admired and trusted the salesman, so they’d buy whatever he was selling.

As people gradually became more educated, this resulted in advertising getting a bad reputation.

Just like used-car salesmen.

Who would avoid talking about the product, but would seduce you with their patter.

In 1950s America there was a reaction against this.

Manufacturers didn’t want patronising advertising that was greeted with suspicion by their customers, and made the company look bad.

So the USP was born.

The Unique Selling Proposition.

Avoid smarmy salesmanship.

Stick to the facts.

Find something different about your product and say it.

So everyone copied that for a while.

And advertising became really boring.

“Our washing powder gets your clothes X% cleaner.”

“Our car gives you X% more miles per gallon.”

“Our washing machine spins X% faster.”

“Our dishwasher is X% quieter.”

“Our TV set gives you X% more colour.”

This was a corruption of a good idea.

Finding something unique about your product is a great start point.

Finding a reason why someone should actually part with cash for what you make rather than what your competitor makes.

This is common sense if you’re in the business of selling anything to anyone.

The problem is lazy thinking.

Finding any difference, no matter how small or irrelevant, and stopping there.

USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition.

The two magic two here are ‘unique’ and ‘selling’.

What you talk about has to be unique, not just a marginal improvement on what everyone else offers.

Plus, for it to be ‘selling’, which means it has to be something that people truly want.

Not just any old point of difference.

Unique on it’s own isn’t enough.

But lazy thinking meant that, as soon as anyone found any benefit, no matter how tiny, they called it a USP and did an ad.

Then the ads became all about delivering this information.

So the ads were dull, factual, purely informative.

And the USP got a bad name because of it.

It was replaced by the ESP.

The Emotional Selling Proposition.

This is the belief that, since information was boring, you don’t have to say anything at all.

All that’s important is how you say it.

So you have the latest fashion.

The rise of pure brand advertising.

All that matters is the brand, the product is unimportant.

Everyone is trying to say nothing in a very charming and seductive way.

A sort of postmodern Arthur Daley.

I’ve just finished reading a speech by Bill Bernbach.

He talks about the need for both emotion and reason.

Start with a fact, but don’t stop there.

How you say something may well be more important than what you say.

But you have to have something to say in the first place.

If you have nothing to say that will soon be apparent.

No one will be fooled.

Think of it as an oyster.

You start with a piece of grit, and build a pearl around it.

People buy the pearl, they don’t buy the grit.

But no grit, no pearl.

When you talk to someone about something you passionately believe in, they won’t just buy the logic of your argument.

They’ll also buy the passion with which you deliver it.

But if it’s passion about nothing, they won’t buy that either.

Because that’s just back to snake-oil salesmen.