How to Differentiate a Brand

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The concept of the Unique Sales Proposition (USP) has been enshrined in marketing and sales circles for decades. Advanced by advertising executive Rosser Reeves in the late 1940s and 50s and then introduced into the lexicon in his 1961 book Reality in Advertising, he called on brands to extend their product advertising from product features to the specific unique benefits their product delivers to consumers.

The value of a brand’s USP was to move the “mass millions” to buy the product. One of the most famous taglines he is credited with was for the chocolate covered M&M candy. It’s USP was, “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

USP Legacy

Since then, the USP concept has continued to be taught and practiced, but many marketing thought leaders, like Philip Kotler, Jack Trout and Al Ries, have called out its weakness. Product benefits can be non-specific — claiming better customer service, lower prices, higher quality workmanship or materials — and can only take a brand so far. And just like product features can be copied, competitors can also deliver the same or similar benefits.

The UPD needs to be aspirational for both the consumer and the company. Don’t be afraid of making big promises to customers and asking for big commitments from staff. That is how great disruptive brands and companies are built.

The USP was a solution in the “Mad Men” era of the 4Ps in marketing: Product, Price, Promotion, Placement. But we’ve moved on from then. Mass media has been fractured and consumer target markets have splintered into smaller and smaller segments. Brands need to make an emotional connection with each and every customer rather than rely on mass appeal.

Harvard professor Theodore Levitt suggests differentiation is the way to bring the USP concept into the post-Mad Men era. “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.” The USP is intended to drive a transaction, but that’s not enough anymore. Brands need consumer connection. That’s the goal of the UPD.

Differentiating Points

As useful as the concept of the USP was in its day, its relevance has expired. The simple fact is nobody wants to be sold to. Today’s consumers must be fascinated and intrigued. Their shopping journey is activated by the thrill of discovery. Engaging consumer curiosity activates the journey and then making a purchase satisfies this most compelling human emotion.

Communicating a brand’s Unique Point of Difference (UPD) in an emotionally engaging way speaks to customer experiences, not just product features and benefits. And it’s what’s needed now. Instead of pushing the brand’s USP out — a very expensive proposition — a UPD pulls consumers in. It’s the secret sauce that disruptive brands have been exploiting for years.

Unlike the USP, which is competitor focused — why our brand is better than their brand — the unique point of difference is consumer focused. It takes the USP’s product features and benefits and adds the element of customer experience. The brand’s mission, values, and promises become the ties that bind the brand with the customer.

The old Restoration Hardware had a unique selling proposition, but it was still a home furnishings retailer. It evolved to RH through its unique point of difference — as an ecosystem of products, places, services, and spaces. Or as CEO Gary Friedman explains, “Our vision is to move the brand beyond curating and selling product [USP’s role ] to conceptualizing and selling spaces by building an ecosystem of products, places, services and spaces that elevate and establish the RH brand as a global thought leader, taste, and placemaker [RH’s UPD].”

Process Innovation

Product innovation is one way to leverage a company’s UPD, as exemplified by Apple, Tesla, and Dyson. But that requires skill sets and R&D investments that many companies don’t have or can’t afford. RH, for example, didn’t create anything uniquely new in the home furnishings or retail space. It just brought them together in new and innovative ways. It was through process innovation, rather than product innovation, that RH found its UPD.

Jeff Bezos adopted the process innovation approach to disrupt the book retail industry and went on to use it to disrupt virtually every other consumer goods category. He didn’t innovate with products –Amazon sold the same books every other bookstore sold — only sold them differently over the then-nascent online channel. Books became the concept test, and Amazon expanded rapidly to dominate online retail, holding about 40 percent total market share.

The digital-native men’s fashion brand Untuckit is another process innovator. There’s virtually nothing different about an Untuckit men’s dress shirt other than it is cut slightly shorter in the hem, saving fabric in the process. Its standard $99 price tag leans toward the premium side of the typical men’s dress shirt.

Valued at $600 million during its Series A funding round, Untuckit now has more than 80 North American stores and has expanded its men’s fashion range and introduced women’s clothing all based upon its head-turning story about why regular shirts don’t look good worn untucked. At the same time, their shirts are designed to look modern and polished while exuding an on-trend vibe.

Bobbi Brown is doing much the same with her new Jones Road beauty line, the next evolution in her clean, no-makeup approach to makeup after selling her first company to Estee Lauder in 1995 and stepping aside in 2016. It is anchored by a “Miracle Balm” that can work as a foundation, blush, bronzer, highlighter or just a glow enhancer. Jones Road’s UPD is “a lifetime of beauty knowledge, distilled,” something only Bobbi Brown authentically and authoritatively can deliver.

These disruptive brands found white space in an existing market, or like RH and Amazon who were first into the market with a new process. Or like Untuckit and Jones Road, they created their own new unique white spaces in a crowded market that they alone could fill.

Social Values

There was a time when brands that took a stance on environmental and social responsibility issues got noticed as part of a USP, but now environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies are simply the cost of doing business. And throwing money at non-profits is increasingly inconsequential. Nobody notices; it’s what’s expected. In other words, it isn’t a point of differentiation.

However, some brands are taking ESG to the next level, making them more meaningful than virtue- signaling corporate statements and donations. Beekman 1802 is a prime example of elevating the typical ESG position. The kind-to-skin personal care brand got its start on the Sharon Springs, NY farm of Dr. Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Being kind to their neighbors — what the company calls its customers and how the QVC/HSN call center answers the phone during their frequent on-air appearances — has always been a hallmark of the company and the brand. But for Beekman 1802 kindness is more than just the tagline, “There’s Beauty in Kindness.”

They spread kindness everywhere they go through special events for World Kindness Day in November, plus random and not-so-random acts of kindness every day. Case in point, when Mount Sinai nurses went on strike earlier this year in New York, the company delivered hot chocolate to all of them.

Kindness is the company’s overriding mission. “Throughout the years, Beekman 1802 has worked tirelessly to spread Kindness across the globe,” Ridge said. “Our team gives back through volunteering, product donations, hosting Kindness Workshops, giving money through Kindness Grants and donating millions to charities. Acts of Kindness create endless ripples.”

Kendra Scott is another company that goes above and beyond to live their values, not just talk about them. The eponymous-named jewelry company was founded in 2002 in Kendra’s bedroom as a new mom. It has grown to 130 retail stores, plus its jewelry is carried by Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and 850+ independents. The company was valued at $1 billion by Berkshire Partners upon its investment. Ever since its founding, “Family, Fashion and Philanthropy” have been the three pillars of the Kendra Scott brand. CEO Tom Nolan said, “of those, family and philanthropy are the ones that matter most.” Kendra works to empower other female entrepreneurs through the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

Besides donating over $50 million to philanthropic organizations since 2010, the company brings its good deeds closer to home. For example, each Kendra Scott store manager is given full autonomy to sponsor events for local causes and people in need in their community. Nearly 15,000 such events were held last year, magnifying the company’s reach.

Plus, the company’s “Kendra Cares” program takes its jewelry making “Color Bar” to hospitals to bring joy to patients. After experiencing a jewelry making event at Sloan Kettering’s pediatric oncology ward, Tom Nolan became CEO after serving on its board. “While I was on the board, I went to one of our philanthropic ‘Kendra Cares’ programs at the Sloan Kettering pediatric oncology ward,” he shares. “It was a very unhappy place that we turned it into a very happy place by making jewelry for these kids and their families. After I gathered myself, I returned home and told my family, ‘We’ve got to move to Austin. I want to be able to work in a place where I can make such a difference in people’s lives,’” he continued.

Any company can throw money at one cause or another but living it like Beekman 1802 and Kendra Scott do each and every day is more than a step above; it’s a distinctive difference that separates these companies and their brands from the rest of the pack.

Tell the Story Effectively

Evolving from the USP to the UPD requires a complete reframing of what and how the company and brand communicate its distinctive differences. Marketers trained under UPS protocols may not fully understand the perspective shift needed to fully grasp the UPD concept. They may think their product feature and benefit USP statements are enough or that the company’s mission statement on the “About Us” web page is sufficient. Neither is the case.

The UPD must be crafted from the consumers’ perspective, rather than the company’s. That means the “About Us” web page, while ostensibly about the company or brand, must really be about the customer and what doing business with the company will mean to them. Qualitative consumer research with some of the company’s most loyal customers can help executives see the company from their outsider-looking-in point of view.

Questions that need to be addressed to identify a company’s and a brand’s unique point of difference include:

  • What was the original spark that the company was founded on? How has it evolved over time? Has that originating spark been extinguished? How can it become a roaring fire? For example, Beekman 1802 was always a “kind to skin” brand and a “neighbor-friendly” company, but it’s UPD was hidden in plain sight behind its USP of clean, natural skincare, which many other brands claim. It took time for Kindness to become codified into the company’s greater mission.
  • What are the subtle differences that distinguish the company and its brand from the competitors and how can those differences be magnified and made more real for the customer? Untuckit made the most of subtle differences, then magnified them through powerful storytelling.
  • What makes the company great? Brands can get diffused, and companies lose focus as they expand into new categories. The path toward being a “lifestyle brand” is strewn with casualties. Sometimes it pays to return to the original mission.
  • Is the company mission and purpose communicated clearly and often? For example, every ad introducing a new product should include some statement about how that product furthers the company’s mission and promise to the customer. It must communicate the “why” behind the product, not just its features and benefits as per the USP. That’s evident in all of Bobbi Brown’s Jones Road marketing communications.
  • What unique processes does the company follow that makes it uniquely different from others? Competitors may make the same things, so the UPD needs to be stated in the different ways those same things are made. Kendra Scott makes jewelry like many others, but who takes jewelry making into children’s hospitals? A company’s unique talents and strengths can often be found in their processes that are then reflected in their products and services.
  • Importantly, the UPD needs to be aspirational for both the consumer and the company. Don’t be afraid of making big promises to customers and asking for big commitments from staff. That is how great disruptive brands and companies are built.



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