The unique selling proposition (USP) is a theoretical feature of marketing campaigns that are good at drawing new customers to our products. Unfortunately, our industry has a poor understanding of the USP.
The original theory evolved in the early 1940's, but a combination of time, plagiarism, and Chinese whispers has led us to the misconceptions we hold today.
When is a USP not unique?
Traditionally in games, we describe USP's as the list of features printed on the back of the package to distinguish our game from the competition. This is wrong by definition when the features are vague or listed on competing products too. Can you distinguish these game titles from their bullet points?:
|1. It's a story based adventure, but which one?
2. A horror game perhaps?
3. How many times have we seen something like this?
4. If three whole saves is a selling point, this must be a Nintendo game...
Answers: 1. Onimusha: Warlords, 2. Silent Hill 2, 3. Quake III: Arena, 4. Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
However, given the number of video games, it's unsurprising that most publishers can't come up with one unique feature, never mind a list. But this point gets to the heart of the misconception. In the original definition of the USP it is not the feature that must be unique, but the selling proposition. It's fine to use features that other games have, but you must be unique in selling your game on that feature.
There can be only one
The view of the USP as a list of distinguishing features is a misconception. It is also a problem because it destroys the main strength of the USP. The USP is the one claim about our game that we want our customers to remember. Every advertisement should make the same single claim. It should be blatantly obvious from the cover, not hidden in a list on the back of the package. Market researchers call extra claims, such as the lists given above, "vampire claims," because they suck the life out of our primary USP.
The reason USPs don't build on one another, is because of the way our brains handle the constant stream of advertising we receive. With too much information to deal with we use a technique known as anchoring. The first striking claim we hear about a game becomes our reference point for everything that follows. Claims related to our anchor point reinforce our certainty about the game. We filter out unrelated claims, although each unrelated claim also shakes our belief in our chosen anchor.
Ironically, this same effect explains why so many of us hold a mistaken view of the USP. If the first definition of USPs is that it's a list of features on the back of the box, it takes a lot to shake that view. We create these lists because that's what we've always done and never felt the need to question the sense in it.
Beware of the Vampire
Superfluous claims are not the only drain, equally damaging is a visual ingredient of our advertising unrelated to our message: "vampire video." This is when images in our advertising steal the attention of our customers.
The most common error of this kind in games happens when the marketing teams misapply the adage "sex sells." Sex is good at selling sex, of course. It's just not good at selling anything else and most games have little sexual content. If our customers remember our sexy adverts but don't remember our less than sexy products we're wasting our time and money.
But, even though we cannot guarantee to increase sales by piling up USP or stuffing our campaigns with sexy imagry, it can't do any harm... Or can it?
Buying and Selling
The words buying and selling have many meanings and they often get confused. Selling within the context of advertising (particularly selling a USP) means attracting new customers to our product.
We often judge advertising campaigns based only on the sales results. This is overly simple because it collects together everything contributing to the sales into a single figure. The above examples of poor USPs all sold many copies but we should not credit everything to the campaign. Instead we should calculate the difference between the new rate of sales and the rate of sales before the campaign. That difference can be negative!
Theory and Practice
In general (and specifically in games were products have a low shelf-life) measuring the effect of a campaign is difficult. However, it was measuring this that led to theory of the USP.
So the USP is a set of features common to successful campaigns. It is not a technique we can apply step by step to assure ourselves of a successful marketing campaign. The widely held 'list of USPs' view is neither - it may even be damaging to sales.