Over the last week I’ve been creating a lesson for EdAcademy about how to position a product or service – specifically dealing with the sales message companies are using to ‘attract’ schools. This got me thinking about USPs.


Unique Selling Proposition

Yawn. I’m so tired of hearing ‘We need to define our USP,’ If you don’t want to read this article then here’s the punchline – if you are struggling to define your USP, then you do not have one, and that’s okay.

A short while ago, USPs seemed to be the talk of the town, alongside knowing the difference between a feature and a benefit. Don’t get me wrong, this knowledge is important in marketing and sales, but I think times have changed and the impact of a USP is negligible.


Let’s take some examples:

  • We’re the cheapest X in the market!
  • We have the best customer service in town!
  • Delivering your parcel within 24 hours

How about some educational ones?

  • 10,000 more questions than any other maths product
  • The best Adaptive Learning platform available
  • The first ever single sign on VLE

So what’s the big problem you ask? Well, I have two issues with USPs:

Ticking Clock

Every single USP above is a ticking clock waiting for a competitor to nullify. Cheapest product around? For now. Delivering parcels in 24 hours? Nice idea, we could do that. 10,000 more questions? Let’s go write 10,001 questions.

You see, a USP can very quickly become irrelevant, and if it is your main selling point, you are potentially selling yourself up the river.

Nobody Cares

More importantly than the above issue, nobody gives a rat’s ass about USPs other than the company writing them (slight caveat which I will explain shortly). The key to selling any product or service is to speak to your audience’s specific desired end result.It’s about knowing what their life is like without your product and explaining the transformational shift that occurs when they buy it. When you try to define USPs, you are encouraged to think about your product and it’s features, not the transformational shift, and that is a problem.

It should not be about saying ‘the best Adaptive Learning engine around’ but a solution that gives teachers back time – time to spend delivering 1:1 teaching to those who need it most, helping the students that aren’t quite getting it, and pushing those who are exceeding in school.

It’s not about saying ‘10,000 more maths questions than any other product’ but a solution that is shown to help students boost their maths skills regardless of ability, whilst providing teachers with enough content for the entire year.

It’s not about saying ‘exporting reports in PDF, Excel or html’, but a solution that enables instant overviews of student attainment in an easy to understand format that is perfect for SLT and Ofsted reports.

It’s about referencing the before state (where the prospect has a need, something missing in their life, they are in a negative state) and highlighting the potential after state (where the prospect is complete, their need is solved and they are in a positive state). We call this the ‘Transformational shift’, and it’s pretty damn powerful.

Take Diet Coke for instance. They have no USP – it’s just a drink. What they have got though is a stylised before and after state, where the diet coke can is purely the method of transport that takes the consumer from normal person to ‘sex god’, the viewer from having fun with friends/working in the office (depending on how old you are) to being pulled into this intense highly sexualalised new reality. The messaging screams before = fun, after = sex, or for the slightly more mature of us, before = office work, after = sex, not ‘we sell drinks’.

Sexualising products in the education sector is probably not a good idea, so let’s take one more example.

Xero is an online accounting/invoicing product – about as dull as it gets. They don’t lead with the integrations to most UK banks, hooks to HMRC, payroll functionality etc, because they know this doesn’t generate enough of an emotion. Instead they say:

“Picture your business running on your terms”

Instantly reaching out to smaller business owners who need to deal with their own invoicing but probably don’t have great expertise in it. They are setting the tone to a positive future for me and my business where I am in control of the money. Good start.


“Xero is an online accounting software that helps you to save time on your paperwork and get paid faster”

Yep, I’m interested. As a small business owner, I spend too much time on paperwork that I don’t really understand, if I can save time on that I am happy. I’m also fed up of chasing invoices, you’re saying I can get paid faster? What’s the catch?


‘Start your 30 day free trial today’.

Huh. I’m in.

This is not by chance. Everything about Xero’s positioning reaches out to the small business owner, sets the before and after state, and reassures with a free trial.


Okay, USPs are not totally irrelevant

So to explain the caveat, whilst I feel USPs are a distraction in the discovery stage (when someone is first learning about your product), they CAN be useful during the evaluation stage (when someone is deciding whether to make the purchase).

We need to start treating USPs in a similar (yet less important) way that we treat social proof – it is potentially a great way to convince people to sign the cheque. Once they are bought into the idea of your product or service’s potential, having a USP that differentiates your product may encourage people to take that leap, just as a nice quote from a current user would.

So there you have it, for us and our clients, USPs aren’t really a focus. Understanding our audience and reaching out to their desired end result is.

You can find out more about this process at EdAcademy.co, the education marketing training website, with easy to implement marketing recipes that turn teachers into customers, and customers into brand advocates.