Jun 9, 2023

No, I’m not talking about a college basketball match-up…

I’m talking about two of the most “famous” acronyms in copywriting and marketing.

The first, USP, stands for “Unique Selling Proposition”.

The second, UM, stands for “Unique Mechanism”.

It’s easy to get these terms confused, even if you’re a seasoned copywriter or marketer.

So now that I’m feeling revived and rested after a much-needed two-week vacation in California… where I sipped my way through Russian River Valley, Napa, and Temecula (and joined too many wine clubs… I’m a sucker for a good offer), let me explain the difference.

We’ll start with USP. It’s a marketing term that’s been around forever. I remember learning about it in my 20s when I took my first class for my MBA in Marketing.

USP is an element or feature that makes your product or service superior to that of your competitors… and makes it stand out in some unique way.

It can often be summed up in a memorable slogan (i.e., M&M’s “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”). A good USP often comes out of extensive customer and competitive research to determine how a product or brand is perceived, and what gives it a unique edge.

Because a strong USP can often focus on a unique feature, it’s easy to get it mixed up with a Unique Mechanism (UM). In some cases, there could be overlap.

But a USP is more the “What”… whereas a UM is more about the “How”.

The UM focuses on how your product or service is able to deliver the desired benefit or result. It’s some unique element that allows it to work in a specific way.

It could be a unique form of an ingredient… a unique system… a unique algorithm… or a unique formula or combination.

For example, back when I was running the Healthy Directions supplement business, the USP was all about the doctor behind the company at the time: Dr. Julian Whitaker. Healthy Directions was the only place you could get his recommended, personally-formulated supplements.

Whereas for one of the products–let’s say it’s a Coenzyme Q10 product, the UM for that product would have been the unique softgel designed for maximum bioavailability–so that you get 3 times the heart support of other CoQ10 softgels, and enjoy that benefit far faster.

I can’t talk about Unique Mechanisms without giving a shoutout to the late Gene Schwartz. The one chapter of his classic Breakthrough Advertising book that I’ve referred to the most is where he talks about the stages of market sophistication.

As far as I know, Gene invented the marketing term “mechanism”, framing it as a “new mechanism” necessary when advertising a product or service once the market reached the third stage of market sophistication.

Gene describes it in his book as “a new way to making the old promise work. A different process–a fresh chance–a brand-new possibility of success where only disappointment has resulted before”.

And once the market gets to the fourth stage of market sophistication, the mechanism needs to become enlarged. It must make it “easier, quicker, surer; allow it to solve more of the problem; overcome old limitations; promise extra benefits”.

As I’ve explained in some of my trainings, I’ve beaten many a 3rd-stage headline involving a mechanism with an enlarged, 4th-stage mechanism headline. That’s because for many saturated niches like supplements, a bigger, better Unique Mechanism is a must.

Now I want to share with you a classic advertising story. If you’ve been in this business for a while, it’s a good bet you’ve heard it. But it helps illustrate the difference between a USP and a UM.

Back in the early 1960s a young copywriter named Bud Robbins was given an assignment to write an ad for the Aeolian Piano Company’s concert grand piano. The ad was to be a full page in the New York Times.  

The company’s pianos were very expensive compared to its competitors, and had a reputation for being the choice of many great musicians and renowned concert halls. But no one was able to tell Bud why.

The deadline was tight, and Bud had almost no information about the piano except for a few faded photos and copies of a previous ad, so he asked if he could go to the factory for more information.

“Oh, you’re one of those,” said the Account Executive.  (Side note: If you’re a “research beast” like me, you’re one of “those”, too, and proud of it!)

Bud acknowledged that he was, indeed, “one of those”, which resulted in getting him kicked up the food chain to a meeting with the head of the agency.

In that meeting he told the boss of his bosses that he not only didn’t play the piano, but he couldn’t imagine why anyone would pay $5,000 for an Aeolian piano (serious money in those days) when they could buy a Baldwin or a Steinway.

His boss and his boss’s boss confided that they didn’t know either, so they arranged for Bud to tour the Aeolian factory.

The tour lasted two days and, although the craftsmanship and care seemed to be top notch, when all was said and done, Bud still thought $5,000 was a pretty steep price. But all was not yet said and done.

As Bud was preparing to leave, the factory manager took him through the showroom. There, side by side, were three gleaming concert grand pianos; a Baldwin, a Steinway and, of course, an Aeolian. To Bud’s eye they looked identical except for the branding.

“They sure look alike,” said Bud.

“They sure do,” said the manager. About the only real difference is the shipping weight—ours is heavier.”

“Heavier?” asked Bud. “What makes ours heavier?”

“The Capo d’astro bar,” said the manager.

“What’s a Capo d’astro bar?” asked Bud.

“Here, I’ll show you,” said the manager and he invited Bud to get down to look at the underside of the piano. Under the piano the manager pointed out a stout cast iron bar fixed across the harp and bearing down on the higher octaves.

“That’s the Capo d’astro bar,” he said. “It takes 50 years before the harp in the piano warps. That’s when the Capo d’astro bar goes to work. It prevents warping.”

When Bud looked at the Capo d’astro bars in the Baldwin and the Steinway he saw that they looked like Tinkertoys.

“You mean the Capo d’astro bar really doesn’t go to work for 50 years?” Bud asked.

“That’s right,” the manager replied. “That’s probably why the Met uses an Aeolian.  In fact our piano is about the only thing they’re taking with them in their move to Lincoln Center.”

And that became the headline for the Aeolian’s ad: “About the only thing the Met is taking with them is their piano.”

Response to that ad campaign resulted in a six-year waiting list between order and delivery. And that story became legendary in advertising and marketing.

In fact, it became common in ad agencies when taking on a new client to ask, “What’s your Capo d’astro bar?”—what is it that makes you unique?

Now, in this case, I would say the USP of the company is “the choice of the world’s greatest musicians and concert halls”. The UM is, of course, the cast iron Capo d’astro bar that keeps their pianos from warping so they perform “like new” for generations.

I hope this classic story and the examples and explanation I’ve provided helps eliminate any “WTF” confusion and makes the difference between USP and UM crystal-clear.

Yours for smarter marketing,


P.S. Many of you have heard me talk about my dog Pearl. And in May 15th’s issue, I shared with you some of the “pearls” of wisdom I gleaned from her over the years after she passed away the previous week.

Hard to believe today is the one-month anniversary of her death. It’s amazing how much your animal companions become a part of your everyday life… and how much you miss them when they’re gone. Going away for a few weeks helped, but coming home was hard. If you’ve ever lost a pet, you know what I mean.

P.P.S. Now that I’m back from vacation, I’ve got an idea up my sleeve that I may be moving forward with as soon as early next week. It’s an opportunity you’re not going to want to miss, should I decide to move forward with it. So stay tuned!