Build in Something Special

One of advertising's greatest philosophies is the unique selling proposition (USP) invented by Ted Bates of Hobson Bates, the then U.S. advertising giant. For advertising to work it has to have something worthwhile to tell people. That something has to be unique (exclusive to the product), something no competitor can currently offer. It has to be selling, in other words, something for which customers are ready and willing to pay. And you have to be able to express what you are offering in the form of a proposition.

Note That desirable exclusive something need not be a product. It can be a feeling of well-being, additional energy, peer recognition, or even the price—anything you can tell people about which they can't get elsewhere.

Ted Bates, who had enough confidence to fill the Metropolitan Opera, undersold himself. The USP is not merely an advertising technique. It is a concept at the very heart of marketing, and for a very simple reason: You can't say it if it is not true (at least not for long), and if it is true, it has to be true about the product (or service).

The Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, Doom, a Harry Potter novel, the latest Coldplay CD—these are all products with mega-sized USPs. What are you going to add to your product to give it that "Je ne sais quoi?" Unlike the French saying, you must know and be able to express what makes your software a must-have proposition. In car manufacturing it centers around engineering excellence. In IT it's all about technology leadership. Yet when you analyze these USPs, they often amount to little more than taking a trivial idea further than anyone else has dared to and fine-tuning it.

Just after Word War I, when cars were coming in, my grandfather had a literally dying business. He made horses' nose bags. Seeing the writing on the wall, he decided to go into overalls. To find out how, he took himself to evening classes and became so skilled a cutter he was soon running the class. To simplify the pattern cutting for overalls, he standardized armholes and made three lengths of sleeve (long, medium, and short) and two lengths of back with three widths of front. He then talked the proprietors of newspapers and cookie manufacturers into having overalls made to measure for their workforce. Offering tailor-made overalls was seen as only one step away from a designer suit. He then got a deal and a healthy advance.

The following week, armed with an assistant, a tape measure, and a sheaf of forms, he measured everyone (he once did 300 in a day). As he called out "Sleeve 18 and a half," his assistant jotted "M" for medium in the sleeve box. When they got back to the plant, his machinists simply stitched up the right assembly of pre-cut pieces. It's what's called chart tailoring today.

Michael Dell had a similar idea. In 1984, he went into business assembling PCs. Nothing new in that; people had been doing it for a decade before him. Michael, however, married the production line process galvanized by Henry Ford to the Japanese just-in-time production techniques. At the same time, he dramatically reduced the number of parts while still allowing the purchaser to configure any machine within reason. These he produced to order. In essence, this is a high-tech application of the chart tailoring process. It attracts sizeable orders, keeps inventories low, and produces a positive cash flow (you get the money in before you have to give it out).

Could you apply a similar, minute yet seismic, shift to your software development?

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