The Era of Branding – From USPs to Cultural Associations

In the Rebirth of Brand, we are using the idea of Thunder and Lightning to structure the Journey. Last week we explored the Byron Sharp’s thunder that “Advertising is most effective when it doesn’t try to Persuade”. We went on and how that was intimately connected with Lightning Flash A, “Brand Strategy – The Art of Gift Giving“. The Lightning Flash B concerns another vital matter, the move from USP’s to relevant Associations. The Unique Selling Point (USP) has had a long hold in the marketing world. It has been core to product marketing, typically the hard sell approach and persuasion based marketing strategies that Sharp’s findings are challenging so strongly.

To explore this flash of Lightning it is worth looking at how marketing strategy has evolved through a number of discrete eras and ask, where does the USP approach fit in to the history of branding… and what is the matter of “association” speaking to.

Era 1: Quality

In Calcutta where I grew up, the local bazaar offered wonderful ingredients out of sacks and tins. We then moved to rural Ireland. There the shopping experience was not dissimilar. The shopkeeper did the packing – a brown paper bag, typically. Then things started to change. This was the emergence of the Fast Moving Consumer Good FMCG that was so ever present on the world’s TV screens for so long. What emerged was that products were individually packed before they reached the shop. A new era of marketing strategy had emerged. For many of today’s younger marketeers this packaged goods age is all they know! Right at the core of this era was quality and reliability. The packaged goods came with a guarantee and a system of returns.

Calcutta Bazaar

Here are two classic ads whose central purpose is to build a perception of Quality in the Brand…

Era 2: USP

The next era builds on the first. Quality is still of central importance, but the focus of the marketing strategy is now more on selling the unique features of the product. Advertising was all about the ‘unique selling proposition’ – the USP. Its most recognised champion was Rosser Reeves and the Bates Agency. The idea was that in a world overloaded with commercial messages the way to stand out was pick one thing to say and say it over and over. The Classic ads were typically Laundry Brand claims that the Brand Washed Whiter – Persil then Ariel or whatever the big Laundry brands were locally. However, in mature markets so few products do have a unique, tangible USP, and even if they do it will invariably be copied, except in the rare cases where a patent protection is possible, that USP’s are in any way sustainable.

Persil Old Marketing Strategy
Old Persil Ad

Just to remember what the “hard sell” feels like, check these ads out…

Era 3: Consumer Insight

Running out of pertinent USPs marketers moved on to a focus on the consumer. Here, a deep understanding of the needs and desires of consumers was thought to deliver a unique ‘insight’.  The ‘insight’ was to form the organising glue of the brand and was to be the central focus in each marketing message. Real insights are difficult to find and very difficult to uniquely own.

Insight based brand strategies are best illustrated with specific ads. Here are two classics from the Spreads/Margarine category…

The insight was whatever the British Housewife was doing at home….. it was not work! The consequence was feeling unappreciated!

Era 4: Brand

The next era is the era of Brand. Rather than starting with the product (USP) or the consumer (insight), the focus is rather on gaining clarity around ‘who’ and ‘why’ you are as brand, not ‘what’ you are or ‘how’ you work. Armed with this clarity it is possible to pick relevant meaning associations with which to build the brand. These can be anything from colours (Vodafone red), logos (McDonald’s arches), symbols (Apple), or tag lines (Nike, just do it).

But going deeper still we will be seeing how brands are relevant cultural associations to create longing. Volvic was just water. So what? It was the appropriation of a pre-existing cultural meaning system that gives the meaning to the object. In the case of Volvic, it was Volcanoes and then Vulcanicity. The Meaning System pre-dated the Brand and it was in the public’s consciousness. Volvic invented nothing, they just borrowed and built associations.

Returning to Byron Sharp’s research findings that Brand’s grow not though USP’s but through relevant associations that refresh and build memory structures. From our years of work reviewing Brand Advertising Histories and the History of Advertising we find that over many decades the Marketing world seems to have divided in to the “Hard Sell” USP School and the “SoftSell” Association School.  

We find those “associations” to be cultural associations. Sharp suggests that USP School is ‘past world view’ and the Association School is ‘new world view’. It is a very useful distinction. It is just that the distinction in our experience is not a new development but rather an eternal battle in the world of Brand Strategy.

We will enjoy some classic advertising based on Cultural Associations seeking to build brands around Eras One, Quality, Era Three Customer Insight and Era Four: Brand and Experience. We will also briefly just remind ourselves how tedious the USP based persuasion arguments are and invariably always will be!

Here are two spots that appropriate cultural perceptions of place, a world view, a mood, a feeling in engaging ways…


No matter what the Era some of the Classic Spots make huge use of relevant cultural associations. Today I have had a bit of a go at the USP era in the spirit of Byron Sharp’s mighty thunder and lightning. We will in time look at some classic era one work.


What is Own-able in a Sustainable Way over Time?

We must go back to Byron Sharp whose ‘new world view’  is core to Thunder One. He rejects Era Two’s USP mantra. He rejects target marketing, positioning and segmentation. What works, he proposes, in the vital matter growing Brands is to choose and then own cultural associations and then use these to build the Brand. These are the relevant associations that refresh and build memory structures. They are own-able in ways that Quality based differentiation rarely is, that USP based differentiation rarely is, and  then insights based differentiation rarely is.

The message here is that you can appropriate own the stuff of culture! As we move forward with the “Rebirth of Brand” Journey we will see many more examples of success through associations, cultural associations.