How to Use and Write a Single-Minded Proposition

Here's how a great SMP can lead to amazing advertising

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Whether you're new to advertising, or a veteran, you will hear people talking about the SMP (Single-Minded Proposition), or sometimes the USP (Unique Selling Point / Unique Selling Proposition).

These days, both the SMP and USP have been given a variety of new incarnations, including "the most important one thing" or "key takeaway," but they're all one and the same. However, the term USP was invented by Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates & Company decades ago.

In his book, Reality In Advertising, published in 1961, Reeves gives a precise, three-part definition of the USP which is just as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago. Reeves stated that:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: "Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit."
2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique-either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.
3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.
Source: Reality In Advertising by Rosser Reeves. Pub. 1961

So, what does this all mean to you, as an advertiser? Well, it means that you cannot, and should not, move forward with any campaign for any client without the USP or SMP.

The Importance of the Single-Minded Proposition

The SMP is, without a doubt, the most important collection of words on any creative brief or job description. It's the guiding light for the whole project. It's the North Star.

In short, it's the foundation on which every great campaign is built.

If you are given a creative brief without an SMP, send it back. If you write a brief without an SMP, you are not doing your job. If you, as a creative director, approve a brief without an SMP, you are dooming your agency to a world of pain. And if the client doesn't sign off on the SMP, it's time to start again.

The SMP says "X marks the spot." It's not telling you what treasures lie below, but it does tell you where to dig. Without it, you're scrambling around in the dark hoping to stumble across a good idea. And even if you do find it, you have no idea if it's the idea the client actually wants.

In short, no SMP, no campaign. Or rather, no good campaign. 

10 Examples of Great SMPs

A great SMP is memorable and will start the wheels turning for the creative teams, and will be an idea so strong that, as Reeves said, can move the masses in your direction. There is no room for weak, vanilla, homogenous ideas. This must be a flagpole firmly planted in the ground.

A great SMP will also be catchy, like a headline. In fact, many creative directors use the SMP as the benchmark for creative. They will place the SMP on the wall and know that this is the idea the creative department has to beat. Some SMPs actually become taglines, which are still around today.

Here are some examples of outstanding SMPs that helped the creative department push out some astonishing work:

  • Avis: We're Number Two, So We Try Harder.
  • M&Ms: The Milk Chocolate Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand.
  • Nike: Just Do It.
  • DeBeers: A Diamond Is Forever.
  • FedEx: When It Absolutely, Positively Has To Be There Overnight.
  • Domino's: You Get Your Fresh, Hot Pizza Delivered To Your Door In 30 Minutes Or Less - Or It's Free.
  • AARP: AARP Gives You The Power To Make Your Own Rules.
  • Toro: Toro Makes The Tools. You Make The Yard.
  • Lexus GS300: The GS300 is The Kick-Ass Lexus.
  • Abbey Life: Don't Let Your Illness Cripple Your Family.

How Do You Write an SMP?

It's not easy. Really. And it shouldn't be. You are taking the very essence of the project and boiling it down to a phrase that will empower the creatives and be embraced by the consumers. That's no small task. It's also the reason that more and more creative briefs are being given to creative teams without the SMP in there. This is a mistake. The SMP is the foundation of the entire campaign, and it often needs more thought that

Start by getting to know the product or service well.

Very well. In the case of the new Lexus brand, the engineers were treated like millionaires before designing the car. They had a perfect perspective. So, eat the food. Wear the shoes. Become the customer. What do you like? What don't you like? Is there something that stands out more than anything else? Is there a feature that really makes the product or service better than the competition?

Write down the best features, and condense the list.

Remember, this is a single-minded proposition. You can't focus on three or four elements. "This is the fastest, cheapest, brightest, hardest, smoothest of its kind" is not going to work. You are throwing too many balls in the air, and consumers will only catch one or two. So, examine the list carefully. Which of the features stands out more? Which one will help you capture a bigger slice of the market? Which one is hands-down the one that you kicks the butt of the competition? Got it? Then, move on to step 3. 

Find the benefits of that one feature.

It may have one great benefit. It may have many. But you cannot sell a feature to anyone. No one buys a drill; they buy a device to make holes and turn screws, and they want the best one for the money. What are the benefits of that one excellent feature to your customers? Write them down, and start drafting your single-minded proposition. For instance, if it was a new kind of drill, the SMP could be "No other drill makes more holes on a single charge." That's a longevity SMP. Or, it could be "The only drill that makes two holes at once." That's a time-saving SMP. 

Put your SMP on an ad. This is the headline to beat. 

The very first headline on an ad for any campaign should be the SMP. This is the best place to start digging and becomes the litmus test for all other creative. If your work does not succinctly and creatively beat that SMP headline, keep on going.