Saturday, May 31, 2003


In the 1950's Advertising giant Rosser Reeves created the Unique Selling Proposition, USP. The idea was that successful marketing requires identifying and then promoting a product's singular point of difference. Since most products have more than one attribute, adopting USP means making a choice and then having the discipline of sticking to it. While hardly the last or only compelling marketing concept, the Reeves approach remains relevant to this day. USP is a great and powerful approach, but there is a catch. It must be grounded in truth and substance. Lie to the consumer and you'll be in big trouble. You may get away with it near term, but, to paraphrase one of the smartest marketers I know, if the dog doesn't like the dog food you're dead.

USP has sold a lot of dog food over the years and it's been applied to more than just consumer products. In fact, while we may not realize it, most of us employ marketing techniques, including USP in our daily lives. In the most elemental sense, we use it in selling our ideas to others even in ordinary discourse. Instinctively, we understand that you can't make your case compelling without focus, optimally with singular focus. We too chose our words and arguments with care. USP has also come to government, big time.

It is in this context that I received Paul Wolfowitz' statement about how we sold the American public and some of the world's willing on going to war in Iraq. ''The truth," he said, "is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.'' There were many, including those much maligned French and even UN Inspector Hans Blix who were unconvinced. At this moment, the jury remains out, but I've always heard that extended deliberations usually lead to acquittals. With every passing day there is more reasonable doubt.

The grave yards of Iraq on the other hand do seem to corroborate that this was indeed a brutal and evil regime. In all fairness, the Bush Administration always said it was, but, it was an augment at the margins. It was also a hard argument to make because, given the level of brutality around the globe, it simply didn't have the necessary USP to get things going. More than 3 Million innocents have perished in the Congo alone, something that hasn't brought Colin Powell to the UN clamoring for action. In the long run, regime change in Iraq may work and the world may indeed be a better place, but that won't erase the lie of this USP and hence the credibility of this administration. The immediate, though still relatively unspoken result, is that we shouldn't expect a coalition of the willing for some other adventure any time soon, even a truly compelling one. That has consequences of its own.

As a marketer and a believer in USP, however, I see a problem of more moral proportions. The great danger of applying marketing propositions to matters of State is it is not the life of some dog food that is at stake, but human lives. To put people at risk on the basis of a knowingly erroneous USP – and Wolfowitz' statement suggests just that, borders on the criminal. Decent people in the world community should be intolerant of governmental brutality, but they should be straight forward and evenhanded about it. In a democracy, the means by which we reach ends, even ostensibly good ends, does matter. We moved on Iraq the way we did, when we did based, at best, on unproven supposition and, at worst, on a willful lie. Given the euphoria, albeit premature, about the potential of a free and benevolent Iraq, some people are finding ways to justify that, but I simply can't, nor do I think any of us should. We will pay dearly for it.

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