There’s a lot of content around that seems to be sparked by a thoughtful book and 2010 TedX talk by Simon Sinek.  Essentially, the gist of his argument is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It acknowledges the enormous power of engaging consumers emotionally around the deeper "why" questions.  Sinek created a model called 'The Golden Circle' and exhorts companies and leaders of all stripes to lead with the “why” of their business above anything else.  


While I enthusiastically agree with the underlying point about leveraging the power of emotion, it’s clear that the best brands get that way by a dual focus on both the "what" and the "why".   

Apple wouldn’t be Apple if it just had great, emotionally resonant advertising but mediocre product.  Nike wouldn’t be Nike without both great athletic wear and powerful, emotionally rich advertising.  While Sinek suggests that the magic is in the "why", in reality it’s got to be both for the "why" to have any integrity and relevance.  Without the "what", the "why" is just a hollow promise that fails consumer expectations and diminishes the brand.


In a recent AdAge article on this topic, a Coca-Cola exec (who is a fan of Sinek's work) suggests that her company's "why" is to make people happy.   With respect, this dramatically oversimplifies what Coke is all about to the degree of obfuscation.  The "why" of a large, publicly traded, global corporation cannot simply be to make people happy.  It may be that their brands' purpose (i.e. an element of their marketing strategy) within the company is to make people happy via their products, but this is an important distinction.  


The Coke exec says that:

"innovative companies" don't start their planning and strategies with computers, sneakers or search engines; they start with why they make computers, sneakers and search engines.  

As someone who has led both iconic global brands and SMB companies, I respectfully disagree.  The first question of entrepreneurship is precisely WHAT can the founders do to fill a need in the marketplace.  That is a question about internal core capabilities and how they can be deployed to create the greatest value.   Without this "what" question answered in compelling fashion, there is no "why".

The WHY is excruciatingly important but it is a tool of brand strategy, which must support the broader corporate objectives and strategy of the company.  Based upon consumer insights, it’s an expression of what the company should do to present their product in the most compelling way.  Frequently, it seeks to wrap an emotionally compelling “frame” around the core offering in a way that makes the entire brand “picture” more valuable.  


So, the "why" question may be the first question that marketers ask.  But the "what" question is the first question that founders, general managers, and shareholders ask.  Answering the "what" question provides the critical strategic, product, and consumer inputs that inform the marketing and brand building effort.  If it were as simple as Coca-Cola figuring out how to make people happy then they might be in the advertising business - producing heartwarming polar bear commercials.   It is the "what" questions that focus their activities around their products and that interfaces with consumers in a way that creates revenue and profit.  And to be sure, for long term business and brand success, BOTH questions must be satisfactorily answered!

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Tags: brands, brandstrategy, positioning, sinek, strategy, why

Comment by Nadav on January 7, 2014 at 5:05am

Hello sir,

Simon never claims that you can succeed with a strong WHY without a strong WHAT. The point is, is that in a competitive playing field, where all products are seemingly the same, and companies have the same access to resources, capital, research, etc., the strong WHY is what separates the great companies from the good.

In fact, Apple has, by all accounts, an inferior WHAT (the iPhone, for example, is by far not the "best" phone available), and yet it is the WHY that allows it to be a/the leader in the market.

Sure, Nike has "great athletic wear", much like its competitors adidas and Puma. All 3 also have "powerful, emotionally rich advertising" what makes Nike different? By the way, advertising is simply an expression of the WHY, not the WHY itself. 

Regarding your claim that business/entrepreneurs start off with the WHAT, looking for what to "do to fill a need in the marketplace". I must respectfully disagree. I doubt that Steve Jobs, as an example, sat around with Woz and scanned the marketplace and saw that there arent any PCs and then came up with the idea. I believe that he wanted to give people the power and capabilities to work in their own home environments - there is a big difference. 

Phil Knight wanted to inspire people to become better athletes and enjoy physical activity (WHY), not sell sneakers (WHAT). 

Do you really feel that the WHY should be "based upon consumer insights"? I think that makes the WHY weak and empty, and makes it shift according to these so-called "consumer insights"...

Comment by Michael B. Moore on January 8, 2014 at 9:53am

Thanks for posting your thoughtful comments!  

With Sinek, I think its a matter of emphasis.  Businesses are zero sum entities, in the sense that there are only so many resources - people, dollars, "bandwidth" etc. to go around.  Particularly with startups and younger companies, focus is incredibly important.  I got from his talk that the "why" is a far greater factor in business success than the "what".  In my opinion, this can be misleading.  Many business book readers love to grab onto the latest idea/theory/fad and run with it.  Good To Great.  Purple Cow. Blue Ocean Strategy.  The Lean Startup. Traction.  Etc.  If someone who doesn't have a lot of experience in running companies and building brands gets the point that - the most important thing - to be successful in business is to have a personal, emotional "why" driving it - then over the long term, they will fail.

As I've said, I think a far better message is that its a given that you've got to have a superior "what" - and that it has to be continuously excellent to get and keep consumers long term.  But the key to the greatest brands is that not only do they have a powerful "what", but they also have a compelling and emotionally resonant "why".  

The message should be that we all know you've got to have a great product.  You also have to have a compelling 'reason for being' that can drive both your company and your marketing.  

In the post I quoted a Coke executive who embraced Sinek's work.  She actually perfectly illustrates my point.  She says that Coke's "why" is "to make people happy".  As a former Coca-Cola brand manager, I can tell you that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.  That may be an emotional benefit that their marketing is striving to create, but it's not something that a business model can be built on.  If Coke starts shifting emphasis away from managing a global network of bottlers, away from the logistics of marketing a portfolio of global and regional brands; away from hiring, training and managing a tens of thousands of employees around the world, away from managing the earnings of the company in a way that maximizes shareholder value - then the Coca-Cola business will suffer.  

Maybe as a marketing person, who has the luxury of focusing just on the consumer side of the business, she is spending more of her personal time thinking about the "why" - how to better engage consumers in that way.  That's great, and an appropriate use of her time.  But I guarantee you that most of the people at Coca-Cola would be ill directed by doing so.  Beyond that, for a 19th century company to - in 2013 - be divining what their "why" is just lacks integrity and makes little sense to me.  For it to have more integrity(and therefore impact) it would have to have been something in the company DNA.

To your other questions, I would guess that greater than 95% of all companies are motivated by economic incentives; to make money.  They aren't exclusively driven by a "why" - perhaps other than to create a 'better mousetrap'.  Most probably don't even have a clue about any deeper "why's" that could help them market themselves, or even understand why the "why" is important.  :-)  The even broader topic of emotion is still not universally embraced in consumer marketing.  Look at all the advertising that ignores it!  

Apple's an interesting story.  You mention the iPhone, but their brand equity around product excellence wasn't established there.  They leveraged the brand strength from their computer business to launch into iPods and iPhones etc.  From a business standpoint, it's also interesting to look at them.  The Apple guys wanted to create a great personal computer.  They wanted to beat IBM and to 'change the world' in some ways.  "Think Different" was an ethos that was developed - that had integrity with Jobs and the way they built their products - and that helped to position their products in a compelling way.  This is the perfect illustration of how the best brands have both "what" and "why".  Again, without the great products -the innovative development, the sublime design, etc. - the marketing would ring hollow.  "Think Different", in and of itself, is not enough to create billions of dollars of market value.  It's the "what" at Apple that gave consumers a way to interface with them and participate in their "why".

Your last question about consumer insights is critical.  Everything that marketers do - to maximize their efforts and ultimately sales - must derive from consumer data.  That doesn't mean that consumers can - or are even able to - articulate every little thing about a product.  They can't.  But smart marketers (and market researchers) know how to leverage both stated and unstated physical and emotional consumer needs to make both their products and marketing more effective.  

Think about it - B2C companies sell to consumers.  They are striving to meet their consumers' needs.  How better to do that than to get information from them about what they want?  On the product side, it's the essence of 'The Lean Startup'.  Just get something live and then let your consumers tell you what they want and don't want in it.  On the marketing side, consumer insights drive things like thinking about the "why".  Remember, "why" is only important if it resonates with consumers.  If Apple had a less impactful "why" - then their brand and company wouldn't be what it is today.  It was the alignment between the "what" and "why" that did it.

Thanks for the dialogue.  I appreciate the chance to clarify my thinking!  


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