Why most brands shouldn’t “start with why”

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Adam Ketterer

28. 02. 2019 | 7 min read

Why most brands shouldn’t “start with why”

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If you’re a marketer and you haven’t heard of Simon Sinek or read his book, you’ve probably at least heard his mantra: “Start with why.”

(If you’re already familiar with what Simon says, and with what others before me have had to say about it, maybe skip the next few paragraphs.)

The TED Talk in which he first shared his theory is the third most watched of its kind, with 43 million views.

By way of summary, here’s his go-to illustration of the power of starting with why:

“If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might look like this:

We make great computers.

They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.

Wanna buy one?

Here’s how Apple actually communicates: 

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.

The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.

We just happened to make great computers.

Wanna buy one?”

Right there, at 4:30 in the video, you can see Sinek give himself goosebumps.

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” 

Then he says it again, in case you missed the profundity.

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” 

Now, in the context of inspirational leadership, this all sounds fine. (The title of his book in full is “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.”) Starting with why, he says, worked for leaders like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Conflating leadership with marketing

As the cult of “Start with why” spread, however, something funny happened.

People started using the mantra as a marketing or branding tactic for any old business.

Skip to today, and zealous marketers everywhere ­– especially in tech – talk about their higher purpose as if they were on a crusade.

And you can’t really blame them for conflating a special kind of leadership with any old company positioning, because that’s exactly what Sinek is doing in his TED Talk.

According to him, because Apple like to “think different” (as the old tagline went), people are more likely to buy one of their computers.

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

He then goes on to talk about what goes on in the neocortex and the limbic brain when people hear how and why messages respectively. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard very intelligent marketers (and some others) invoke neuroscience to back up their theories, and it’s one of the fastest ways to stimulate my bullshit receptors.

If anything, he’s missing a word.

“People don’t buy into what you do. They buy into why you do it.”

I might want to work for a company that believes the same things I do. I might vote for someone with the same values as me. If I like a story, I’ll buy into it.

But most of the time, when a company tries to win my custom with a why story, it fails.

Here are a few reasons why…

Most people just don’t care about the why

When I meet people for the first time, they often ask me what I do for a living. They don’t ask me why I do it. (Although I have had that as a genuine follow-up question…)

Same goes for companies. If I haven’t heard of a company, I’ll ask what they do. And almost everything I buy from a company, I buy because of what it is, not why it is that way.

Even Apple products.

Even if Simon starts telling me about how Apple’s worldview works on my limbic brain.

In B2C, you might buy Nike shoes because you like their brand associations with sporting excellence. You might buy an Apple product because you want to be seen as someone who buys Apple products. But are these branding vibes really given off by why messages or by a mixture of advertising, sponsorships and consumer tastes? Not to mention a whole load of whats like design, performance, cost…

In B2B tech, the cult of why has found fertile ground in part because marketers seem to be scared – or a little embarrassed – to lead with their whats. Which seems bizarre when, of all markets, this feels like one where buying decisions rely heavily on tech specs and proof points.

It sounds wanky and/or insincere

United Airlines talks a good game about being all about togetherness.

Connecting People.
Uniting The World.

Every day, we help unite the world by connecting people to the moments that matter most. This shared purpose drives us to be the best airline for our employees, customers and everyone we serve.

Among their “shared values” you’ll find:

We Fly Friendly

Warm and welcoming is who we are.

We Fly Together

As a united United, we respect every voice, communicate openly and honestly, make decisions with facts and empathy, and celebrate our journey together.

Fine. Cringe. But fine. Then you see a paying passenger dragged, bleeding, from a United Airlines aircraft because the company chooses to overbook flights for greater profits, and we move from cringe to something else.

When you ask us to believe values and vision statements like United’s, you paint a target on your back. You run the risk of looking like not just wankers but hypocrite wankers.

In other words, when you invite the tackle, sometimes you get nailed. It’s impossible to ensure all your people adhere to your why all the time, especially when it’s about values or ethics.

A fluffier what does not a why make

Is United Airlines’ purpose even a why at all? “Connecting people to the moments that matter most” is just a lofty, emotional way of saying they fly people to their holidays, or to important meetings, or home to their families.

Spotify says their mission is to “unlock the potential of human creativity.” Same deal.

Take Apple too, for that matter. When Sinek says they challenge the status quo in everything they do, that’s really just an abstracted, kind-of-wanky what. There’s no compelling reason. No real why.

If you want to test a why statement, try reading a what statement, followed by the word “because”, followed by the why statement in question. If it makes sense, the why might just work. If it doesn’t, it’s probably a contrived retrofit.

So when should you start with why?

At Velocity, we help lots of tech companies figure out how to position themselves, and, yes, sometimes we start with why. But the more it comes up, the more I think it’s a bad idea – in most cases.

Every now and again, though, I’ll see a piece of messaging or a positioning that starts with why and actually works. Here’s one example.

Entrepreneur First (EF) are a talent investor. They bring together exceptional, ambitious people (who usually have deep expertise in a particular field, industry or technology). Then they help them find a co-founder, develop an idea and start a company. The first thing you see on their website is this line:

It matters what the most ambitious people do with their lives.

This works so well it almost annoyed me – because it didn’t fit with my recent experience positioning other companies.

Then something clicked. Starting with why works for EF because they’re doing two things.

  1. Recruiting people to a cause 

EF have a few distinct audiences, including the investors who fund the growth of their companies. But their most important audience is made up of all the exceptional individuals they need to convince to join the EF program (instead of, say, working at McKinsey or Google or in research).

That is, the primary goal of EF’s marketing today is recruitment. Not of employees but of raw materials.

It also helps that they’re recruiting people to a pretty revolutionary cause.

  1. Evangelising a new way

EF and companies like them can start with why because they’re operating in a changing market. They can say:

The world used to be a certain way, so The Old Way worked.

The world has changed in a profound way, so now we need The New Way.

The backstory is indispensable. The context is the content of the story. In EF’s case, what’s changing is the way in which the most talented, ambitious people make their mark on the world. (Today, it’s not by working for a management consultancy firm, or even by working for big tech. It’s by founding your own tech company.)

Of course, any company can claim to be on a crusade or pioneering The New Way. But few can pull off the double whammy of identifying a justifiably significant trend and nailing their colours to it with integrity.

TL;DR: Start with why, but don’t always lead with it

If your company has a why without which it wouldn’t exist, then it would be stupid not to lead with it.

If you’re offering something new and necessary in a changed world, start with why.

If your success relies on your ability to recruit the right people to your cause, start with why.

But if “Start with why” means “Make your why the first, most important thing people know about you, regardless of what the why is”, then it’s bad advice.

Any other cases when starting with why works? Stick ’em in the comments. Thanks.

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  1. Maria Clara

    Go! Comunicação

    February 28th, 2019

    Look, I didn’t even read the article but I JUST wrote down the why-how-what thing on my work notebook. Godammit, Velocity, don’t blast me like that. BRB, gonna read the article, and come back here saying I tore the page off.

  2. Maria Clara

    Go! Comunicação

    February 28th, 2019

    Okay, finished reading it. Won’t tear the page off, but will be cautious about it. I feel like this article could be somehow complementar to the “Insane Honesty” presentation. Or that other Velocity article which talks about soda ads and states that “in the end of the day, it’s just sugary water”.

    Good moves guys! As always.

    1. Adam Ketterer

      March 1st, 2019

      Hey Maria! Absolutely – I wouldn’t tear out the page but I think a cautious approach is a good one. Sometimes starting with why makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. And yeah, honesty is key – but I think it’s more about being honest with ourselves about our own brands. That’s probably the hardest part. But if we get it right, it makes it way easier to be honest (and credible) in our marketing. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Sven

    April 18th, 2020

    Nice read. I do like the synthesis.

  4. Raul


    May 18th, 2020

    Great article. It helps me not to get too crazy with this “start with why” concept, as it can become too vague or insincere. At the same time, o be more concrete I wonder if starting with the problem / opportunity (as the why) could be a good alternative. Kind of product launch of Jeff Walker approach.

  5. Atanas Dzhingarov

    June 1st, 2020

    Interesting take, but I have to disagree. I mean, “don’t simply buy into any old bullshit” is solid advice. But when we’re talking about branding, the “why” matters.

    In the article, you write people might simply “want to be seen buy Apple products”. And that’s the power of Apple’s branding. “Here’s to the crazy ones” showed everyone that “buying an Apple product makes you a rebel, an innovator, a creative”. Which perfectly aligns with their “why”. That’s why Apple is different from any other tech company and why they have loyal followers (I’m not an Apple fan, but I do enjoy their branding and marketing as a professional).

    When people buy Nike shoes, they buy something more than comfortable footwear. There’s plenty of companies out there that make the same quality shoes, only cheaper, lasting longer, and even better designed. Yet Nike is the top dog in that market and there’s a reason for that. Their story is based on inspiration and innovation. Again, I don’t buy Nikes, but as a professional, I marvel at the proficiency with which they deliver their message.

    Almost every big, successful brand in the world has a “why” that’s front and center. It’s their purpose for existing beyond making money. These brand don’t need to tell you their “why” outright – they communicate it in their marketing and branding. I agree, it can become insincere – but then it’s on the people to see through the bullshit (like the fact that Apple hasn’t innovated in years). But the concept, itself, is a solid one.

    I mean, your “why” is also front and center. “We love things like content marketing and technology markets and B2B companies and storytelling and stuff like that.” That’s the purpose of your company for existing beyond making money.

    People don’t just look at features and make rational decisions. We often make emotional decisions and then we justify them with reason. Knock on neuroscience all you want, but it’s true.

    I do agree not every business needs a why. Heck, most businesses have no reason for existing outside of making money. But the ones that truly stick in people’s minds, the ones that people constantly talk about – do.

    1. Doug Kessler

      June 4th, 2020

      Adam’s not here any more (he didn’t believe in Why so we fired him) (kidding. he’s great).

      I actually agree more with you than with Adam here: I think the ‘Why’ thing got discredited because so many brands did it so badly.

      But I’m still a big believer in at least getting in touch with your Why if not not leading with it.

    2. Kerry Franz

      August 4th, 2020

      I agree with Atanas. Of course, when you first meet someone, they’re not going to ask you why you do the job you do. That’s because they’re just making conversation and probably not that interested or even listening- however, if you were applying for a job and the employer is deciding if they should invest in you, then they will absolutely want to know why. I don’t think finding your why has to be your very first move, but it should be at the beginning stages so that your brand can stay authentic and communicate consistently- two very important qualities of successful brands.

  6. Jon P

    Brand X

    August 13th, 2021

    The “WHY” speaks to your intentions. The ‘How’ is your delivery of the promise. I believe people buy the How. Consumers buy the amazing execution Apple brings to their products. If they didn’t deliver on the notion of Think Different, then nobody would give a toss.

    And BTW, Apple almost never talks about notions of WHY or philosophy in their ads. Instead, they demonstrate all the amazing things you can do with their products. In other words, they make it about you—not them.

    Simon Sinek devotees, take note!

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