Conflating leadership with marketingAs 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.
Most people just don’t care about the whyWhen 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 insincereUnited Airlines talks a good game about being all about togetherness.
A fluffier what does not a why makeIs 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:
- Recruiting people to a cause
- Evangelising a new way