What, How, and Why: You can forget about the first two—they don’t matter just yet. For now, focus on WHY, which is the most important place to start when building your brand. It goes without saying that any competent business leader understands WHAT (i.e. products, industry, competition) a company offers and HOW (i.e. key differentiators, value prop) it is offered. Anyone who cannot articulate these two simple process components should not be running a business. But relying on these two aspects to build a brand, however, creates a bland concept devoid of authenticity. This is why any aspiring brand should focus on projecting its purpose, it’s WHY. If you haven’t watched Simon “Start With Why”, skip to the bottom and watch his TedTalk first.
Author Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” (1) And he’s right. People want things in life that provide them with a sense of purpose and meaning. Brands that focus on describing WHAT and HOW do so at the expense of selling stuff that fails to connect with potential customers at a personal level. Without an internal belief in why the company does what it does, brands are left with nothing substantial to offer other than some lifeless product or service. This notion pushes companies to compete over external features, bells and whistles, and superficial distractions that convert the brand into nothing more than an undifferentiated waning commodity.
Brands that follow this approach tend to rely on manipulative tactics, quick fixes, smoke-and-mirrors to drive short-term growth. After some initial success, they uphold this method leading to an extended cycle of manipulation. But it would behoove any aspiring startup brand to steer clear from this simple, yet unsustainable, strategy. You will work much harder only to gain little in the long term. In short, it’s a dead end. It’s certainly not the path you want to follow as a brand seeking to change the world.
This is why your brand must inspire people! Instead of telling them that you make X or offer Y, explain to them why you make it! Tell them your cause and why you believe in it. Help them understand why, of all other potential opportunities in this life, your brand decided to focus on this. Make people care. When you articulate why your company does what it does, it elevates your brand into something far more meaningful and purpose-driven.
Instead of offering “educational software-as-a-service that is priced at a competitive price,” you “provide struggling educational institutions with advanced tools that enhance their digital teaching efforts and help increase the spread of knowledge across all future generations of students.” That’s a real cause that many people will stand behind.
Instead of selling another fitness app that guilts users into purchasing a monthly subscription by showcasing attractive models and paid athletes, you provide everyday struggling individuals with a purpose that will help transform their physique by providing a tool that empowers them to take control of their exercise habits. That’s a purpose that countless people yearning for a total makeover will pursue.
The key here for any serious brand is to be authentic. Playing mind games with customers won’t get you there. They also won’t trust you enough to stick around for repeat business. But to win the hearts and minds of consumers, your WHY must be in harmony with your WHAT and your HOW. This means that your purpose and beliefs must consistently align with your product capabilities. If you share a beautiful vision of the future but your product is totally unprepared or inadequate to live up to that ideal, your brand will fail. Therefore, making sure that all three aspects are equally balanced is critical to the survival of your brand.
You can also apply the WHY mindset to many aspects of your company, not just its brand identity. Whether you are doing a sale, trying to recruit top talent, or even making better decisions, starting with why will force you to think of the bigger picture, it will make you consider the purpose that set you off on this journey in the first place. When you think like this, you will inevitably focus on the things that matter the most to your company and brand. It will help you make better decisions without having to focus so much on the competition or industry dynamics.
Starting with WHY even applies to other core aspects of running a successful company, including product development and leadership. How can you build a product that changes lives and transforms the world if you have no purpose? How can you influence your own team to drive the company forward if they don’t have a clear picture of the underlying values and guiding principles that you believe. You must start with why.
So WHY are you starting this company? Why are you building this product or service? Why do you even care? Take some time to think deeply about the true reasons, core beliefs, and underlying purpose driving your motivation for this venture. This requires authenticity. It requires openness. It requires honesty. Once you have defined those guiding principles and truths supporting the existence of your product or service, you will need to transform that purpose into a powerful narrative that will captivate countless hearts, minds, and souls.
1. Simon Sinek, “How great leaders inspire action,” September 2009, TED.com, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.