The Timeless Lessons of "Start With Why"

"Brand" and "leadership" are subjects so frequently talked about, it feels like there's always some new keynote speaker, book, or article putting their spin on these two nuanced and loaded words.


Over the years, I've watched and read a variety of content on brand and leadership; however, there is one video in particular that I still return to and re-watch. While it's been a decade since this talk first debuted, the power and wisdom of the material remain relevant for business leaders and aspiring brands.


The year was 2009. Avatar was the #1 movie, the Yankees, Steelers, and Lakers were champs, GM declared bankruptcy, Michael Jackson passed away, and the cost of a Super Bowl ad was a paltry $3,000,000.


There was also a local TEDx event where a relatively unknown speaker spoke about a concept he called "The Golden Circle." His recorded presentation eventually became one of the most-watched TEDTalk videos of all time, with over 44+ million views and counting. Today, Simon Sinek is a renowned speaker and author of several best selling books on leadership and self-improvement.


Watch it again (or for the first time):


Here are three takeaways for marketers and business leaders:


1. Feelings drive behavior


Most companies operate and communicate using the two outermost circles-- the WHAT and the HOW. The result is marketing that follows the familiar script of "We are an industry leader in making widgets. Our widgets feature the latest technology, innovations, and functions. We've won awards, and our prices are affordable too. Want to buy one?"


Now, this company will still have people buying their widgets because in general, people still need their widgets. The more pertinent question is: does this approach differentiate the company from its competitors in the market? Will a customer remain loyal or easily buy another, cheaper widget?


You see, when a company's communications focus on the WHAT and HOW, they're telling their customers that this is a transactional interaction. They desire no relationship with the consumer, so the purchase decision defaults to a systematic comparison of price, features, and convenience.


Comparatively, companies that start with the WHY are driven by purpose. These steadfast convictions inspire consumers with shared values to follow and associate themselves with the brand by deciding with their wallets. These are the brands you see in the market that can consistently command premium pricing and a loyal following.


Proof? Why do Apple owners stay loyal and passionate about the company's products, even when comparable products do the same thing at lower prices? Why did 370,000 people say yes to putting down $1,000 and wait nearly two years (that's TWO YEARS!) for a Tesla Model 3 that many never saw in a showroom and never even test-driven? How was Nike able to not just weather the political and media controversy after their Kaepernick campaign, but increase revenue by 31% afterward?


People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

When you sell using the conventional "features and benefits" approach, the rational brain will processes that language and logic as information. In reality, deeper instinctual feelings drive human decision making.


2. Leading with WHY inspires people to act and follow


Great brands are built from the inside out. The WHY of a company typically starts from the very top, such as the founder or visionary CEO. By leading with the WHY of their company, they inspire employees to believe and behave consistently with the company's vision.


There are leaders and those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power and authority. Those who lead inspire us.

After Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, the decade that followed saw Apple lose its innovative roots; its products were repeated commercial failures. It was so bleak that when Jobs returned in 1997, he discovered the company was 90 days from bankruptcy. He soon launched the "Think Different" campaign. These weren't just a series of new ads; it was a public pronouncement that Apple had re-discovered its WHY. Even after Steve passed away, the company held on to his legacy, and in 2018, Apple became the first company in history to surpass $1 trillion in market cap.


Contrast this with recent headlines of companies that have lost their purpose and cause, resulting in embarrassing controversies and poor judgment-- United Airlines, Volkswagen, Facebook come to mind. The domino effect when a company loses its purpose is that it impacts WHAT employees do and HOW they perform those jobs.


One of my favorite stories from Simon's presentation is when he references Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech and reminds the audience it wasn't called the "I have a plan" speech. Plans, like corporate mission statements, inspire absolutely no one unless it is practiced and made into reality by its leaders. People and organizations that lead inspire and attract like-minded people to follow.


3. Focus on a minority to reach the majority


Simon brings up the "Diffusion of Innovation," which is a theory that explains how new ideas, products, or trends spread and get adopted by the majority.


He explains this by diagramming a bell curve divided into five sections: Innovators (2.5%), followed by Early Adopters (13.5%), Early Majority (34%), Late Majority (34%) and Laggards (16%).


For many marketers tasked with launching a new product or growing the business, their approach would be to try to reach as many people as possible. In reality, this theory reveals that for an idea to spread and gain mass adoption, the opposite should be done-- create campaigns that are more focused and more narrow.


Attract those who believe what you believe.

We have witnessed this throughout history, especially when it comes to the adoption of consumer technology-- radio and TV, the world-wide-web, text messaging, YouTube and Instagram, Airbnb, and Uber. It took convincing a minority segment on the far left of the curve-- the Innovators and the Early Adopters-- who can tip the scale towards mass acceptance.


The caveat, of course, is that the product itself has to be pretty good, and the message is adequately conveyed. These early trailblazers are passionate, but they are certainly not naive. Start with WHY and attract people who have similar beliefs, or risk turning these potential social influencers and advocates into antagonists who could sink your market ambitions.