Why Is Starting With Why Not Working?

Start With Why.

It’s become one of the most common approaches in branding and marketing.  Everyone is saying it. And everyone is trying to do it.  

By now most people are familiar with the idea of Start With Why, popularized by Simon Sinek in his famous TedX talk Start With Why - How Great Leaders Inspire Action.  In his video and his philosophy, he says to Start With Why.  He eloquently describes how people don’t buy WHAT you do or HOW you do it, but WHY you do what you do.

He delivers his message with skillful alliteration. Repeating throughout the 18-minute talk:

“People don’t buy what you do or how you do it, but WHY you do it.”

Like most marketers of our time, he uses Apple as the benchmark example.  As an example, Sinek points to Apple’s “Why” of challenging the status quo and “think different” as the reason it is such a revered and sought after company.

“Be more like Apple.  

People don’t buy what you do or how you do it, but why you do it. “

He brilliantly delivers his idea and his talk using a simple flip board of paper and a sharpie.  And leaves the viewer with a deceptively simple model of concentric circles.

Why. How. What

The middle circle is cleverly identified as “the golden circle”. He reveals that most companies start on the outer edge of the circle, leading their messaging with the “what” because that’s the easy stuff. The stuff that’s tactile and tangible, the stuff we can explain.

And as we work through the How, which is usually process, approach, competitive differentiation this is still easy for companies to articulate.

But as we get into the Why, Sinek says this “is the fuzzy stuff”.  And it’s fuzzy because it’s harder to explain. It’s harder to know. This is your purpose. Your beliefs.  Your why.

And up to this point, I couldn’t agree more with Sinek.  I’ve dedicated my professional career to helping businesses and brands find, articulate, and lean on their purpose or why to build successful businesses.

And believe it or not, it’s been almost 11 years since Simon Sinek’s video was first published on YouTube.  And over the years “Start With Why” has become a bit of a rallying cry for marketers, CXOs, business founders, and leaders alike.

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Over the years, it’s been forgotten that “Start With Why” started as a concept to help leaders understand what inspires action within their own companies.  And with time it has turned into a catch-all that marketers are using in almost every situation.  I see it referenced on almost a daily basis when it comes to branding and how to build a lasting brand.

But this is flawed and I think a lot of marketers, CEOs, and founders are disappointed when they “Start With Why” and the company doesn’t take off as expected.

Because the one flaw in the Start With Why viewpoint, when applied to branding and brand strategy, is that it’s one dimensional. I’m not sure it was meant to be a catch-all branding philosophy.

Remember, a brand is not about your colors or your logo. It’s the gut feeling someone has about your products or services. And branding is the process of developing your business strategy so that you outmaneuver your competition.

So why is starting with why not working?

Well, in the rush to lead with purpose, many leaders are forgetting that businesses are about solving problems for customers.

Now, this isn’t to say “why” and purpose are not important. On the contrary, they are extremely important and a key building block for a successful business that endures over time.

But a lot has changed in the almost 11 years since Simon Sinek blew our minds with “Start with Why”.  People on both sides of the relationship, business and customer, are much more tuned into this idea of a why or purpose. It’s not revolutionary anymore and instead of being exceptional or different, it’s a must-have.

I’ve written before about how Pepsi leads with their why aka purpose on the opening pages of their most recent annual report. The same with Softbank and just about any other major corporation. And if organizations that are traditionally laggards and slow to move on new ideas are doing it, it’s clear that starting with WHY has become a part of the status quo.

Again, I must stress that I am not poo poo’ing purpose. But what I am saying is that it’s time has come and by leading with why we are forgetting one of the cardinal principles of business:

No customers, no business.

And this leads me to a new way of thinking.

Start with WHO.

While working daily with clients at our Colorado branding agency, Wildstory, we used to -- like everyone else -- “Start with Why”.

We’d ask:

Why do you exist?

Why do you get up in the morning?

Why do you risk everything for this one thing?

Why… Why…. Why?

And mostly we are met with:

Confused faces.

A long list of the what and how.

Some variation of “It’s the Customers”

And over time, if you ask me, this is the right answer.

We’ve gotten so familiar with “Why” that we have started to neglect the foundation of our business model “Who”

Who is the sibling of Why. They are interconnected and depend on one another.  You may argue that one is not more important than the other, but I would argue that you can have a business without a Why. You can’t without a Who.

Using Sinek’s model, there’s a new circle that’s inside of the Why, golden circle.  I call it the diamond encrusted circle - Who.

** Why the diamond encrusted circle and not the platinum circle or something similar?  I think that Who is that important that it deserves to be diamond encrusted (which I perceive to be more valuable than platinum or some other precious metal).

Who. Why. How. What.

Really knowing your Who is hard.  It seems easy and on the surface it’s easy to use demographics like age, job, location, income, etc. to quickly find your Who.

But knowing you exist for, knowing who you serve, knowing who is the hero of your brand story, that can often be fuzzier than finding your Why.

But the good news is that starting with Who often leads you to find your Why.

Let’s look at Sinek’s famous take-home quotes. The lines that punctuate his talk, his books, his entire business:

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

People don’t buy how you do it, they buy why you do it.

It’s about selling to people who believe what you believe.

It’s about hiring people who believe what you believe.”

What do you notice about all those sentences?  What word comes first? What comes before the what, how, and even why?

The word “people.”

People are customers. People are clients. People are your community. People are your audience.

People are Who.

Even Sinek starts with Who when talking about starting with Why.

You can have a business without a Why. You can’t without a Who.

- Marc Gutman

By getting crystal clear on WHO we are solving a problem for, it becomes easy to ladder up and find our Why.

In fact, you can’t really have a business Why without a Who.  If you have a belief and purpose but no customers, then in a business context Who cares? No one.

In future articles we’ll outline exactly how to to find your Who and document it for the rest of your team.

Who doesn't buy what you do, Who buys why you do it.

Who doesn’t buy how you do it, Who buys why you do it.

So it only makes sense to start with Who.

Start with the diamond encrusted circle.

Start with Who.

What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

The Hero with a thousands faces book cover
The Hero with a thousands faces book cover
  • sdasa
  • dasdsa
  • dasdsa
  1. sadas
  2. dasdsad
  3. dsadsa
The Futur slide - Teach what you know and make a living doing what you love.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

This is some text inside of a div block.

Be The First
To Know

Sign up to get our best stuff: newsletter,
blog, podcast, and updates.