Start with WHAT, not WHY

It seems I’m one of the only people to dare question the logic in Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’ approach to brands and business. So it was refreshing to read someone else raising concerns about it. “I can show you a ton of products that listen to the ‘Start with why’ speech and are being crushed,” suggested Joah Santos on Linked In. “There is no example of leading with why and having a success”.

The golden speech

In case you’ve been on a desert island for the last few years, ‘Start with why’ by Simon Sinek is one of the most viewed Ted talks of all time, with over 35 million views. It’s 18 minutes of pure gold that has made Sinek rich. Like many great concepts, it takes an old idea, gives it a fresh twist and then executes with excellence:

  • Old idea: ‘laddering’ from the product benefit to the emotional benefit
  • Fresh twist: the ‘golden circle’, with ‘what’ on the outside, ‘how’ in the middle circle, and ‘why’ in the centre

Sinek suggested that the key to success is to forget about your product. “People can understand features and benefits, it just doesn’t drive behaviour,” he said. Instead, he urged us to focus our bigger, grander purpose, like Martin Luther King with his ‘I believe’ speech.

The fatal flaw

The title of Sinek’s talk is actually ‘How great leaders inspire action’. And I agree that leaders are more effective when they talk from the heart about a bigger idea. Martin Luther King would have been less effective with the line, “I have a 10-point change program”. However, the flaw in Sinek’s logic is how he then transposes his logic onto brands.

Take Apple. Sinek says, “If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: ‘We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?’ “Meh.”

And yet the product-led approach that Sinek slags off is exactly what Apple do in most of their communication . Of course there was the ‘Think Different’ ad that Steve Jobs made when he returned to Apple in 1997. But this sort of purpose-led advertising is the exception for Apple.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod to the world, he didn’t say, “I have a dream of how to change the way you listen to music.” He said, “1,000 songs in your pocket,” as did the advertising.

Start with what

I suggest that most great brands do exactly the opposite to what Simon Sinek suggests: they start with the what and how, and from this flows the why of brand purpose.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started out building a computer in their garage, not sitting around philosophising about their place in the world.

James Dyson spent five years on 5,127 different modifications to create his bagless vacuum cleaner. His adverts start with the what, not a higher sense of purpose.

Innocent’s founders started in 1999 by selling smoothies at a festival and asking people to vote on whether they should give up their jobs to make smoothies, using two bins, one saying ‘Yes’ and the other saying ‘No’.

And Harley Davidson’s revival in the 1980’s wasn’t driven by the why. Harley enthusiasts loved the values of freedom, power and independence. They were pissed off with the poor reliability and shoddy customer service that forced them to consider Japanese brands. The brand revitalisation focused on fixing the what by improving product quality.

In conclusion, I share Simon Sinek’s belief in the importance of having a what, a how and a why. But I recommend focusing on creating a superior product or service and then adding some emotional sizzle, not the other way round.