Are Customers Really Interested in “Why”?

In a previous post, “Why You Need to Share Your Brand’s Story,” we talked about the importance of defining and highlighting your brand’s story (AKA, your company’s reason for being in business [besides making a profit]). A story can help make an emotional connection with your consumers: It makes it easier for you to relate with them on a fundamental level. They feel like you understand them and, in turn, they better understand your company.

Also in this article, we rely heavily on the “why”: Why is your company doing what it does? What propels the company’s employees to get out of bed every morning and ___________? (Fill in the blank: make smart phones, design and print brochures, service cars, and so on.)

We then came across a blog post by Velocity Partners (a B2B marketing agency) headlined, “Why most brands shouldn’t start with why.”

So, ever the curious, and at complete risk of possibly contradicting ourselves, it got us thinking: Do customers really care about the “why”?

You should know, dear reader, we have not led you astray: Yes, the customer does, to some point, care about the why. You may not need to lean into it as heavily, and you don’t always have to initially start off with it.

We’ll get to that “why” in a moment, but first, we need to understand the line of thinking that prompted this question. To do so, we need to revisit Simon Sinek.

Simon Sinek and The Golden Circle

Simon Sinek is a well-known organizational consultant and instructor of strategic communications. His book, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and his popular Ted Talk on the topic, “How great leaders inspire action” takes an alternative look at how both individuals and organizations can successfully influence their audience to respond to a call to action. This alternative view is best explained by what Sinek calls the “golden circle”, which has the “Why” as the innermost circle, “How” as the middle circle, and “What” as the outer circle. When drawn, it looks like the following diagram:

In summation, here’s what needs to be defined for each:

The What: Your company does something for a profit; what is it? Perhaps you make custom leather shoes, you run a string of gyms, you repair broken appliances, or you offer a variety of online classes that teach foreign languages. You want people to think of you first when they’re looking for your “what”: Nike makes athletic shoes, Google provides a search engine, Harley Davidson manufactures motorcycles, and Amazon is the place for, well, just about anything.

The How: The actions your company takes to design, create, and sell products or offer services will define your “why.” Do you have brick-and-mortar stores, an online shop, or a combination of the two? Do you have an intensive internship program so you can ultimately hire the best minds in the tech space?  Is there an inherited method, passed down through generations of a family, that is the “secret” to the company’s continued success?

The Why: Your mission statement is likely your “why” because it explains what you hope to accomplish and the reason(s) for it. The “why” is your beliefs that inspire you to do what you do (the “what”). Take Kiva, an international nonprofit. On their “About” page, the bold statement at the top reads, “We envision a financially inclusive world where all people hold the power to improve their lives.” Kiva’s “why” is helping the underserved communities gain financial independence through crowdfunding loans.

So that’s Sinek’s Golden Circle. Close to 11 minutes into his Ted Talk, Sinek summarizes the whole point of this Golden Circle: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.” And to be successful at leading—whether that’s leading people or sales in the market—you need to get people on board with your “why.”

Now we circle back to our original question: Do people really care about the “why”? According to Adam Ketterer of Velocity Partners, the answer is no (and yes).

Be Smart and Cautious When Starting with Why, argues Adam Ketterer

Ketterer makes some great points in his article. One of those points is that people began to blur the lines between “leadership” and “marketing” and how Sinek’s Golden Circle could work for each. As Ketterer explains, “People started using the mantra [“Start with why.”] as a marketing or branding tactic for any old business.”  

You can read the article in full, but if you prefer just the highlights, his two remaining points are:

  • Upon first learning of a company, you initially want to know what they do, not why they do it.
  • You risk sounding insincere. Here, Ketterer uses United Airlines as an example. One of their shared values is “Warm and welcoming is who we are.” Ketterer follows this up with the example of Dr. David Dao, the passenger who was dragged off a United Airlines flight in 2017.

Ketterer admits that sometimes you’ll start with why, but more often than not, in most cases, it just isn’t the smartest move. If the “why” is the reason for your company’s entire existence, if what you’re doing is revolutionary, or if you need people to believe in your “why” as part of your success, then you’ll want to make the “why” your lead.

The “why” is important, but so is knowing when to lead with it. And that can often be tricky to figure out.

When to (or not to) Lead with “Why”

An intimate familiarity with your company, its products/services, and its brand story will make determining when to lead with “why” second nature.

Don’t Lead with Why for the Sake of It

You’ll alienate and turn away an audience if you lead with a “why” just because you think it’s the right thing to do. Not all brands will have a good “why” or an inspiring “why,” so it’s self-sabotaging to try and do so. Instead, focus on the “what.” At the end of the day, even if someone’s “why” is great, a fantastic, high-quality product is what will help keep them as customers. Even if they love your “why,” few people will passionately spend their money on a failed product or service.

Lead with Why When Talking About Your Brand/Brand Story

Whenever you talk about your company, you’ll want to mention what you do, but ultimately you want to discuss why you do it. As we talked about in “Why You Need to Share Your Brand’s Story,” your brand revolves around your “why.” It’s what defines your mission statement and guides your vision statement. It’s what makes your employees energized to come to work each day, and it’s the stamp you want your company to leave on the world.

You cannot talk about your brand or brand story without the “why.” The two are inherently intertwined. You couldn’t have a story without a “why”—or, at least, an interesting, inspiring story.

Don’t Lead with Why if Your Target Audience Already Knows It

Sometimes you don’t have to start with your “why” because your audience is already intimately familiar with it. Like Sinek, we’ll use Apple as an example. Sinek states that Apple’s “why” is “challenging the status quo by thinking differently,” and the way they achieve this goal is by making well-design products that are user-friendly and easy to use.

  • When a new iPhone is unveiled, individuals who have had an iPhone before—especially those who have had one since the first generation was released—don’t need to know Apple’s “why.” They need to know the “what”:
  • What is the cost?
  • What sizes (GB) will be offered?
  • What features are the same as the previous generation?
  • What features have changed from the previous generation?
  • What features does this version have that other phones on the market do not?
  • Though the “why” can certainly be added in (and should), it doesn’t need to take precedence in messages directed toward current customers.

Learn When Your Customers Care About “Why”—and When They Don’t

Crafting messages is not easy. If it were, creatives would be a dime a dozen. It takes a natural creative spark, a command of the language, and long hours of brainstorming to write action-inspiring copy in only a few sentences.

Knowing when to lead with “why” versus the “what” or the “how” is not always going to be easy. But knowing the purpose of your message and to whom it is directed will at least get you headed in the right direction. Remember, as much as you love what you have written, you are writing to inspire people you don’t even know. Even if you care about the “why,” they might not.

Know your audience and their needs. Know your “what,” “how,” and “why” in as much detail as you know the grooves on the back of your hand. Your continued success depends on it.

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