The lost art of the ‘what’ and ‘how’.

Published 06.02.2019

Love Simon Sinek’s work, or not, he helped bring about a word that had long been used by brand professionals to the masses working in the brand profession.

The concept of your ‘Why’.

Essentially it’s your brands purpose, proposition, promise or mission. The reason you exist beyond making profit, that is one step back from the products you make or services you offer. It’s the reason why you exist. And why you do what you do.

It’s a powerful think to lock down, and often your best weapon when bringing products and services to market – a proposition underpinning and guiding your decisions, actions, objectives and behaviours. It’s a critical element of building a brand. It’s the foundation stone.

But. And there is a but. Your ‘why’ isn’t everything.

“What?!” I hear people cry. “You’re wrong.” “If we get the why right everything works”… “Blasphemy”. “What’s this idiot talking about?”

Since my partners and I successful sold our agency group, along with other business ventures, I consult with global brands on strategy and with agencies (large and small) on their own growth, troubleshooting, strategising and looking at processes and their output.

And something I have seen worries me. The over-use of the concept of a brands ‘why’ is leading to poor strategy and pedestrian creative. Not because Sinek was wrong. No way. What he states is nothing new. Just well explained.

What’s wrong is creative are often placing an over reliance on a brand why and forgetting the what (a brand does) and how (a brand does it). These elements can be equally compelling in creative communications and strategy. And sometimes… the only way to differentiate. Your why alone may not make you different. Shock horror?!

That’s another important word. Differentiation. As critical for success as is relevance. Again neither are new concepts. We just have new jargon. These principles will never change. Neither will their importance

Where Sinek got it bang on is the inverse of where so many agencies are getting it wrong. He said ‘start with a why’.

Too many creative and strategists stop at the why.

It is fundamental. Yes it’s the foundations of a brand. And may (should) give a business purpose… but there are so many layer to build out with as much industry as creating a potent why.

The why very often, itself, doesn’t give you cut through. Not on its own. It simply gives you purpose.

Here’s… um, well… why:

“The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”

Kjell Nordstrom

I’ve long used this quote in my work since I was shown it by Kelly O’Keefe. An American advertising icon. Lovely bloke. And clever chap. He now runs the BrandCenter in Virginia, USA.

What Kelly was talking to me and a room full of brand folk about, and what Nordstrom puts beautifully, is the concept of the surplus economy. I.e. a lack of difference.

A sea of similar. And it’s utterly true. We live in a world of over supply. Where quality standards are generally good. Reliability too. Service the same. Often prices too.

And this means that differentiation is the singularly most important ingredient in communications. And you why can very well be what differentiates you. But equally so can how you do things. And sometimes, what you do itself – if no one else is doing it.

The above has never changed. And it never will.

But some thing have. The old order of attention is dead. It’s a concept that held regard in a world of volume marketing. Yes, attention matters – but connections, experiences, retention, advocacy and wantedness – softer measures – far outstrip yesterday’s concepts of how to market in terms of effectiveness. Relationships are what brands are built on. Not campaigns.

Further still, if your agency only talks about funnels and makes no mention of loyalty… run. They’re yesterday. Seriously. If the conversations you’re having are not about lifetime value, viral coeffiency, retention, experiences, NPS etc – then guaranteed you’re spending too much money trying acquire customers.

It has been true and always will be that keeping a customer is cheaper than winning one. And in a world where recommendation is the single highest driver of brand switching – campaign alone are not the secret to success… just the start of a relationship.

As the why is the starting point of building out a killer brand. The why or purpose is what anchors everything else you say and do. But it’s the floor. Not the ceiling. And not necessarily the message in itself. In fact, it rarely is. Brands aren’t built or stories well told with matching luggage.

They are orchestrated and explored across a spectrum of messages, experiences, ideas, products and services. Where each adds another brick into the wall of the brand, anchored by it’s original idea. Or it’s why.

One of the most obvious places you see this going wrong is when brand marketing, blurs with product marketing.

Taking it as read that product marketing is anchored in the why, it can tell it’s own stories and create it’s own experiences. Without matching luggage from one product to another. Sometimes this strategy is right. But not always.

Apple for example does have matching luggage. But that in itself is beautiful expression of it’s products and eco-system. It’s much more clever and idealistic than everything just matching because it’s efficient. It’s co-efficent. It’s a story of its own. It’s there how. Told with design. Because everything they do fits together seamlessly. Their product and commitment to innovation are continual and brilliant expressions of their why. Their communication, their how, anchored in their why,

Brilliant and because they know this, and live this they’ve become the brand that they are. They didn’t arrive at greatness and start following a new set of rules. They got here because they’ve lived their why and how with absolute commitment and creativity.

For smaller brands, much of their communication is product marketing, not brand. And in pure-play product marketing it’s the product that’s king, anchored by the brand – the way and all the other facets of the brand. Again, the why is floor. The foundations you build on and from. Not the whole story.

And it’s the whole story of a brand that must be told, believed and experienced to  brand drive success. Not all why’s differentiate.

As much energy and creativity must be invested in every brand facet. Not just the on trend bits.

You start with a why. You don’t stop there.

It’s the floor. Not the ceiling.