The Power of “Why” in Marketing

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Katie Branagh

Have you had a chance to see Simon Sinek’s TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action?” The title is a bit misleading because Sinek’s message is really about the importance of knowing why we do the things we do. “The golden circle,” he calls it, a bulls-eye graphic in which the outer ring is the what, the middle ring is the how, and the inner core section is the why. It all corresponds to the way our brains are wired. This model applies to both individuals and companies but of course I want to focus on what this means at the organizational level and more specifically how the model can and should be used in marketing.

I am interested in this idea that we are drawn to organizations because they believe what we believe, as opposed to what organizations have to offer or how they function. Sinek’s message got me thinking about how I make purchasing decisions and why I choose the products that I do when there are so many choices. I could only think of a handful of companies off the top of my head that have effectively communicated strong core values and a belief in what they are doing. Aside from well known “socially responsible” companies such as Tom’s Shoes (notice that the “why” is clear: to provide shoes free of charge to children in need) I was hard pressed to come up with the “why” when thinking about well-known brands. Interestingly, almost all of the brands that I am loyal to, for example Seventh Generation, Kiva, and Patagonia, express their “why” plainly in their marketing efforts. If Sinek’s idea is so simple why don’t more companies market their “why” to consumers? Is it because companies do not know why they do what they do? That is a frightening thought. Is it because companies are afraid that no one will believe in what they believe in? Or perhaps companies don’t know how to communicate their purpose.

Clearly there are many successful businesses and one could argue that at least part of that success can be attributed to the fact that they are not merely selling a product, but revealing their values to their customers. Walmart, Method, even non-profits such as Heifer International are good examples of companies that understand and communicate their “why” well. We are seeing a shift in the way companies are branding themselves and aligning their values with the values of their target markets.

Think of cause marketing. The Body Shop is a company that is doing this well. One of its recent campaigns is to end child sex trafficking. Does this have anything to do with the product The Body Shop is selling? No, but in all likelihood, loyal Body Shop customers care about stopping child sex trafficking. People respond favorably when the brands that they love give back to the community. The problem with this is that these communicated values may not be authentic. So what happens if you are a business owner and your customers want to buy products from responsible companies that care about the environment and social justice, but your company just doesn’t care about these things? Is pretending to care good enough? Can companies still be successful if their marketing is clever? According to Sinek, companies in this position will fail! In fact, any company accused of green-washing probably falls into this category. What companies come to mind when you think of green-washing? BP could be an example. So is Sinek right? How is BP doing?

Let’s say that The Body Shop doesn’t particularly care about child sex trafficking in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it is important, but maybe the company cares more about child labor or ending homelessness but those issues didn’t rank as high in importance among Body Shop customers. Is the work the company is doing to end child sex trafficking still good? Absolutely! Perhaps the power of consumers is stronger than we can even imagine. Maybe consumers have the ability to truly shift the core values of companies all over the world. And while we can’t force businesses to care about any cause, organizations have an incentive to satisfy the wants and needs of their customers and thus have the ability to do a world of good.