The ‘Why” vs. “How”: What makes some brands extraordinary and others not

Last Friday I had to the privilege of speaking at the NCSA Annual Conference (National Collegiate Scouting Association) in Chicago. Not only did I get to meet some of the top athletes, coaches and scouts in the country, but I got to experience first hand what I believe is the most important trait that any truly successful company must demonstrate – the “why” of what they do. (Please note that this post was inspired by a great TED talk by Simon Sinek shown at the conference that explains how great leaders inspire action.)

To some, such an assertion may sound obvious or redundant but having worked with dozens of companies each year for over a decade, I know this to be true. This is the quality that also sets iconic companies apart including Nike and its wonderful ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy. It informs their behavior, their language (internally and externally), their marketing and why each employee goes to work each morning.

But don’t all organization’s possess a “why”? How could they not? Again, let me explain.

“Why” is shorthand for a rare energy that permeates the air, crackles through staff conversations and informs internal communications. In the case of Nike and Wieden & Kennedy, and the NCSA, that “why” is a deep love of sports. That is the “come from” you experience in everything they do?

So ask yourself what is the “why” of your company? Are you reaching out to customers because you want to close a sale to drive profits to meet next quarter’s projections? Is that where your thinking and marketing starts rather than end? In short, are you starting with the “how” and not the “why”?

Often those companies that get this right do so because of a visionary leader. Their company is an extension of the “why” of the founder. You see this with Phil Knight of Nike, Dan Wieden and Chris Krause of the NCSA. They love what they do, they never lose sight of the “why” and they hire people who feel the same. Here are the benefits:

1. The Founder/CEO of the company has a lot less work to do because the motivation of his or her staff is informed by a shared passion.

2. The company’s messaging is framed in terms of emotion that is the single most important thing to do if you want to connect with people.

3. Every customer connects emotionally with the brand that in turn pre-sells any service or product they are offering.

4. Any outreach they do through social media work rings true because they are being human and coming from an authentic place.

5. Any corporate social responsibility (CSR) work they do comes off as authentic rather than simply trying to gild their own image.

So how does your company find its “why”?

1. Ask yourself why you do what you do on a personal, emotional level.

2. Express that in simple emotional terms that will motivate your staff and customers.

3. Hire people that feel the same way.

4. Ensure each employee personalizes the “why” in terms of their own life experience.

5. Build a corporate culture that is framed in these human, emotional terms.

Do that and, as Simon Sinek asserts, you’ll have people saying there’s something special about your company and you’ll enjoy disproportionate satisfaction and success.

Do you know any other special companies that know their “why”? Or do you think it’s too hard for most bureaucratic, large companies?