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

Simon Mainwaring / Advertising / 9 years ago

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?



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  1. “why” could be too the desire that people find what they need, or what they desire. Dont you think so?

  2. Hi, Alberto and thanks. It could be but specifically I'm thinking about the why of a corporation. I think it needs to more specific to why they do exactly what they do rather than a more general proposition of fulfilling customers desires. But you're right that is part of it. The only danger is that a brand must be its own compass rather than the customer if its to have any chance to succeed. Thanks so much for the input, Simon

  3. We must be on the same wavelength today Simon. I kid you not I just did a “Why?” vs “How?” post today too!

  4. Fantastic. Great minds think alike! Actually the credit goes to Simon Sinek. Glad we're on the same wavelength. Best, Simon

  5. Avatar NCSA says:

    Thanks for the great post Simon. A video like this is really what helps put our whole NCSA team on the same page:

  6. Pleasure, Brian. You guys are an amazing group and an inspiring company. Simon

  7. Avatar iconic88 says:

    To use a basketball analogy, you're in the zone here Simon!! Funderful post.

    Here's what I love about this post, all the benefits you outlined are 100% on point.

    For any business, the “why” leads to increased efficiencies, increased synergies, lower costs of production, lower marketing costs because everyone loves what they're doing, everyone loves to share what they're doing and believes in what they're doing which in turn leads to stakeholders being more willing to share the 'brand love' as it were. Bottom line is, the “why” gives brands 'resonance'.

    Anyone can work out the “how” but the “why” is a different ball game. It's a deeper well of satisfaction and meaning. The “how” is analogous to how one is digging a well. The “why” is our search for water. We keep digging because we know there are 2 major outcomes. One is finding water (creating a signal) and the other is sharing and using the water for our daily needs (creating a frequency).

    I would say Disney, Virgin are companies that understands their “why”. You just have to see the smiles on their staff faces.


  8. Totally agree and love the way you put it. I truly believe social media is not only reconnecting us allowing our innate empathy to re-emerge but it also gives permission for brands to lead with their heart (as those with visionary leaders have always done). These are exciting times with so much potential for positive change. Thanks, Mahei.

  9. Avatar iconic88 says:

    Thanks Simon!

    You nailed it >> “social media is not only reconnecting us allowing our innate empathy to re-emerge but it also gives permission for brands to lead with their heart (as those with visionary leaders have always done).”

    If we think of businesses like a house of love aka 'home' where people feel welcome, where people feel safe, where people feel loved, where people feel they can share their thoughts, where people can improve upon the home, where people feel they can tell others about their positive experience, then brands have a strong foundation to work from. The rest is cosmetic.

    Imagine using the opposite approach of showing no love, no respect, no kindness to your clients/partners…I'll let those special letters in biztalk like KPI's and ROI speak for themselves in this scenario.

    Be kind…always….and part of being kind is now giving back to the well and leaving more than what you take.

    There's plenty of water to share, brands have to learn to believe that and take action.

  10. So agree. It's just a question of confidence – brands need to risk and learn and try caring and discover what it does for their business. Oddly enough I always thought that was the original service offering of brands all those decades ago. They need to get out of their own way again to learn what trust can do for them. Thanks, Simon

  11. […] Mainwaring over at WeFirst writes about the ‘how’ vs. the ‘why’ when it comes to branding and […]