The day when WHY became a game-changer for brands
It’s difficult to narrow down precisely the point in time when the WHY of a brand became all consuming. There are some notable diary dates.
Back in 2009, Simon Sinek gained notoriety for his powerful and inspiring arguments (framed in his book ‘Start with Why’) around the need to inspire people by having a clear picture of why a brand exists. As Sinek puts it, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”
Earlier still, in 1997, it was the marketing visionary Steve Jobs—best known for being the thought leader of Apple—who took his learnings from working in the advertising industry and brought the Apple brand back on track by focusing the brand on how it empowers its customers to make a contribution to change the world for the better rather than product specs. It also spawned, one of the most awesome lines ever uttered when Jobs said, “The one thing you know (about visionaries like Einstein, Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, and Martin Luther King Jr.) is that if they ever used a computer, it would’ve been a Mac.”
I think the actual moment in history when the world of brands realized its axis had shifted towards ‘the power of WHY’ happened at the turn of the century and was exposed in a 2010 session given by Ed Bell, Ogilvy’s Shanghai Group Planning Director, and Paul Heath, its Asia-Pacific CEO who were looking into what Ogilvy called ‘The Big IdeaL.’ They argued that, while the 1970;’s was a ‘commodity economy’, the 1980’s was a ‘goods economy’ (where the key was about cost), and the 1990’s became a ‘service economy’, the 21st century has become the ‘experience economy.’ Now, authenticity can make or break a brand, and consumers will expose ‘half-truths’. As Health put it, “Consumers today want something to believe in.”
Is yours a PURPOSEFUL Brand? And what can you do if it isn’t?
We all know the characteristics that go to make-up a purposeful brand. We only need think of those great companies that harness youthful energy to solve a community problem, recycle an asset that wasn’t being well used, offer their profits up instead of pocketing the rewards, work to harness clean energy, or re-build parts of a failing economy. These are brands we ‘get’ when it comes to the WHY.
Other brands with purpose, are not so squeaky clean on the inside—i.e., those underpinned by ‘big greedy corporations’ that feed their profits to already rich investors—but on the outside, their brand still projects something positive.
Think about brands like Virgin, who profit from the association with its founder Sir Richard Branson , and that fact that he’s such a nice and awesome guy. And Disney, who are still seen as the best friend of every child who can still dream of pixies and fairy godmothers. And what about Google, who are still seen by many to be a champion of the little guy? Then, there’s Apple that, regardless of its brand story and rebel values, continues to churn profits around the world by leveraging offshore low-cost manufacturing to feed eye-popping profits to its U.S. entered shareholders.
The fact is, not every business can gain the investment it needs without the sponsorship of others with capital. They might not have a choice but to become in some people’s eyes a ‘greedy corporation’ in order to bring their idea into light. And not every business can do the core deliverable of what it does to bring value to customers for the sake of charity, to solve world issues, or bring value to local communities.
Having said that, I’d also argue that doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t consider how they create job opportunities for people in need of work, or share profits with its extended workforce, adopt policies to protect the planet, or donate some of its profits, resources, or time to charitable causes.
If you build software, cut cloth, or clean houses, it’s not easy to round out the purpose of your brand, especially if the company was founded on the practical need to create personal wealth.
Remember, the WHY, the PURPOSE; it’s all about AUTHENTICITY.
Being something you’re not, even if it looks impressive on a website, only serves to corrupt your brand authenticity. These half truths will get found out.
My recommendation is for companies to be the best form of why they do what they do.
Think about what led you (or the founders) to create the company. If you are a staffing company, perhaps you started the business because you wanted to find opportunities for people to build careers. Consider offering courses, mentoring, or coaching programs alongside your core business activities to get back to the motivations that led to your company formation. If you genuinely do clean houses for a living, consider the wider value you bring; the emotional support you offer people living in isolation in need of a conversation, or those occasions when you’ve been there to pick up parcels when people need a helping hand.
The WHY of your brand should always articulate the motivation that brings the passion that drives what your business spends its time doing.
Selling your business idea short, because you’re selling yourself short
Successful brands of the future will need to exist because they’re doing more than just earn money to shareholders, even if that’s you.
When I started Encanvas with Andrew and Nick Lawrie back in the early 2000’s, we had a vision that there are thousands of people in the world with business ideas, unable to translate their ideas into businesses because they didn’t know how to code, or build apps to translate their idea into outcomes. We wanted to solve that conundrum by creating a way to build enterprise-grade apps without code BETTER than you could with manual coding. We weren’t particularly thinking about the money this would generate. We just wanted to see if we could make those ambitions happen for entrepreneurs and departmental managers who just wanted to turn their ideas into software apps. Today, Encanvas is one of the leading No-Code solutions in a £5 billion global market. It’s been used by large and small companies around the world, Governments, Educators, Consultants and Retailers. We were fortunate, we started with WHY and found something we really wanted to do that we could turn into a business.
If your brand is ‘all about the money’ then maybe it’s time for some quiet reflection. Perhaps it’s time to revisit YOUR WHY. It’s probable that you will be much happier doing something that returns profound emotional and spiritual value back to you and your colleagues rather than a soulless pay check.
I leave the last word to Steve Jobs.
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”STEVE JOBS
CEO Newton Day
Ian Tomlin is a business management consultant, having led a career as a CEO, marketer, tech innovator, and business writer. He founded and is CEO of the marketing and innovation company Newton Day where he helps businesses tell their product stories and make conversation with their customers. His writing includes fourteen titles including the 60-Minute Expert series of ultimate ‘how-to’ guides for practitioners. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.