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Why Ask Why
A brand’s reason-for-being is its organizing principle of accountability.

Imagine if we held brands accountable not just for what they do and how they do it, but for why they do it. It seems fitting and timely to open with a Lincoln quote from his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

We all have a higher, nobler responsibility to strive for and live up to. As Lincoln so eloquently expresses it, “the better angels of our nature,” is quite an inspiring and aspiring mission. Many products, brands, and companies can play a valuable role in helping to facilitate this by giving consumers good choices that help them live better lives. Many brands also have the potential to engage for good versus evil.

Brands have an opportunity to engage with consumers at a deeper level that’s based on promoting truth, purpose and value. Inhabiting a space within our daily lives that is more genuine and reflective of the best of the brand brings out the best in the consumer. Brands and marketing do not have to be an enemy mistrusted by consumers at the first sound of “too good to be true” or by “striving to be a do-gooder.” Brands can truly act in the service of the consumers they wish to serve.

However, this requires a fundamental reconsideration of how we create and market brands. It requires a shift in how we measure the value of marketing and brands. It starts with creators and marketers of brands beginning with a clear understanding of why, and addressing why a certain product/brand exists. Starting with a true sense of why puts a brand and the marketing on a purer, purpose-driven path. This is not simply a path to borrow equity from an external cause, a few degrees of separation from the actual brand itself, however. It is about identifying a core brand equity and set of beliefs from which a brand can deliver a very different promise to the consumer.

Today, most brands are marketed on the what — in other words, by leading with the product features and benefits, telling the world what the product does, and by differentiating around what is unique as compared to competitive products. Many brands go even further by layering the communications with a description of the how to deepen the narrative and build greater trust and emotional connection.

Take a shampoo for example: What is about an invigorating cleanser for your hair that leaves it shiny. How is the all-natural blend of ingredients that bind with your hair, leaving it two times stronger and shinier. That all sounds good, but it doesn’t sound defensible or competitively sustainable. The higher ground comes from understanding why.

Why does this brand exist? What does it stand for? A why may sound something like: We know the power in good-hair days and, with daily use, guarantee the confidence that comes from feeling and looking your best.

Expanding the Golden Circle

When we start with communicating the why, it expands the potential of a brand. This is what Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, calls the “Golden Circle.” In his research, Sinek identifies that great leaders and organizations share a common approach. From Apple to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Wright Brothers, companies and leaders that establish a deeper connection begin with communicating the why. This framework can also be applied to how we create meaningful engagement between brands and consumers.

The Golden Circle is composed of three concentric circles with the why at the center, the how at the next level, and the what at the outer level. Most brands market from the outside-in. In other words, they begin with communicating the what. Sinek illustrates the sustainable difference in the companies and leaders that operate from the inside-out. We must first begin with a fundamental understanding of why the brand exists at its most basic level, and what role it has in inspiring positive action in others. The brands that market from the inside-out, by projecting their why to the world, enjoy a much deeper connection with their community.

Take clothing brands like Eileen Fisher, Donna Karan and Lululemon: Their consumers love the clothes they make, but their relationship to the brand is about so much more. Choosing to buy these brands is about an alignment of shared beliefs. It goes something like this: I believe you believe what I believe. These brands attract people who believe what they believe.

Over time, this creates a virtuous relationship cycle when the consumer becomes more of a prosumer — promoting, contributing to, and nurturing the brand and what it stands for. The active prosumer is more involved with the brand, such as actively engaging in its design, customization or innovation. 

For this to truly perpetuate, the brand must declare its why in a way that is immediately obvious and genuine to the product/company. Then it is imperative that the brand consistently delivers against this declaration across every touch-point, at every (and any) given moment. As Simon Sinek describes it, this goes beyond psychology. It is grounded in the tenets of the biology of human-decision making, the understanding of how humans think and behave.

Identifying the brand’s value in terms of why and aligning that with what people value is a surer bet for creating deeper brand value. The why must genuinely express what a brand stands for, what it believes its role in the world is, and why it brings out the best in the consumer. This model points out that simply marketing and selling based on what and how eventually leads to manipulation and a loss of true value to the consumer over time.

Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility

This is not simply “corporate social responsibility” as we know it today. Corporate social responsibility takes a few different approaches, such as philanthropy or incorporating social responsibility directly into the company’s business strategy as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model.

According to a formal definition, corporate social responsibility is a process with a goal of embracing responsibility for the company’s actions and encouraging a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere who may also be considered to be stakeholders. This definition reflects the time when corporate social responsibility came into common practice in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Today, it is often about image boosting and serving an obligation to corporate stakeholders.

The difference offered by a why driven strategy is first the rootedness in the actual product/brand. The why becomes an organizing belief that every element of the product, brand and company must align with and deliver on. When it comes to accountability, the risk is that they could share a common nemesis/tension. Critics of corporate social responsibility are suspicious that it is a ploy to reframe corporate evils into good with the ultimate goal to help increase growth and profits. Other shareholders see it as something that distracts from the need to hit short-term business measures and may dilute actual profits over the long-term.

A focus on the why goes beyond many of the corporate social responsibility activities of the past five decades, as the strategy draws from the very core of a brand’s essence. Where many view such initiatives as mere window dressing, why focused branding and marketing is about articulating beliefs. It goes further than simply aiding an organization’s mission or creating it where one did not previously exist. It is at the heart of the brand.

The value of why is also about aligning with consumers’ values. By making known what a brand believes, it is able to attract people who believe what it believes. Nike is an obvious example of this. If consumers fundamentally believe in the philosophy of whole-heartedly, passionately “going for it” in life to strive to be at their best, they are drawn to make a powerful, lifelong connection with Nike’s brands. It also transcends from a sports brand to a lifestyle brand. Even Nike’s naming convention of products and platforms conveys why they exist — from ‘Free’ to ‘Fuel ‘ to ‘Human Race.’ A focus on why is rooted in purpose and the intended impact, which goes beyond benefits and outcomes.

Companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Patagonia and Whole Foods are classically known for their ideas that business is about more than making a profit. It’s about higher purpose.

Their brands are growing and resonating with consumers based more on a set of shared core beliefs than for simply their commitment to corporate social responsibility initiatives. These brands are accountable for all of their actions. They are consistent in their execution against these values.

The Rise of Conscious Capitalism

Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey recognizes this trend and articulates it with co-author Raj Sisodia in a new book, Conscious Capitalism. Mackey and Sisodia suggest that marketing a brand’s why does not need to be in conflict with capitalism because it is in our human nature to create value within open markets.

The authors write that “business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity.

Conscious capitalism is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world.” If every brand rethinks its purpose to make some kind of positive impact on the consumers it serves, it creates some form of well-being.

This perspective also allows us to lose the inadequate distinction between social and non-social business, which creates a false dichotomy. We talk about “social businesses” (those that are mission-led and focused on creating positive social change) and “non-social businesses” (those that focus on revenue and profit). Yet, these separate business models no longer serve us. There is no reason why all businesses cannot focus on achieving positive impact on its consumers, channels, suppliers, employees, and, ultimately, its shareholders. 

More and more, businesses are social in nature today. All companies have people as customers, employees, and suppliers. At some point — in deciding which supplier to use, in engaging your workforce, and in getting your product into users’ hands — relationships with people matter. Improving their experiences always improves the outcome for your company. 

If a business isn’t providing valuable, meaningful solutions to real customer problems, or delivering outcomes that both make a positive difference in customer lives and support the company’s mission, the business won’t have to worry about profits or outputs for long. The market has a way of taking care of that.

Raising the Stakes

Starting with why challenges products, brands and leaders to aspire to even more. It holds the brand to new levels of accountability and measures success based on new metrics of consumer engagement and value. Why businesses and brands are galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align and integrate the interests of the brand, the consumers, and the entire community. It becomes artificial and antiquated to create social responsibility initiatives to satisfy a social good. This should be the measure we place on all products in our lives. Simply start with why.

Rethinking marketing and branding in this way raises the stakes of accountability. Companies need to deliver on values and a new kind of value. The upside on all sides is tremendous. Imagine if every product we used could be selected based on its ability to deliver on a set of shared beliefs. Suppose you truly felt that the brands you bought had your best interest at heart in a genuine and measurable way. Each of us already has a small list of brands that are recognizing and delivering on this potential. This kind of accountability should not be the exception.

Just as each human is unique, so is each brand. Starting with why holds the promise of differentiated, sustainable, long-term reciprocal value creation.

BETH ANN KAMINKOW is president and chief executive officer of TracyLocke. A strong advocate of insights-inspired marketing programs, she is a pioneer in strategic-planning research methodologies.

MARCH / APRIL 2013 | PDF | Subscribe | Home