Leaders start with why, but wise marketers start with who

—Some brands have succeeded with purpose led work, but Éric Blais prefers the Peter Drucker maxim: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer”—

Simon Sinek has made an indelible impact on the global business world, primarily with his Golden Circle concept and his best-selling book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action which has been lauded for its exploration of purpose in businesses.

Sinek emphasizes the importance of a clear purpose (the “why”) for achieving business success.

This concept of purpose not only shapes a company’s culture but can also serve as a transformational force within a business. His theory—with “why” at its core—is that businesses that start with a clear purpose are more likely to thrive.

Seven years before Sinek published his book, Jim Collins offered a similar assessment in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Both books converge on the idea that enduring success is not so much about the products or services a company offers, but about a deep-rooted understanding of purpose, passion, and drive.

Recognizing this, and placing it at the forefront of organizational strategy, differentiates the merely good companies from the truly great ones.

These are theories about management. And they are very compelling. Sinek’s TED talk has been viewed nearly 63 million times and I’ve heard its core argument mentioned in meetings and lunch ‘n learn more times than I can remember.

Some of these management principles have obvious implications for employer branding, customer experience, and many other aspects of brand delivery. But I question their application to advertising and promotion. Is starting with “why” the better way to sell stuff?

Sinek appears to believe so when he declares that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In other words, marketers should sell the why and focus on the brand’s purpose in the stories they tell consumers.

Turning a leadership lesson into marketing practice might be smart business in some cases.

Dove certainly appears to have greatly benefitted from boldly communicating its purpose to change beauty, redefine beauty standards and help everyone experience beauty and body image positively. If a soap brand can do it, presumably any brand can.

It also makes marketers and their agencies feel a sense of higher purpose by having a societal impact instead of just driving sales. Who doesn’t want to be part of the “crazy ones—the ones who can change the world,” to echo Apple’s 1997 commercial.

But it can also lead to the kind of “purposey” ads that look like they were developed by the corporate affairs department, rather than by the marketing department.

I might be old school but I was taught that marketers should always start with “who.” I learned this from Peter Drucker: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

The Bud Light fiasco might not have happened had those seeking to reverse its slow decline by attracting new drinkers had started with who drinks it.

Professor Roger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School, wrote in a recent piece: “My guess is that the heterogeneity of Bud Light’s customer base and the fault lines in that base were simply not considered. The naïve idea—not an unusual one but naïve nonetheless—was that Bud Light could keep all its current customers, and, with this terrific new message, could appeal to some new ones (whether light users or non-users). This kind of naivety has always been dangerous. But it has gotten a lot more so in this hyperpolitical and transparent world.”

To be clear, marketers should most definitely consider their brands’ “why” and assess its relevance and ability to persuade consumers to buy into it, and consequently buy it.

But, here’s my unsolicited advice: start with who, and strike the right balance between purpose-driven inspiration and meeting, and ideally exceeding, customer expectations.

Start with who, and make sure you understand their why. What drives them, their values, convictions, biases, and beliefs, no matter how right, wrong, misinformed, or misguided they may be.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais