On a longstanding memetic plague in strategy.
I started working in strategy in 2010, give or take. I’d been in marketing communications for 3 years prior to that, across PR and a short stint client side at an events company, but really 2010 was my start as a strategist.
I mention this because Simon Sinek gave his initial TEDx talk in 2009. It’s been viewed more than 60 million times since, and was the starting point of an empire of “why”. As in: inspirational leadership, powerful brands, and big ideas all begin with purpose; why you do things, why you get up in the morning. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.
Brand Purpose has been a (maybe THE) defining idea in marketing during my career, has been the centre of a lot of great brand strategy work, and a lot of versions of the phrase “we exist to make your life better”. It has also ignited a thousand angry debates with those that lean more toward the marketing science / Ehrenberg-Bass style of strategy. My issue with it is much, much simpler.
I have never met anyone who bought a hamburger because of why McDonald’s made it.*
The obsession with purpose makes sense; the initial audience for all advertising work is someone who identifies deeply with the brand you are working on. A certain subset of CMO, Brand Manager, or anywhere in between is going to be more engaged with the idea they are changing the world, than they are with the idea that they have a slight functional advantage that can be used as a lever. Why is also a great way to elevate some products or processes. But I don’t think why really matters in most cases unless you’ve nailed what and how. Which, IMO, is pretty neglected.
If Purpose is why, then Product/Benefit is what and Process/Craft is how. I think there’s more to be done, in most cases, with what and how, than there is with why.
When I say What, I don’t mean just selling the product itself, but the impact of the product. For all the talk of Nike’s world-beating brand purpose, the subtext is clear: we will make you a better athlete. That’s the promise of Air, of Flyknit, of React and of DryFit. Baked into the product is a narrative of what you’re actually buying, and it’s not a higher ideal. A strategy about what is a story about “From X / To Y”. That can be about changing a situation, a belief, or a person. But it’s inherently more impactful to say you run a food bank than it is to say that no one should go hungry. A strategy based around What, is a strategy based around actions, not just beliefs. And there’s a tendency to believe that these things are just proof points for a higher ideal, rather than a story unto themselves.
Every luxury brand in the world tells a story about heritage that is confused with a story about purpose. But usually these are actually stories about How, about craft and process; you care that Hermes started making harnesses in 1837 not because you admire a passion for the equestrian, but because 186 years of continuous leather working tells you that they have figured out some magical stuff along the way. The how of things is always a better demonstration of belief and purpose than any statement; if you spend a full year making each product so precisely it can function for decades, telling that story is infinitely more persuasive than saying “it’s a product you can have for a lifetime”. We’ve confused a time of shorter attention spans with a requirement for dumber messages - but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
My problem, then, is that Why is actually a question, to which What and How are answers. I’m not actually blaming Sinek for a decade plus of sub-par marketing, because his point was to START with why, not finish there. The problem is, with budgets, media placements, and timelines shrinking, there’s a tendency to just start and… keep starting.
A better approach would be to channel great fictional characters, and understand that your motivations should be kept for yourself and those you trust most in the world. Your actions, however - what you do and how you do it - are what you will always be judged on. Batman saves the day, he doesn’t stop every person in distress into to tell them that his parents were murdered.
Most brands could stand to be more like Batman.
*I can speak to this with some small amount of authority, I’ve won awards for work selling McDonald’s hamburgers.