Asking Why in Design

Addressing the "Why"

In his book “Start With Why”, author Simon Sinek describes why some leaders and organizations outperform those who—for all intents and purposes—do the exact same thing. Why do some companies achieve exponential success in innovation, revenue, and cultural impact while others grow linearly and hit a plateau?

Every company knows what it does. Identify a problem, craft a solution, sell that solution. Presumably, if a company was confused about what it did, it wouldn’t be doing anything for long. But the act of producing isn’t enough. There are countless examples of well-funded startups and unique products that “lead-balloon” into obscurity. But, maybe that’s because they weren’t differentiated.

Do it Differently

How a company delivers on its business is what sets it apart. For example, mattresses aren’t unique in their own right. But what if we send them straight to your door in a box that (when opened) allows the mattress to gracefully expand into your bedroom? What if we offer a 100-night guarantee? And if you aren’t 100% satisfied we offer to package and pick it up free of charge. It’s what marketing agencies call a “unique selling proposition” or “key differentiator.” It’s important. It’s interesting. But it’s not inspired.

No. It’s not what you do or how you do it that matters. What matters is why. And that’s a very difficult thing to define because we’re naturally inclined to tell people what we do and how we do it. We say, “We’re a craft beer brewery. We make the freshest IPAs from organic hops.” Or, “We’re an insurance agency. We cover a wide range of incidents with low deductibles.”

Why. How. What.

But strong brands do it differently. They begin by defining why they do what they do. Then how. Then what. For example, Snickers could say, “We make candy bars. We combine peanuts, nougat, caramel and milk chocolate to satisfy hunger.” All of that is true, but it isn’t moving product.

Instead, Snickers takes a different approach, “We believe hunger shouldn’t get in the way of the things in life that aren't related to hunger at all. We do it by combining satiating ingredients in a candy bar that curbs your hunger so your hunger doesn't curb you. It’s called a Snickers Bar, and it’s loaded with peanuts, nougat, caramel and milk chocolate.”

Some of that verbiage is lifted directly from Snickers website. And if you’ve ever seen a TV spot from Snickers, none of it should be new information to you. People don’t buy Snickers just because they’re hungry. They could literally buy anything—candy bar or otherwise—to satiate themselves. They buy Snickers because they believe in what Snickers is selling. True satisfaction, the ability to get past hunger and get stuff done.

Sinek says it simply enough: “People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

People Decide with Their Emotions
People Justify with Information After Deciding

Inside Out vs. Outside In

When we communicate from the outside in, we appeal to rational decision-making processes. But when we communicate from the inside out, we appeal to emotions. Research shows that purchasing decisions are based on emotions first, and then justified using available information.

Brands that begin with this simple exercise—defining why they do what they do—understand the importance of relationships with their community. They stand as guideposts for groups that have common beliefs. They build their identities in a virtuous circle where the brand is defined by the people who believe in it, and the people use the brand to define a part of themselves.

It’s not a transactional relationship, but a transformative one. It’s one that thrives on a mutual culture. This is not to say we eschew profits for culture. Instead we recognize that revenue isn’t a goal in and of itself, but a measuring stick for how inspiring our “why” is.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.