“Start With Why” and Branding

In my last post, I introduced Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why to talk about good PR. I like Sinek’s book not because he has a revolutionary concept, but because his model packs in a lot of great information in a way that is concise and easy to follow.

It makes perfect sense that Sinek would think up a concise way of viewing marketing and branding activities: he is a marketer. Start With Why grew out of his career at his own agency, Sinek Partners, that he founded in 2002. According to his TED profile, he lost passion for his work, and in the process of re-examining things discovered his Golden Circle model. This has reinvigorated Sinek, who now advises multiple organizations and has a whole website and curriculum built on his book. Sinek is, at his heart, a very smart marketer.

His model, called “The Golden Circle,” has three parts:

– Why

– How

– What


The three parts act as three rings, giving the circle the look of a bull’s-eye. The innermost ring is Why, the middle ring is How, and the outermost ring is What. Sinek posits that most brands and people communicate from the outside-in, telling us What they do, then How they do it, then maybe Why they do it. As he demonstrates, this way of communicating and acting can lay out plenty of details, but it doesn’t necessarily connect with people. Sinek says it best: “People don’t buy What you do, they buy Why you do it.”

To better connect with people, we should try communicating from the inside-out: Why, then How, then What. When we communicate like this, we find that our Why begins with the broad strokes (Apple: We believe in thinking differently. We believe in challenging the Status Quo.), then our Hows apply them to the real world (Apple: We build products that are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.). After the Hows, we can easily rattle off our Whats (Apple: We build computers. And iPhones. And iPods. And iPads. And…).


A key takeaway from this model, especially when using Apple to illustrate it, is that if we establish a wholehearted trust in our Why and our Hows, our Whats could be almost anything. Apple doesn’t currently make a refrigerator, but if they did I assure you people would buy it. Why? Because they know a fridge made by Apple would be different. It would have great design that would make sense for your lifestyle. In fact, the design would probably be so great that it would change the way you interact with the appliance. Now that is a strong brand image.

This is also what I meant yesterday when I wrote that people will “fill in the blanks” with things congruent to their perception of the brand. I have no clue about Apple’s ability to design and build a decent fridge, but here I am, raving about how this fictional appliance would have mind-blowing design quality. In fact, if I try hard enough, I could even begin to think about what I would expect that fridge to look like. That’s because my perception, or the reality I have constructed around Apple, is based on the qualities they emphasize. It’s based on their Why.

When we openly plant our brand’s roots in our Why and base our activities on it, we have the ability to create a powerful brand image.


The First Lesson in PR

When I took my first Public Relations class at TCU, on the very first day my professor opened with a saying that she believed illustrated the underlying mentality necessary for good PR work:

“Perception is Reality.”

That is, people will evaluate other people, brands or movements based on their perception. And when they don’t have the full picture, they’ll fill in the blanks with assumptions congruent with their perception.

To most people, this comes off as a negative lesson — that the PR professional’s job is to spin, to lie and cheat people into a false perception. Because, of course, the reality underneath will never be as pretty as we’d like it to be.

But to fully understand where the great Public Relations professionals stand, we need to flip the scenario and focus on the positive side. If we present an honest and likable brand image, we can create an honest and likeable reality for our audience to interact with. And, better yet, the audience will still fill in their information gaps with their own details. But this time, their assumptions will be positive ones: giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming best intentions, and playing devil’s advocate against the opposition.

One of the best illustrations I’ve seen of this concept comes from Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Sinek proposes that people and organizations best connect with other people by prioritizing their “Why.” By this, he means their purpose or their guiding belief — for instance, Apple’s mantra of “Think Different,” an insistence on challenging the status quo — should guide the person or organization’s actions and statements.

When brands base their communications and activities on their Why, they make a bold statement: “This is who we are and what we stand for.”

Sinek shows how important this is through an example he calls The Celery Test. The basic picture of The Celery Test runs like this: If you have openly made a goal to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle, and you find yourself in the checkout line in a grocery store with a bundle of celery and a package of Oreos, which are you going to keep and which are you going to put back if you really want to order your actions in a healthier way?

This example is relevant to brands as well as people: When we make a statement about who we are and what we stand for, we create a touchstone for our audience to base their perceptions on. And if we want our audience to stay with us, we’re going to eat our Celery. We’re also going to ditch our Oreos, even though they’re delicious when dunked in some milk. Why? Because we’ve signed our identity onto a reality, and we know that everything matters in upholding this reality both for ourselves and for our audience. Pulling this off is hard, but it’s important.

Those who do it best know something else: everything matters. Not just the broad company statements, but also the individual behaviors of every employee. Unfortunately, we must sweat the small stuff.

This is why PR matters. PR doesn’t teach you to spin or lie, it teaches you to care — and care a hell of a lot.