“People don’t buy what you do! They buy why you do it!!!”

by Didier Marlier on Sunday February 20th, 2011

Simon Sinek[1] proposes a simple and elegant model: the golden circle. When talking (as everybody today) about Apple, he challenges its competitors: “Apple is just another computer company… They have the same access to the same talents, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media, then why is it that they seem to have something different?”. For him most of their competitors, on all fronts (computers, music, mobile phones and tablets) think, act & communicate the same way:

  • What: they tend to communicate and (worse!) think of themselves in terms of products. What jumped onto the screen of anyone interested about the cooperation between Nokia and Microsoft? “We will cooperate on our smartphones!” Companies communicate, sell and build powerful and dangerous orthodoxies around what they sell (products, services and more recently experience). As Sinek suggests, this is easier, makes sense and is logical.
  • How: sometimes, the company goes one step further and explains its how. How Dell manufactures its computers was part of their business narrative, how one would buy, transport and build its own furniture was the highlight of Ikea’s communication.
  • Why: is totally forgotten… Why is the purpose (why are we in business), the dream (why do we do what we do), the relevance (why do we believe we deserve to be heard or successful). Why is our “Deep Intent”…

See now on this shortened version of the clip (1’54’’) the two examples given by Simon: one communicating from a “what” standpoint and the other from a “why” perspective. Which one speaks more? Who will you buy from? Who will you be at least interested in pursuing a conversation with?

It is to be noted in the full version of the TED 18 minutes presentation[2] that Sinek also refers to the limbic (center of emotions and feelings such as trust and loyalty) and neo cortex (center of analytical competences and language) part of our brains (see our post on this[3]). Following him, our ultimate decision making center resides in our limbic brain which is impermeable to words but fully receptive to signals of emotions and behaviours (this is where we have learned to rapidly “smell” other people’s authenticity or not). So for Sinek, talking and abusing from the what language, we connect with other people’s rational brain but fail to engage their limbic, decision making brain.

I haven’t checked all the sources from Simon Sinek but, should he be right, there are many of us, starting with our own Enablers Network brand, who have got it all wrong in the way they communicate, think and act about their business.

I would like to thank Cécile Canet-Teil (Communication-Rhodia) for having shared this inspiring clip with us!

A very tight schedule and busy week ahead in São-Paulo. Have a great week all


[1] Simon’s website is http://www.startwithwhy.com/

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&feature=related

[3] http://blog.enablersnetwork.com/2009/11/15/%E2%80%9Chow-to-speed-up-post-ma-integration%E2%80%9D/

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10 Responses to ““People don’t buy what you do! They buy why you do it!!!””

  1. Didier,

    The question that interests me most is, why do most of us consistently fall into the trap? With all due respect, there is nothing new in Sinek’s presentation (although he deserves credit for good communication of old ideas). Humanity has known this since at least the time of Aristotle. As you point out in your book “Engaging Leadership”, Aristotle gave classes on the three modes of persuasion Logos, Ethos and Pathos over 2300 years ago. Logos, Ethos and Pathos can be mapped directly to the What, How and Why of Sinek’s presentation.

    Since Aristotle innumerable people, from Shakespeare to Churchill to de Gaulle to King to Maslow to Mother Theresa to Jobs, have pointed out the extraordinary importance of Pathos in leadership: of answering the question WHY do I do what I do, so that like-minded people will willingly follow me because the why is congruent with something they view as fundamentally important.

    So why do the majority of us find this so difficult? Why do we keep coming back to the features and functions, the WHAT, the logos of what we do? Why has the intellectual argument become, and remain, the dominant mode of communication?

    Is it because our education is so strongly oriented towards facts, figures and logos? Because at school we learn that art and drama are unimportant and that emotions should be concealed? Do we fear or mistrust the emotions that might be unleashed? Is it too big a personal risk? Is this the leadership version of the old saying “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” (which used to imply safe, reliable, expensive, standardised)? Do we feel foolish trying to communicate our why, our deep intent? Do we lack the tools?

    We keep making the same mistake so there must be some pretty fundamental reasons for it. Maybe we have only heard the message at the Logos level up till now, and we needed Sinek’s presentation for it to reach a little deeper?

    Like you, I take this as a wake-up call and intend to explore these reasons, starting with my own approach.

  2. Dear Didier (and Marvin),

    I really enjoyed reading the blog and Marvin’s response on this topic. While I fully agree with both of you, I think there is something missing in this conversation…

    The ‘who’.

    Is the ‘why’ of a company more important that the ‘who’ of a company? I think not. You can have all the best intentions in the world as a company, but if you don’t have the (like minded) people to turn that into a reality, you have nothing. Okay, the ‘why’ is hopefully the magnet which draws all these like minded people together, but the authenticity of the ‘why’ is only has strong as the belief that the people have in that ‘why’.

    On the flip side, if you have a ‘why’ of a company which the people don’t connect with or believe in, that is even worse, as the people of the company will be disengaged and the people buying from the company won’t be enthusiastic about that experience.

    Anybody care to comment about ‘when’? 😉

    Kind regards,

  3. Watching the Sinek clip about 2 months ago really shook me up and made me question how I’m conveying my own story. I agree it’s nothing new (I guess the drive for mission statements and values-driven companies has been around a long time). But it’s simply expressed and easily understood, but at the same time hits you right between the eyes!

    One practical application is in the networking arena when people invariably default to their ‘what’ when asked what they do. I think it’s useful to imagine that if your business was a cause or mission, what wrong have you set out to right? It gets you right to the pain and will resonate with the right people. The question raised above about the ‘who’ is interesting, but I believe (yes, ‘believe’!) that the right people will be drawn to a message that speaks to them, and those people are wholly on board before they start. The trick then, I guess, is to keep the why alive by creating a cadre of ambassadors that spread the word and embed this way of thinking, so it becomes part of company’s DNA and informs their actions.

    Thank you Mr Sinek for making me re-evaluate my ‘why’!


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