We all know the famous marketing concept popularized by Simon Sinek to “start with your ‘why’”. This concept posits that the purpose your company or brand exists is what gets customers interested in your offering and differentiates you from your competition. Its power is based on neuroscience, and on how humans respond to messages and emotions.

I’m a big believer in this concept and the power that developing a brand purpose can provide, as well. And, as I’ve written here before, identifying your brand’s purpose not only helps drive your messaging and narrative, but it can create a lot of additional value to your organization –  including internal alignment and dynamism, on-going consistency in your strategy and tactics, along with providing something to fight for AND against.

But here’s one important caveat: You shouldn’t START with “why”. Instead, you need to start with “who”. And here’s why.

Your “who” provides the impetus and direction for your “why”. It identifies needs that can be fulfilled, dreams that can be answered, desires that can be delivered upon. Otherwise, your “why” could be met with a “meh” from your prospects.

In addition, here are some key reasons to start with “who”:

  • No brilliant purpose, mission or manifesto will work if it’s not inspired by a real need, desire, or objective of a real person. There are thousands of examples of failed entrepreneurs promoting innovative concepts borne from personal missions. I propose that most of them were failures of “who” – they didn’t understand their consumers or their needs well enough.

  • Focusing first on “who” makes sure your “why” isn’t just about you, but instead is about understanding and solving a real need of your customer. Mission statements and manifestos may read powerfully – but they are often about us, the company. It’s critical to flip the lens and ensure you are always focused on how your “why” drives specific value for your target of “whos”. In other words, your “who” forces you to demonstrate how your purpose helps them, creates outcomes for them that they desire, solves their jobs-to-be-done.
  • Starting with “who” leads you to develop empathy. And empathy is needed to fully leverage your “why”. Have you done the requisite consumer work needed to understand the types of people that seek the purpose you are driven by? Do you understand where and how that emotion fits in their path-to-purchase?

  • You can’t expect to push your purpose on anyone and get them to care about it. Instead, it must be something that pulls in the people who you know are motivated by it. And the only way this can work is if you have done the homework of consumer mining and insight development that identifies what your audience cares about first.

A “why” or purpose can be a powerful, motivating tool for any organization. But more important than what you believe and why you exist is “who” are you for and what do they think and need. If you’re not passionately focused on understanding and then solving for “who”, then no purpose-driven marketing is going to drive you forward.

*Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Insider 12.22

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