Simon Sinek is an author, consultant and pretty good speaker who “discovered,” as he puts it, the Golden Circle of human motivation. His circle, which he introduced in his 2009 book, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” is a simple graphic that consists of three concentric circles with “why” at the center, “how” in the middle, and “what” in the outer ring. Most companies, he asserts, work from the outside in when explaining their business. They describe the product (what), its features and benefits (how), and essentially stop short of the “why” part of the formula.
He uses Dell computer as an example of the what/how/why model. They make computers. They have many features, and the Dell USP has always been that you can customize the computer with stuff. Stuff like more memory, a bigger hard drive, or an upgraded video card. But at the end of the transaction, it’s little more than that. You get the features and benefits you felt you needed. Now you have a computer.
Apple, according to Sinek, (and I’m believing every bit of it) starts with the “why.” In a TED Talk video that is worth watching, he describes the Apple “why” this way, “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” Of course, “Think Different” was a long-running Apple slogan that summed up their philosophy in two words. But at the end of a transaction with Apple, you have more than a computer, if you believe in their “why.” You have joined their culture of innovation, one that they clearly promise will lead you to your own life’s innovations and achievements.
If your hype meter is ticking upward here, let me ask you a question: What brand is running some of the most creative, inspirational, what-the heck-is-this-an-ad-for? kind of TV spots these days? No, not GEICO. It’s Apple with its “What will your verse be?” campaign.
The spots are magnificently filmed and show people creating music, photography, videos and other art, in which an Apple iPhone or iPad plays a role, often via highly specialized apps. Behind the soaring visuals is a Robin Williams track from the movie “Dead Poets Society,” in which he beautifully recites the Walt Whitman poem “O Me! O Life!” to deliver a message to his students on the importance of making the most of their lives. The signature line of the poem is, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Williams’ movie character then asks, “What will your verse be?”
Whoa. That’s some powerful stuff, and it exemplifies the “why” that Sinek is describing in his Golden Circle concept. Apple makes the Dell brand (and HP and others) look like little more than features and benefits. Apple becomes philosophy and belief. For that, they can charge more than their competitors, a lot more. Sinek may be on to something.
Other brand giants have managed this kind of transcendence at times. Remember Coke’s desire to teach the world to sing? They have successfully equated their brand with the joy of living for decades. Marlboro built a “why” around the rugged individualism of the Marlboro man character. So very American and macho. And so very successful as a brand strategy.
The cynical among us may say that a superior product is what makes Apple, Coke or Marlboro succeed, not all this philosophical stuff. But Sinek sounds a note of caution about that, as well. He cites TiVo, which invented the DVR and has been technically superior to the typical cable company box, yet has never been profitable. His point again—TiVo focused on the features, the “what,” rather than the “why.” This is not to say that the product doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But as Apple’s products are quickly imitated, they just produce a better version. Their intuitive-to-use software is a part of their success, as well, but the “why” rises and pulls at the heart, not the mind. The “why” is how Apple has become the most valuable company and brand in the world.
So Sinek’s concept of great leadership may be just as effective at describing brand leadership. Of course, not every brand can be a leader. People will buy brands like Dell that lead with the “what.” But people will love brands like Apple that lead with the “why.”
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.