What Really Matters? The ‘Why’… Of Course

By Gary Johnson  |  January 15, 2014

Wood blocks engraves with question marks

Most companies building a strategy don’t actually ask the right question, but rather, they focus on how to sell a product. And even they get to “Why,” the answer should guide how companies behave, promote and relate to their customers. MSP Communications President Gary Johnson explains more about what really matters. 

A few years ago, author, consultant, professor and marketing visionary Simon Sinek gave what has become a seminal presentation at the TED conference. He suggested that before companies or brands set out to sell more products to consumers, they should ask themselves one key question:


Most companies building a strategy don’t actually ask this question, but rather, they focus on how to sell a product. For Sinek, “Why?” has nothing to do with product; it’s intended to get at why are you in business, not what are you selling.

Sounds like mission-speak, but unlike most mission statements, the answer should guide how companies behave, promote and relate to their customers. Steve Jobs likely would have answered, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe,” which is precisely what he did, from the stunning array of Apple products and their innovations in creativity and design, to their inimitable branding and messaging.

Wendy Clark, SVP at Coca-Cola (try answering the “why” question when you’re feeding consumers and kids liquid sugar all day long), insists the “why” question is critical because we all seek values, leadership, assurance and clarity. In a recent Advertising Age column, she quotes the author of How Brands Become Icons, Doug Holt, saying, “Icons serve as society’s foundational compass points, anchors of meaning.” Fine for icons, but is it possible for brands to become anchors of meaning? I say yeah, but only for those willing to offer genuine reasons for being that thread through every aspect of their culture and corporate identity.

More than ever, people require belief in whatever influences the critical choices they make for their own and their family’s lives, i.e., what they see, hear, buy, read, etc. Companies and brands that go beyond isolated transactions and create meaningful connections with their customers are gaining an advantage over those that don’t.

This is neither an original nor new notion; the movement toward companies getting REAL kicked into gear more than a decade ago when the brand-as-values trend spawned a host of mini-trends. The current brand journalism wave is certainly one of them, where companies hoping to engage customers through storytelling become publishers. But, though they preach transparency, companies’ always-on obsession for selling product can sometimes override opportunities for true engagement.

For my money, there is nothing that connects people to each other or to ideas more profoundly than words, and by extension, content framed in storytelling, personal expression and utility. Real, true content will never be more important than in 2014, a year that Jodi Allen, VP of Marketing at Procter & Gamble, claims will be “’The Big Blur’…. as content and commerce further intertwine, and as the lines between PR, social, digital, commerce, physical presence, TV and print come together and work together in ways we couldn’t have imagined as marketers.”

Both companies and content creators will have to step up their game to produce purposeful, contextual, and resonant content for consumers across every medium and platform. It’s critical for companies to overcome their addiction to the hard-sell and win the hearts and minds of their consumers through storytelling, creative product experiences and genuine connection.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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