I’ve written a lot about knowing your core purpose and telling that story in marketing. It’s your most important one. And I’ve had a number of conversations recently on this exact topic. So the blog post below is an updated version of the original piece I wrote about 1.5 years ago: Great Marketing Answers the “Why.” Enjoy.


Leaders Sell Ideas and Hope

Leaders sell ideas, inspiration and hope, not services. They are adept at answering “the Why” – why they do what they do. It is a fundamental human question. People often buy products and services based on a feeling of connection rather than on some objective, decision-making criteria. Yep. Humans are rarely completely rational, as Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, posits in his work.


Yet, that’s exactly how most marketing approaches work – by aiming at a “rational” consumer mindset that doesn’t really exist with details on “how” and “what.” That’s why most marketing is forgettable and ineffective. Recently, I re-watched a great TED talk by Simon Sinek, author of “Start with the Why.” His premise is that the “how” and the “what” in marketing are not as important as the “why.” While this concept isn’t new (some people call it leading with your purpose), his approach offers some interesting insights. Great organizations answer the “why” – why they do what they do. That targets something “visceral” in people, bypassing the “logic” brain, and allowing for messages to connect at a more human level. This approach inspires action.


Create a Vision of What “Could Be”

As Sinek jokes, Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired people with his “I have a dream” speech, not his “I have a plan” speech. Dr. King was driven by a dream for a better America, not by a technical, detailed-filled plan. He painted what could be, and, by doing so, he spoke to our common humanity and sense of shared values. And he wrapped up the “why” in a story – the most human of communications agents. He aimed his “sell” not at the audience’s “heads.” Rather, he targeted their hearts and their beliefs. Leaders tell stories bigger than themselves. We want to see people better themselves and achieve greatness because it inspires the achiever in us.

This is a critical point for marketers. Companies that lead sell a vision and inspire – they don’t sell technical and economic details. Sure profits matter, yet they are the result of “why” we do what we do. Unfortunately, too much marketing focuses on “what” we do and “how” we do it.


People buy stories – they buy hope that things will be different because of what you sell. Thus, they buy something bigger than your offerings. To focus on selling products and services is a huge mistake in a sea of content noise that is only getting worse. And no amount of marketing will ever create a ‘movement’ if it fails to speak to your larger purpose. When marketing leads from the inside-out – starting with your values and purpose – you attract your ideal audience. Moreover, when you know your why – your core purpose for your business – you are also better able to allocate resources, make strategic decisions that align with your values, and stay true to your values. Your core purpose is your strategic Northern Star.

What inspires you? People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. You are selling to people who believe what you believe. And in that “why,” your audience sees themselves. It’s not about you – it’s about something much bigger.

A Better “Why” to Market

I started Keeping it Human because I knew that marketing could be so much better. It could be “human.” I came out of high-tech, and saw wonderful products being marketed in the most un-human ways. “Solutions, platforms, methodologies, disruptive technology…” It was all company-focused rather than focused on the human challenges customers face. It was full of confusing jargon that didn’t matter to customers. No one talked in simple, honest, or funny stories that honored people. Who says marketing can’t at times be funny? What drives me is a deep belief that there is a better way for customers and companies. Even in B2B, you are selling to people who want to smile, laugh, believe in something, and have honest, direct conversations. Customers are people and they want to be treated that way. Now let’s try my marketing statement again with a focus on the “why.”

Keeping it Human challenges the status quo of company-focused, jargon-laden marketing that treats customers like “targets” with dollar signs on their backs instead of like people. We inject a human element into everything we do from creating products that solve human challenges to speaking in powerful human stories and narratives that move people to action. As a result, we improve profits and customer relationships while improving interactions for customers, too.

TOMS Shoes is one of my favorite examples. TOMS’ entire model is about giving. They don’t just make shoes. What they do is fulfill a tremendous need by giving a pair of shoes to a child in a developing country for every pair of shoes sold. Buy one, give one is their motto. Their shoes aren’t the cheapest or best made shoes on the market. That is irrelevant, because people buy TOMS because they believe in the mission of the company. It’s the “why” that matters.

Find and tell your purpose keepingithuman.com

Zappos is another powerful illustration of “why.” Zappos isn’t about the merchandise you can buy. You can likely find better deals elsewhere. That’s not the point. Tony Hsieh started Zappos because his mission was all about providing the best possible customer service and customer experience possible for online shopping. In fact, he started the company with this mission before he decided what merchandise to sell! There are great examples of “why” in every industry, including technology. “Think Different,” is Apple’s why. This drives Apple’s commitment to quality, user-friendly, and easy-to-use products.

Another great tech example is IBM and its Smarter Planet message. Working towards a ‘smarter planet’ is a message that is bigger than IBM and one that includes its suppliers, and even its competitors. When you don’t have a clear story or purpose, you have an identity crisis. Just look at HP or Yahoo! (or Ya-Who?!) compared to IBM today. And if you don’t know what you stand for, how can your market know? It can’t, and that’s a huge problem for any company that can’t clearly articulate its purpose.

Marketing is Evangelism…to the Converted

I believe marketing is about preaching to the already converted. By leveraging the “why,” you are targeting enthusiasts, people who make decisions based on intuition – the leaders. This is especially true for technology companies when you consider how diffusion of innovation occurs within markets. It is the leaders – the enthusiast early adopters – that are willing to buy based on an idea, sometimes unproven. Then, they help you improve your product and help you “sell” to the larger majority by word of mouth. If you don’t have these people on board, well, so much for crossing the infamous “chasm” and capturing the market majority. Their endorsement is critical.


Finding Your “Why”

As you think about the human reasons behind your company, focus on telling the “why” in your larger company narrative. It’s far more important than your individual services. Rethink your traditional time-based company biography. It is irrelevant. Communicate why you get up every day and what motivates you. Too much marketing focuses on details of “what” and “how.” Instead, great marketers and leaders communicate with heart, conviction and soul. By aiming at that most critical human level, your message has a greater chance of hitting exactly where it needs to connect most – viscerally.