Like Ripples in a Pond: Driving Brands with “Why”



The Golden Circle. It’s how author Simon Sinek visualizes a person’s decision making process. The “why,” representing a higher cause, directs the outer circles. The “how” ring, or value proposition, and the “what” ring, the process that realizes the “how,” are intuitively guided by the Circle’s core, the “why.”

Successful businesses and leaders, Sinek says, follow this pattern. They start by giving people a reason to believe in them before offering practical details.  As a brand, Apple started with a purpose: to challenge the status quo. This “why” drove the design and innovative technology found in all Apple products — the “what” and “how.” In turn, people believe in the company’s cause and allow their actions to follow. They overlook Apple’s executional blunders (ex: the antenna on the iPhone 4 and Maps in iOS6) and continue to believe in its cause and show religious-like devotion. The pattern can even be seen in historical events. As a civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gained prominence for his beliefs and convictions, not the specific plans he laid out for achieving civil rights. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (not “I Have a Plan,” as Sinek jokes) attracted over two hundred thousand supporters who believed in his purpose and allowed it to guide them to DC. His legacy lives on well after the passing of Civil Rights Act just as Apple’s will even after their market share wanes. Sinek concludes, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do.”  Communicating from the inside out drives behavior and creates long lasting relationships.

Recent studies in psychology and biology reveal the distinction between meaning, the “why,” and happiness, the outer two rings. Achieving meaning is allowing the “why” to drive the “how” and “what” and often necessitates a person to sacrifice along the way.  On the other hand, happiness is an emotion for the present. It is achieved by fulfilling fleeting needs and desires and then it fades as a person’s needs change, much like how a business’ “what” and “how” must evolve as the culture and technology around it change. The pursuit of meaning, researchers find, often counteracts “happiness” but ultimately leads to increases in overall well-being, life-satisfaction, and self-esteem.

We as marketers often speak about creating long-lasting and meaningful relationships with our customers. Advances in our understanding of the human mind point to the necessity of a brand or company standing for something people can relate to, believe in, and trust. This purpose, the “why,” should be the starting point for a brand. The details will follow.



To improve your brand, try doing nothing.

The best brand people often make something out of nothing. It’s still called white
space. And it’s still the most important principal in good design.

The notion that less is more is one of the oldest arguments in advertising. It’s almost
laughable that anyone would argue with the aesthetic of a clean, simple message. After
all, Bill Bernbach won that argument once and for all 40 years ago with all those classic
VW ads. DDB launched a new school of advertising. My generation was inspired to get
into the business as art became a partner to commerce. The thinking went along the
lines that if we were going to intrude on people’s entertainment, why not be interesting
and engaging about.

We’ve obviously lost our way. Print advertising is harder to read than it ever was thanks
to image manipulation software and the ability to layer type and tone. With longer
commercial breaks, higher costs and shorter spots, TV has gotten much worse, too.
And thanks to technology, designers can digitize the clutter and put it on-line in a
comprehension defying jumble. Welcome to new media.

It might be a good time to put the design monster back in its cage.

Clean communications is largely the result of the Bauhaus movement, the invention of
Helvetica type and the insights of advertising design pioneers in the 60s like Helmut

In a brilliant 2007 documentary called HELVETICA, director Gary Hustwit chronicles
how this type innovation swept corporate logos, signage, collateral information and all
forms of mass communication. This movement coincided with the Golden Age of
advertising in the 60s and 70s. Helvetica type cleaned up all forms of mass

This film comes along at a good time. Between technology and a grunge movement in
the 90s advertising design lost its way. We can blame media costs for pushing clients to
want to pack more information into their advertising, but media costs have always been
too high. If anything, with a fragmented audience, we should be leaner and simpler with
our message anyway.

This argument is further supported by another timely re-visit to the white space
argument. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Consumer Research, academics John W.
Pracejus, G. Douglas Olsen and Thomas C. O’Guinn prove the value of negative pace
in an article entitled, “How Nothing Became Something: White Space Rhetoric, History,
and Meaning”

I’ll save you the details, consumers perceive messages with greater white space to
come from brands that are leaders. They perceive higher quality, prestige, trust, and
less risk when the only variable is the amount of white space itself. The executive
summary of this research: say less, you’ll get more out of it.