Great Marketing Answers the “Why”


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Leaders sell ideas and inspiration, 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 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.” 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.

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.

To see the difference why makes, I will start with my own company. I sell marketing services including market research and strategy, product facilitation, content plans, and marketing communications. I do this by approaching marketing completely from the human needs of the customer. The results are increased profits. Not altogether inspiring, is it? Sure, you know that I value customers; but shouldn’t every great marketer? This approach tells you nothing about why I do what I do.

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 jargon that didn’t matter. 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.

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.

Better, right? The important thing is why you do what you do. 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.

Another great example is TOMS Shoes. 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.

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.

Marketing is Evangelism…to the 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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kathy Klotz-Guest
For 20 years, Kathy has created successful products, marketing stories, and messaging for companies such as SGI, Gartner, Excite, Autodesk, and MediaMetrix. Kathy turns marketing "messages" into powerful human stories that get results. Her improvisation background helps marketing teams achieve better business outcomes. She is a founding fellow for the Society for New Communications Research, where she recently completed research on video storytelling. Kathy has an MLA from Stanford University, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MA in multimedia apps design.


  1. Kathy, this is such a fantastic post. Why do you think business is so afraid of the “why?” And why does the human element make corporate so uncomfortable? It looks like your company is working on changing that, which is great to see. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Hello Janessa,
    That is a great question. I think there are several reasons for this in my experience. I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Historically, business tends to be suspicious of anything that isn’t filled with logical facts. In other words, business has always viewed buying as a function of rational thought. And we know this isn’t true. Even in b2b, for example, people often make decisions based on like, trust, a feeling – these are all emotions, and visceral experiences.

    Added to that, our culture has always valued the logic brain; we’re a left brain, right-handed dominant culture. This has been especially true in technology. It is changing – slowly- as people are starting to recognize the value of systems design thinking (which is a human-first way of thinking), for example. Systems design thinking focuses on the human experience first, and then designs products around those challenges.

    I also think, finally, that when you tell a human narrative, you have to deviate from the “script.” And so many companies are so hung up on “talking points,” that letting go of that is difficult. It requires them to let go of control, to be more vulnerable, to take some risks – and some just aren’t prepared to do so. It’s the “we’ll fail” mentality. Yet, research tells that people remember stories and you made them *feel* far beter than facts!

    Some companies have been engaged in the status quo for so long, that many folks don’t know how to tell stories or connect at a human level. In b2b marketing especially, where I came from, many marketers settled for this pervasive analytical way of thinking – facts, figures, etc – that targets only the logic brain. When we do so, we miss such a huge opportunity!

    One thing I know from my experience is that customers almost never remembered facts and figures. They *remembered* human stories. They always remembered the “why.”

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. “Historically, business tends to be suspicious of anything that isn’t filled with logical facts.” This line strikes me as funny, how is there a pervasive feeling that businesses are logical when the humans that inhabit them are so incredibly emotional, deep, and delightfully illogical? As if we clock in and stop having families, and headaches, and fun weekend plans and easily hurt feelings.

    I work for PeopleMetrics (we do customer and employee feedback work). We just finished our 2011 Employee Engagement Trends Report and one of the findings is that companies who have a systematic way of sharing positive customer feedback with front-line employees have employees are are nearly 2x as likely to report planning to stay, recommending their employer, being willing to go out of their way for customers and feeling passionate about their work (in other words – people who love their work). And the response is, “duh.” Because everyone knows on a personal level how good positive feedback is, yet as soon as we scale it to corporate size we think it no longer matters.

    I feel like your work is the leading cusp of a much bigger trend (yes, I’m a brazen optimist :). I think business in the early part of the decade was ready to embrace systematic technology in lieu of messier human interactions. But in a twist of fate technology is actually allowing us to interact MORE personally with people.

    I think that systems design thinking, increasing vulnerability in acknowledging humanity, and story telling will be the norm tomorrow. I also think that the tone around “corporate machine,” “the dreaded 9-5,” “selling out to the man,” will all change as “office drone” work becomes less drone and more human.

    Facts, figures, data, analysis – it’s the building blocks of growth. But useless if not driven by living breathing humanity.

  4. Janessa, absolutely well said.

    We irrationally believe that we’re always rational. That’s the great irony.

    Facts and figures are critical, and without a human element, they don’t get us where we could be. Processes are supposed to serve people; not the other way around.

    Hopefully, businesses will learn to strike a better balance between the analytical, which is important, and the human, which is essential.

    We’re getting there…slowly, but we’re moving that direction!



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