After a Decade of Starting With Why, Let's Try Shifting to Who

Purpose is great, but don't forget the consumer

Let's talk about you. What is it you need? What would make things better for you now? What things do you hold precious—and why? 

Why am I so interested in you? Well, I'm in advertising, and it's my job to tell you a story that motivates you to do something. The more I take an interest in and learn about you and your world, the better my chances of doing that. 

I don't do this because I'm a nice guy. (I am.) I want to succeed at my job, and I can't do that if I'm thinking only about my agency and our clients. As our name suggests, we design for humans, which ultimately means the consumer audience. So, in my opinion, we need to start the process that is centric to them.

This may sound like an obvious approach to marketing, but this sort of thinking has become strangely unfashionable of late. Conventional wisdom now says a brand must be rooted in a purpose. It must be a selfless purpose, and it must be shouted from the rooftops by a succession of diverse-looking people, first individually and then in unison as it becomes an anthem, and echoed on screen in sans serif fonts. As we approach 2020, the laziest commercial trope is no longer the dopey dad; it's the noble manifesto. 

I'm no enemy of purpose. We built our agency on the idea that we could "Move the Human Race." I just think we need to talk—and think—less about ourselves and more about our customers. 

It's now been 10 years since author, motivational speaker, organizational consultant and advertising executive Simon Sinek introduced "Start with Why." The concept of his book was simple, but it had a potent impact: It shifted the conversation away from what a brand provided to why that brand does what it does. The idea is brilliant, and it radically changed my approach when I first heard it. 

What a great way for a brand to find its inherent purpose, conviction and value—by focusing on why it exists, why people should care, and why the brand or product makes the world a better place. In my own experience, I find this framework rarely fails to inspire great thinking. Sinek helped revolutionize how brands and marketers approach storytelling, and advertising is better for it.

But revolutions can go too far. In all this talk about ourselves, we're forgetting to think about the consumer's needs. The why of a brand might be part of its decision-making process, but people ultimately decide to engage because brands help solve a problem, save them time or simply make them happy. The decision isn't always as simple as relating to their why. In practice, these decisions are messy—just like people. We buy stuff for a thousand different reasons, from vibing with the brand's purpose to thinking their shoes will make us jump higher. 

After years of starting with why—or ourselves—it's time we tried beginning the process with who. Who are you building for, and what do they care about? It's not about a brand and why it exists, it's about the consumer and what they need. 
 
When the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) asked Human Design in 2017 to help raise support for the Endangered Species Act, it would have been easy to center a campaign on the brand's purpose. Such a message would have resonated with people who are passionate about animals, and those people would have joined our tribe. This is the classic "Start with Why" approach. 

But animal lovers are already on IFAW's side. We needed to reach the millions of people who aren't particularly concerned about pandas or spotted owls. So, we started with who: Who are these people, what do they care about, and how could that dovetail with our brand? Our insight was that a person who doesn't support endangered species probably cares about at least one animal—the bald eagle, a gray wolf, a grizzly bear cub they saw in a movie. What if we could show how the Endangered Species Act protects not just spotted owls but also the specific animal they love—and ultimately, all life?

Our solution was a video based on The Domino Theory. In this ad, Pierce Brosnan, Mark Ruffalo, Nina Dobrev and other actors spoke about their favorite animals and the impact that passing the Endangered Species Act in Congress could have on protecting them. To show the interdependence of all lifeforms, and make it clear how the Endangered Species Act protects all creatures—including mankind—the spot culminates with a huge set of animal-shaped dominoes being toppled in a chain reaction that is started by the fall of a single creature. Naturally, IFAW's purpose was a key part of the message, but it shifted the focus to the audience's feelings. And it resonated off the charts. 

The truth is, when brands talk about their why, even the most engaged customers are still thinking about themselves. They want to know how you're going to fulfill their needs. Inspiration is great, but we can never forget that people buy what they want, need, feel or value. 

You should never betray your brand purpose to simply sell more stuff. But if you start with who, you can stay true to that purpose without placing it above your customer. 

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John Weiss
John Weiss is co-founder and chief creative officer at Human Design.