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Why ‘Know Your Why’ Isn’t Such Great Content Marketing Advice [Rose-Colored Glasses]

So many articles tout the advice to “know your why” that the phrase is now a marketing cliché. And, yup, this article will talk about that adage.

But there’s a twist. I think that advice steers content marketers wrong.

The idea of finding the “why” behind what you do caught on almost a dozen years ago due to Simon Sinek’s book (and accompanying Ted Talk) Start With Why.

From a marketing and brand lens, Sinek’s idea was simple: He claimed, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Therefore, he suggested, brands should start their positioning with their why.

Sinek pulled back from the brand-positioning why in his second book (Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team), focusing instead on how people can find their own unique purpose to motivate their actions. I believe this is the more useful purpose for his why framework.

But the approach – finding the brand’s why before creating content – stuck. Now it’s the rallying cry of many agencies and consultants in their approaches to brand storytelling.

Here’s the problem: Most likely, no one outside your brand cares about your brand’s why.

The challenge of why-based origin stories

Let’s be honest. Most businesses don’t start with (or stick with) some fantastic, world-changing why.

Even some of Sinek’s original examples have evolved from this approach. For example, his Ted Talk opened with Apple’s why as a success story: “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.”

That statement inspired Apple’s successful Think Different campaign, which ran from 1997 to 2002.

By the time Sinek was writing his book and giving his Ted Talk in 2010, Apple had moved on to the Get A Mac campaign. These commercials featured John Hodgman personifying a PC and Justin Long as a Mac talking about how the Mac platform made things like creating photobooks and listening to music easier. Instead of focusing on Apple’s why, the ads explain how what the product does connects to why potential customers would want it.

Consider Apple’s latest ad campaign, Privacy on iPhone. It does what Sinek says every company does – it focuses on features and benefits. But here’s the difference – it explains why the customer should care (because their personal data is being sold without their knowledge). Sure, you could argue that there’s an echo of that original why statement (Apple thinks differently about personal data).

Here’s the thing. Apple didn’t create or discover its why and then decide to change its business to match it. No. It came to understand its customers’ whys for its products. Then it clarified what (emphasis intended) business it was really in (making “life stuff” easy) and how they communicate it.

Understanding your brand’s why is important. But (not to get too meta here) understanding why you need to know your customers’ why matters more for marketing and content development.

Match your why to your customers’ why to differentiate with content

I see content and marketing practitioners trying to understand their brands’ why without connecting it to their customers’ why.

Frustration sets in when the reactions to their ideas sound like this: “But do customers want any of that?”

In other words, your brand why doesn’t matter if people don’t understand why they want or need what you offer.

Businesses still struggle to create content that truly differentiates. But it’s not because they don’t understand how to discover their why. Many books and workshops exist to help brands do that. It’s because they believe the brand’s why should dictate what they do.

Your brand’s why should define why you do what you do and how it connects to things customers care about. In other words, you still must convince customers to love what you do and how you do it.

How to come up with customer whys

One of the techniques I use to go from “tactical idea” to “larger purpose” is a classic exercise built on the foundation of the 5 Whys exercise from the Six Sigma problem-solving technique.

Here’s how. Come up with content marketing ideas (in a group or by yourself). The ideas may look something like this:

  • Launch a blog to educate prospects on using the kind of product we sell.
  • Create a white paper series on the business benefits of the kind of service we provide.
  • Use a blog platform to curate news from our industry to position ourselves as thought leaders.

All of these are fun and interesting content marketing ideas. Let’s take one — the “curate news” idea —and ask why five times to get to the true purpose behind that idea and how it fits into our larger story. (By the way, this example comes from an actual workshop for a B2B company.)

Idea: Use a blog platform to curate news from our industry to position us as thought leaders.

  1. Why is curating news to position us as thought leaders important to our customers?

Answer: Because our customers will see that we have our fingers on the pulse of our business and have a point of view on the industry.

  1. Why is it important that customers see that we have our fingers on the pulse and have a point of view on the industry?

Answer: Because our customers and prospects will have more trust in what we say.

  1. Why is it important to our customers and prospects to have more trust in what we say?

Answer: Because developments in our industry are changing quickly, and our customers need a trusted partner to keep them up to date.

  1. Why do customers need a trusted partner to keep them up to date with what’s going on in the industry?

Answer: Because they are busy trying to succeed, a trusted partner can help them be informed.

  1. Why is it important for our customers’ success to be informed?

Answer: Because if they’re informed about the industry, they will be more competitive — and more successful.

Pretty cool, huh?  Within five whys, we’ve gone from a blog focused on “positioning us as thought leaders” to a blog platform that “helps our customers be more competitive and successful.”

Go back and read the answers in reverse, and you have a cool why to motivate you and your team.

You’ve probably heard the advice, “Do what you love. The money will follow.” It encapsulates why it’s important to understand your own why.

But for content creators and marketers working for a brand, I suggest this tweak: “When your audience loves what you love to do, the money will follow.”

Matching your brand’s why to your audience and customers’ why sets you on the path to convincing them to love what you love to do. And that’s how your brand will find success in whatever it loves to do.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute