Why Versus What – Lunch w/ TEDLunch with TED — By Dustin R. Steeve on May 20, 2010 at 12:48 am
This week’s talk by Simon Sinek alerted me to the backwards nature of my (and most people’s) approach to marketing. For three years I was responsible for marketing a web media conference for Christian bloggers and entrepreneurs. My hook would always be either a prominent speaker, an inspired session, or the conference location – items that Sinek refers to as the “what.” Instead, I should have focused on the “why” and my efforts would’ve been more successful.
If Sinek’s point sounds uninteresting or cliche, I challenge you to think back to the last time you saw an invitation or advertisement for an event; perhaps it was conference or a book club meeting, a company picnic or a church get-together. How did the invitation or advertisement appeal to you? Odds are, the invite or ad used prominent speakers, activities, or an enticing location to woo you into participating in said event. These items are “what” items and they are used constantly to grab our attention and compel us to action. Sinek is calling our attention to a technique which is actually quite problematic for at least two reasons.
First, marketing “what” items is hard and can dehumanize people.
At some point most “what” items become old news. This leaves marketers with the problem of how to make “what” items seem more interesting, a problem they typically solve by dressing “what” items up in ever more flashy and intrusive packaging. Read up on the psychology of marketing and you’ll realize that, at some point, the marketing frenzy to woo people with “what” items becomes a highly psychological effort to manipulate people into buying stuff they don’t need or participating in activities that aren’t beneficial for them.
Second, the problem with “what” items is they miss the important part; the part that justifies why we ought to participate.
Consider a church picnic for example. You shouldn’t participate in a church picnic because there will be hot dogs and a giant inflatable slide present at the event. You should participate because it provides fellowship and community building time that is important for cultivating relationships valuable for growing, learning, and serving together as the body of Christ. The inflatable slide is fun, but if that is the thing that woos us, perhaps we are too immoderate in our desire to be entertained.
The solution to the problem of marketing by “what” items is to market by “why.” The power of “why,” Shinek contends, is in its appeal to our most basic instincts. Shinek sources biology and argues that our brains process “why” information in a much more rudimentary way than it does the “what” information.
Though it may be true that our brains see “why” information as much more rudimentary, I believe that “why” information is often more complex than “what” information and is demonstrative of the coherence of the thought behind one’s project.
Consider again my conference. I spent many hours wrestling with my reasons for embarking on the project long before I ever booked the first speaker, scheduled the first session, or made arrangements for a conference location. My team and I produced the conference because we believed that real life community was critical for the development of any digital community. We believed that the internet was powerful but that embodiment was human and that Christians who were serious about impact in the digital world needed to recognize the design of God’s world – a world both spiritual and physical.
That was our “why.”
It was more compelling than any single speaker or session. It also justified why one ought invest their resources of time and money to our endeavor. The “why” treated people as humans, appealing to both their rational and primal sensibilities. The “why” doesn’t try to woo one with treats – after all, people are not dogs in training.
At some point in the future you will likely be asked to help market some event such as a bake sale or booster club event. Before you load your flyer with gimmicks and treats, consider why you’re doing the event and share that with others. You might be surprised at how many people are inspired to action by the same things that first inspired you. ‘