Start with who: Why “why” is no longer enough for brands

If you work in marketing (or really any field adjacent to marketing), you’ve likely come across Simon Sinek before. You know: Guy with the glasses. Does Ted Talks. One of the first to brand himself as a “thought leader” before it became a moniker applied to anyone posting anything at all to their LinkedIn feed.

And if you’ve come across Simon Sinek before, you’ve likely come across the phrase that he has helped make famous:

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

The start with why mantra has, over the past decade, become a rallying cry for brands scrambling to add some semblance of defined purpose to their mission beyond just producing “stuff”.

The problem, though, is that starting with why has long since passed its best before date as a tool for connecting with audiences.

From why to who

The popularity of “start with why” has grown exponentially since Sinek first introduced it 11 years ago.

The YouTube video of Sinek’s TedX Talk has now been viewed more than eight million times. The book has been purchased 171,000 times (and that was four years ago). And the “why” mantra has earned Sinek nearly five million followers on LinkedIn.

During that time, the theory behind starting with why has remained largely static. People, leaders and organizations which elevate their purpose to why they do what they do have a competitive advantage over those who only articulate what it is they do.

For brands, the application has been straightforward. Brands can’t just produce great products or messages. Instead, the goal should be to build what you do and how you do it around a central purpose: Your why.

“Why” is, of course, still important for brands. But it’s no longer enough. Another idea, closely related to but separate from why, has taken on even more importance: Your who.

Lessons from the world of storytelling

If you’ve ever read a review of a terrible movie before, you’ve probably come across this phrase (or something like it):

“The main character just wasn’t three-dimensional”.

The idea of a three-dimensional character, in storytelling, really stems from three different elements: What, who and why.

At the start of a movie or book you see what characters are doing. They’re going about their lives. Maybe they have a problem like a dead-end job or a crumbling marriage or are stuck living in a nowhere small town.

As the story progresses, we learn that they have a traumatic event from their past such as an abusive relationship or forces beyond their control – whatever the “why” is that causes them to act the way they do.

Then in the final stage, we get into who the character is. Defining a character’s “who” is a foundational element of storytelling. It involves forcing a character to choose between competing versions of the person they might become.

Some examples:

  • Luke Skywalker, A New Hope: Switch off his guidance system and set off on the path to becoming a Jedi (and risk failing to destroy the Death Star) or cling to the childish notions of what it meant to be a fighter pilot.
  • Ted Kramer, Kramer vs. Kramer: Give up custody of his son or force him into a nasty court battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Why does storytelling work this way? Because it forces the characters to reveal who they have become.

Luke Skywalker chooses to turn off his guidance system, setting him on the path to becoming a Jedi.

Ted Kramer completes a transformation from self-absorbed workaholic to a father who loves his son enough to never see him again.

That’s the power of “who” – and it’s a lesson that brands are learning.

Three-dimensional brands

Brands, of course, are not movie characters. Their stories aren’t confined to tight 120- to 180-minute run times. They aren’t forced into difficult, climactic choices that define who they are once and for all.

But the idea of defining “who” you are as a brand follows the same arc.

The world has changed a lot since Sinek debuted his “why” theory. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, to take some of the most prominent examples, are now ubiquitous. One of the most divisive presidents in United States history has come and gone from the White House.

The era we live in is different. Which is why brands now have to choose who they are.

Nike, by prominently placing Colin Kaepernick on billboards and in commercials around the world, revealed its who: An ally of equality.

The NBA, by placing Black Lives Matter on courts and social justice messages on players’ jerseys, revealed its who: A champion of social justice.

Others still have yet to define their who.

Shopify, for example. The e-commerce provider supports black communities while, for a long time, allowing customers to use its platform to sell Make America Great Again hats (the products were later removed following a violent incursion on Washington from Trump supporters). It should come as no surprise that people have been asking questions.

It’s something that, even five years ago, would have been difficult to imagine being an issue.

And it’s also why the concept of “why” you do what you do is incomplete.


Why hasn’t the idea of starting with who taken off? Likely because it’s about choices. Just as movie characters have to choose who they are going to become in a movie’s climactic scene, brands have to make a choice about who they are – and, in the process, define who they are not.

No one said the transition was going to be easy. But brands that aren’t willing to make it will find that, in 2021, “why” is no longer enough.

Share this article