Brand Journal #3: “Start With Why”

This post is part of an assignment for my Global Branding course at WU.

At the end of our second session of Global Branding, the class watched a TED Talk by Simon Sinek called “Start with Why,” an exploration of successful and inspirational leadership. Though lofty and a little preachy—the mantra “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” was pounded into our heads at least six times throughout the 18 minute speech—the talk was enlightening and inspiring, not to mention quite interesting.

Sinek reminds me of a young Steve Jobs, or at least the Noah Wyle portrayal of Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley, so watching the talk was extra riveting.


He was certainly trying to emulate the famous, talented speakers he referenced in his talk and put his words into practice as well. “Start with Why” explains that great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., The Wright Brothers, and Apple inspire people by appealing to their beliefs, values, and emotions. Persuading someone to buy a product or do something simply with logic, facts, and figures is far less effective than appealing to their pathos. According to biology and as explained by Sinek, our outer brain, or neocortex, processes rationality whereas the inner brain, the limbic system, handles emotions and decision making. Ultimately, humans make decisions based on gut feelings or intuition and rationalize them with logic.

The great thing about Sinek’s TED Talk and all inspiring speeches—including the ones Sinek mentioned—is that they are powerful and moving because they speak to things the listeners already know to some extent. We nod in understanding, agreement, and praise because the knowledge these speakers spout is somewhat innate and we are so relieved, happy, and proud that someone had formed these indescribable thoughts and ideas into words.

This kind of positive, connective response to an “inspirational” speech or leader is not without caveats. Professor Haas-Kotzegger mentioned that cultural contexts or backgrounds influence the receptiveness and opinions of the audience watching/listening to the speech. For example, when shown to European audiences, the consensus is that the information is too good to be true and too aspirational. Typically American audiences would be much more inspired by Sinek’s words since we are much more emotional and intuitive beings than our pragmatic European friends.

I found the content of Sinek’s talk to be incredibly inspiring while also recognizing the pretentiousness of its delivery. Everything he said was concepts I already knew. Of course people are emotional creatures and respond better when you appeal to their beliefs and values. No one likes hearing a list of facts or even reasons why X feature and Y attribute are beneficial for your life. Humans are just not practical. Despite hearing information I already knew in eloquent language, I still learned a lot from Sinek’s talk, especially in regards to branding. Good brands consistently communicate values and beliefs that connect with their consumers and inspire them to support the brand, not buy a product.

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

It was an annoying but enlightening mantra.


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