Yonatan Kagansky


Don’t Start with Why!

What really stands behind the most influential marketing model of our times.

If you’ve been involved in launching or relaunching a product in the last eight years, you’ve probably received a link to this video of Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle. This talk was watched more than 36 million times on TED and many more millions on YouTube and other websites. The interest in it and the related book, “Start with why”, seems to constantly grow, and it’s frequently mentioned on almost every marketing table. Thus, we can safely call it the most influential marketing model of our times.

“So simple, yet so true,” you probably thought to yourself after seeing the video. “Finally, something I am going to build top brands with.” Well, have you?
 7 Blind Mice

Don’t get me wrong — I love Simon Sinek. He is sharp, insightful and extremely intelligent. His ideas do open your mind, and I still enjoy following his work today. More than this, I admit to using the Golden Circle myself in the past as it creates a shortcut for convincing people to trust more complex thinking. There is a truth to it — many of the leading brands do start with why.
 The problem lies elsewhere: “start with why” is merely a retrospect observation. In a way, it’s like saying: in order to be an American president, you need to start with being relatively tall. It is true: on average, American presidents are, and were, much taller than the average American. Yet though being tall is an advantage, height wasn’t the core driver behind people who later became presidents. It took a lot of talent, resilience and luck to get to the presidency.

All rights reserved to Ed Young

A good metaphor for this would be the book “Seven Blind Mice” by Ad Young (one of my favorites to read to my daughter). In it, seven blind mice encounter something new and try to understand what it is from many different angles. One climbs its tail thinking it’s a snake, one thinks a leg is a pillar and so forth, until the seventh mouse runs back and forth on the elephants and recognizes the mighty animal as a whole.

Well, Simon Sinek tried to understand the nature of the persuasion animal. The question is, did he see the whole picture or just one part?

Those who do Use ‘Start with Why’

I go through pitches of tech companies and startups on a daily basis, and I’ve met a couple of companies that have found a solid positioning by addressing their “why”. Unfortunately, this is a rarity, and for the vast majority of companies the Golden Circle is not really an efficient framework.

In the vast majority of cases, starting with why is a fertile ground for some of the most boring, unauthentic and inefficient messaging, such as: “to make the world a better place”, “to revolutionize the industry”, “to help our clients grow”, etc. “Why” is a vague term that is very easy to understand, but very difficult to build strong brands with.

Starting with why probably won’t help you, same as it didn’t help the people who built the top brands described in the book and the famous talk. Steve Jobs didn’t use this framework or anything similar; neither did Martin Luther King. (Both are mentioned by Sinek.)

So Where is the Elephant?

All rights reserved to Ed Young

Well, this is easy. All the examples mentioned in the famous talk are examples of good and engaging …stories.

Let’s try to see it by looking into the three examples given by Sinek:

1. Apple’s success is explained by Sinek as having a “why” that states: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo”. How about saying that they have always told stories about “challenging the status quo”?

Throughout the breakthrough years, Apple’s signature ads and Steve Jobs’s interviews led a narrative with a clear villain, such as IBM and its big corporate computers, Microsoft and its software, or in-the-box-thinking as a concept. Those stories also had a hero, represented by a new product such as a personal computer, by perfect software-hardware cooperation, or by the brand itself.

2. Sinek says that the Wright brothers succeeded because they “were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief”. Indeed, the Wright brothers’ STORY is a classic tale of perseverance and overcoming failure against all odds. I still think that their success had much less to do with their narrative or why, and more with them actually building the first working heavier-than-air flying machine…

3. Sinek says that Dr. Martin Luther King was followed because “He went around and told people what he believed”, mentioning specifically the famous “I have a dream” speech. I would say that King swept America by telling vivid stories of the world he wanted to create.

The bottom line is that Sinek’s model hasn’t (yet) been proven to be efficient, but stories definitely have and have been leading the growth of humanity for over a hundred thousand years. In our times, since the MRI became an accessible tool for neuroscientists, the impact stories have on our brain have been tested very thoroughly. And a large number of researchers have proven that stories have an almost magical impact on people, as opposed to other persuasion formats.

There is something about the structure of narratives that encourages the release of three of the most important engagement hormones: cortisol, which increases focus; dopamine, which creates a sense of hope and optimism; and most importantly, oxytocin, which generates the empathy needed to drive action.

The major advantage of the storytelling framework is that it has been built through centuries of learning and experimentation. Many people have the ability to create engaging stories, and there are numerous ways one can educate himself to master this craft.

In my next posts, I will cover my own methodologies for corporate storytelling, ideal story structures, and use cases of good brand narratives. Follow me if you want to stay tuned.

So, what is the secret behind the most influential marketing model of all time? Well, it simply is a great story!


If you want to read the story of my own storytelling epiphany, you can find it here. And if you need help with a corporate/brand story you are welcome to contact and consult us at info@NewSpark.pro, or simply to ping me here.

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