Your why or their why?

A marketing content strategist shares which matters more for a successful and engaging brand.



At 5 by 5 Design we believe it’s possible to change the world by posing the right questions, listening to the honest answers, and following the path that emerges from the dialogue. Today’s discussion focuses on why anyone would do what your brand wants them to do.  

Tara Sullivan is the owner of Messages Matter Consulting, a marketing and communications planning firm located in Minneapolis, MN. For nearly thirty years (professionally, at least) Tara has been asking “why?” Coupled with that healthy dose of skepticism is an inability to use corporate speak and a refusal to take “because we’ve always done it that way” as a good answer. We’ve asked Tara a series of questions about brand purpose and how organizations can use it to connect with their audience. Here’s what she had to say.  

1. What is brand purpose and why is it important?

Your brand’s purpose is the big “why,” as in “why does our organization exist?” Right away some of you are saying, “No, that’s vision!” or “That sounds exactly like mission.” Welcome to the world of brand semantics, where you can spend more time talking about the words than doing the work.

Let’s simplify. No matter what term you use, if your statement can answer: “Aside from making money, why do we do what we do?” then that’s your purpose. (Credit to Stephen Houraghan).

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure it really is that important. Or at least, not as important as understanding “why us.” When Simon Sinek’s concept of the “why” came out, everyone raved about it, and it remains one of the most popular Ted Talks. “This is it!” seemed to be the feeling. “If we’re clear on our ‘why,’ people will flock to us!” I don’t think knowing your “why” will automatically attract your ideal clients. I think knowing (and showing) “why us?” is more important. Or to put it another way, understanding your customers’ “why” is the key.

To motivate people to act, from changing a mindset to buying a product, a brand has to show people how it adds value to their lives. It could be solving a problem (Lose 20 lbs. without counting calories!) or providing an opportunity (Make a difference in a child’s life.). It’s basic biology: our brains are wired to quickly look for the benefit—to us.

For any organization to succeed, it has to understand its potential customers enough to prove that what it offers is better than choosing the competition—or not choosing at all. (Back to brand terminology, this can be called the value proposition or unique selling position.)

2. How do you uncover your “why us”?

To get past what you know and believe about your brand, play the proverbial “devil’s advocate,” and ask:

  • What problem are we uniquely solving for whom?
  • Why should someone choose us versus anyone else?
  • How are we making their lives better?
  • Why would anyone [fill in the blank]: buy this, sign up for this, donate to this?
  • Why would anyone care? (That’s my favorite.)

Here’s the most important part: don’t just ask yourselves. Ask your current customers and your ideal future customers. You can do this through extensive market research, or you can simply do voice-of-customer interviews, but the point is: get to know your customers. You’ve already decided you like the brand—you work there. You need to find out why anyone else would like your brand.

3. What role does brand messaging play in all of this?

Brand messaging is how you convey your brand, usually in words, but sometimes the term is used more broadly.

If you think of a brand as a person, people “communicate” in many ways—what they wear, what they do, how they talk, as well as what they talk about. Messaging would be what they talk about and how. Does your brand offer expert advice or snarky opinions? Does it sound like a teacher or a coach? Does it use emojis or write in paragraphs (or both!).

You get the picture—brand messaging is like a script for a play that brings a character to life. It’s fundamental to showing your customer your value.

4. What are some common challenges brands face when trying to engage their audiences?

In a past job, I was told a certain group of customers were a certain way—stodgy, dull, creatures of habit. Then I met them, and you guessed it—they were completely different. Open to new ideas, funny, and unbelievably generous in their behaviors on the organization’s behalf.

That’s the biggest challenge I’ve observed: organizations don’t know their audiences. They tell themselves stories about them instead of taking the time and putting in the effort to actually understand the person behind their brand personas.

5. Are there any best practices or techniques organizations should follow when it comes to inspiring action through branding?

Yes! Put that exact question into Google and you get 115M results! Talk to any brand professional and again, you’ll get multiple answers.

Here are four fundamentals. Without these, you might get lucky with a clever campaign, but you won’t sustain success:

  • Invest. Take the time to figure out what problem you’re solving for whom, and why they should care (“what’s in it for me” aka the WIIFM factor). Be curious. Ask lots of questions. Listen, look, and don’t assign motivations (“They must be doing this because of that.”)
  • Involve. To truly live the brand, every employee needs to be part of it. When leaders only involve other leaders in brand decisions, you have a recipe for apathy and confusion. Get everyone involved, especially front-line employees.
  • In line. Line everything up with your brand. From emails to packaging, from how people are greeted to how they’re billed, every touch point should be in line with your brand (not just marketing campaigns). 
  • Inside out. If you do nothing else related to brand, focus on your company’s values. Values should guide actions. That means they can’t be one word (“integrity” being one of my least favorite). They need to spell out what the organization values and how that shows up through behavior.

Yes, spend some time looking inward to your “why,” but then focus on your customers’ “why.” It’s the only way to connect. Once you know why anyone should care about your organization, say it and show it at every touchpoint.

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