B2B Marketers – Start with the Who

Published by Bret Kinsella on

I endorse Simon Sinek’s approach to communicating core company messaging to a degree. However, when crafting a message, his recommendation is missing a key point critical to persuasion. It is an inside-out view of marketing. You need to temper that with an outside-in perspective to maximize your effectiveness. While your Why will help you know thyself, it is your Who that helps you to know your audience. And, your audience owns the checkbook.

What is Right About Starting with the Why

Sinek’s book and his many presentations suggest you will be much more effective talking about your company if you “Start with the Why” and then proceed to discussing the “How” and “What.” That is:

  • Why you are in business – this is your belief system
  • How you perform your service – this is your approach
  • What you do – this is the simple definition of your product or service category

His diagnosis is correct. Most people start by talking about what they do. This is typically the least differentiated aspect of their business which means it’s the easiest for competitors to imitate. Joe Benson’s Brand Haiku #6, Your Story of Origin, captures this idea nicely.

“Just about everything you say about your business can be copied by competitors. Except your story of origin. Why, where and how you started your business is your story.”

In Sinek’s telling, most people move from the What to talking about How they do something and occasionally will mention Why they are in business. He is referring to more than an origin story although that can be part of it. He is talking about what people believe and to what they assign importance. His key admonition for business leaders to take away is this: people don’t buy from people they like; they buy from people who believe what they believe. If the buyer likes the supplier, that is just a bonus.

We all know there are unpleasant salespeople and companies that rack up hundreds of clients over better liked competitors. How do they win business? Their customers already believe what these companies believe or they adopt the point of view during the buying process. Over time, the company maintains the customer relationship by building the type of trust that comes from following through on their Why.

The Why Manifests Itself in Businesses Offerings

The common challenge to this point is that those winning companies were first to market or have a unique product feature or lower price. The argument concludes that is why they win the market over better liked competitors. All of those may be true, but they are also tied to the winning company’s Why. If the company came up with a new feature or product idea first, they were creating a new Why for their customer segment that users embraced. If the company decided to be be the low cost leader to provide value in a market that was paying too much, that is also a manifestation of a Why.

Advertisers don’t view Facebook as particularly friendly, but they buy a lot of mobile ads. IT departments couldn’t care less if Amazon Web Services (AWS) sales people were friendly or not. They have bought into the concept of low-cost, flexible cloud computing infrastructure as a service. Facebook and AWS are dominating their markets precisely because of their Why which guides everything from What they offer to How they deliver it and what they communicate. They have direct competitors that do the same thing (the What) and some offer it at lower prices. The What is the commodity. It may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient for winning in the marketplace. It is even worse if your objective is differentiation.

Where the Why Falls Short

So the Why is important, particularly for a well conceived business strategy that precedes a marketing strategy. However, marketers and CEOs need to concern themselves with how to best express their Why. If you are looking for great messaging that establishes distinctive market positioning, start with the Who. Who are you trying to persuade? Once you know this you can determine if your Why will resonate and how best to express it.

There are times when you have a Why that you know just won’t work with a target customer segment. One example could be trying to sell a high price solution to procurement professionals. The ingrained belief system for most people in procurement roles focuses on low cost. It is their reason for being. Your Why that includes a premium priced solution could be out-of-sync with your audience. That doesn’t mean you need to change your Why. It does mean that your Why needs to be good enough to prevail over an existing belief system or you need to change your Who.

There are techniques for acknowledging an ideological conflict and persuading people to change. Ariba certainly did this in the early days of procurement software. The company provided a feature rich solution for procurement departments with a high price tag. However, be aware that it is a tough road and simply having a differentiated Why that you embrace will be insufficient. An in-depth understanding of your Who is absolutely necessary to overcome biases that are in conflict with your Why.

Are You Winning in the Marketplace of Ideas?

Ideas matter. This is particularly true in technology marketing where you are often displacing entrenched vendors, processes, and biases. The Why can help you win in the marketplace of ideas. When you have something new, the fastest and easiest path to winning market share is to win mindshare first. Get people to adopt your ideas. Put arguments forward that will persuade and entice. Repeat them often. Reinforce the ideas and sales friction decreases. Budgets are erratic, but beliefs persist and motivate people to overcome obstacles everyday.

What does this mean for you today? Put down that product specification sheet. It is the embodiment of the What and it is often developed for a Who that doesn’t have the authority to buy anything. Even for a Who that wants specifications, is the content designed to persuade through ideas or simply present information? If the latter, you are leaving the person to filter the content through their pre-existing biases which are likely resistant to change or have been shaped by someone else…maybe your competitor.

Start with the End if Mind – Don’t Market to the Winds

Think about the Who in terms of your buyers and people that influence them. How can you best position a set of ideas that align with a belief these people already hold or persuade them to adopt your belief system about something they hadn’t previously considered. A Why is not enough. It needs to take up residence in a Who to have value.

If we start with the end in mind, we should consider how that idea becomes embraced by your target audience of prospects and influencers. Definitely have a Why. However, when articulating your Why start with the Who to ensure your messaging has the maximum opportunity to succeed in the battle for mindshare. If you put all of you eggs in the Why basket, you may wind up like so many companies that have a vision no one is buying.


Bret Kinsella

Bret Kinsella founded Act with Edge to help tech companies build growth engines based on their own audience, inbound content marketing and premium brand positioning.