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

Simon Sinek spoke at TED in September, 2009 and he offered this wisdom about leaders and powerful brands: “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

I was reminded of this in a conversation with a colleague in the automotive industry.  He asked me what I thought of his most recent advertising.  There was nothing decidedly wrong with the advertising but it fell into the trap of doing what Sinek called speaking from the outside-in.  In other words the advertising basically said we sell luxury cars that have these mildly interesting features.

I told my colleague that I felt that the advertising didn’t have a point-of-view that came from the brand and therefore it fell short of having the power to change perception.  I spoke about the need for “core values” that in turn would shape the brand’s perspective.  I suggested that he needed to find the 2 or 3 immutable truths about the brand without which it wouldn’t be the same brand.

Sinek gets at the same issue by asking:  “What is your belief? What is your cause?”  Another way to express it is: What is your company’s or brand’s ethos, what are your guiding principles?

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

How can it be that in an industry where we expect people to make the second largest purchase of their lifetimes (a home being the largest) the “why you do it” piece of strategy gets so little emphasis.  We know this to be true because so much of the marketing in the category is uninspired.  Most of it emphasizing features and pricing in mildly entertaining executions.

But there are a few great automotive brands that do understand “why they do it.”  Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Jeep, Suburu, Lexus all come to mind.  Each of these brands have a defined “why they do it” that truly shapes what they make and at their best how they market it.

Despite from time to time losing their way, these great automotive brands always seem to come back to their “why they do it.”

Recently, Mercedes-Benz introduced their latest S-Class.  The S-Class has always been the epitome of what Mercedes-Benz represents.  True to form, the S-Class marketing overtly expresses the brand’s “why they do it:”

While I don’t love the line “The best or nothing,” it is a literal translation of “das beste oder nichts,”  the company’s “why they do it” in the founder’s own words. Somehow editing the translation seems inappropriate.

Just today Jeep announced the introduction of the new Cherokee and despite having seemingly lost their way in recent years, here comes a new campaign about the joy of adventure and exploration, values that have always been at the heart for the brand:

Audi is a brand that at its core is progressive.  This has led the company to innovate consistently over time and a willingness to break convention. Who better to break the tyranny of traditional stodgy and expected luxury?

These brands have a point-of-view, a context that makes what they make desirable to like-minded individuals. You could argue that Jeep just makes SUVs and cross-overs that are like everyone else’s, but their “why they do it” differentiates the brand.  In a similar way you could argue that Mercedes-Benz and Audi make similar products, yet their respective “why they do it(s)” make them quite different and to an extent they appeal to different customers.

It does help that each of the aforementioned brands have a substantial history or legacy of doing things in particular ways that have shaped their “why they do it.” But that doesn’t mean that a relatively new brand cannot have an ethos, a point of view that becomes their “why they do it.”

Look at this commercial from Acura’s new campaign:

The folks at Acura have recognized that they must establish a point-of-view for their brand if they are to gain the credibility that results in increased sales and higher margins.  Despite having made excellent products since the introduction of Acura in the mid 80’s, the brand has never achieved the success of its luxury segment rivals like Mercedes-Benz or Lexus because: “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

Now the challenge for Acura is to stick with it and make it more than the latest ad campaign.  The Acura “why they do it” needs to inform every aspect of the company and everyone needs to embrace it and represent it; design, manufacturing, marketing, dealers.  When the company is in alignment top to bottom and right to left is when real leverage will be created and the brand truly differentiated.

Here is Simon Sinek’s speech at TED, it’s a bit long but it’s well worth watching, particularly for those you who  aren’t sure that: “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

  1. power washing

    “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” « McNaughton Automotive Perspectives

  2. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” « McNaughton Automotive Perspectives Hermes Terre D Hermes Pure

  3. Kyle says:

    I definitely agree, so many companies have fallen into these ruts of just trying to sell stuff that they forget to stand out and make themselves known. Great post.

  4. Annie Craven says:

    Great post, so true!
    Find that “something” special about your company and stand out amongst the competitors. People want to drive a vehicle that’s quality and has a lasting impression.

  5. Good for you, Cameron. Right on. Why is it that for the most part the manufacturers of foreign cars get it while domestic brands are hung up on features which are all alike and don’t set them apart?

Leave a Reply