How To Communicate Purpose In An Age of Cynicism

Start with why…but there’s still a journey ahead of you

You’ve probably heard those three magic little words in one of the most watched Ted Talks of all time, as uttered by Simon Sinek: “Start with why.” As a marketer, I can say it’s a beloved mantra in my industry — used so frequently and glibly that it’s become a throwaway line.

The basic tenet behind Sinek’s treatise is that inspirational leaders and organizations communicate their purpose first — their mission, their values, their cause. As he says, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” Sinek went on to point out that’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. said he had a dream, not a plan.

He delivered that speech in 2009. Fast forward to 2019, and we can’t escape a marketing blog or conference without hearing about how important it is for a brand to have a purpose. At the same time, big brands have been crucified for perceived hypocrisy in the exploitation of “purpose” for profits.

We’re living in cynical times, so should you still lead with why, particularly if you’re a startup? I would unreservedly say yes — but only on these three conditions:

  1. Don’t use your “why” as a smokescreen.

We’ve all seen those tech companies that talk about their grandiose vision of changing the world without ever making it clear what their product or service actually does. The reality is that some are trying to obfuscate the “how” with the “why”.

Look at disgraced biotech company Theranos, which said their mission was to make it easier and faster for everyone to get access to information about their own health. But it’s clear from accounts in the book Bad Blood and from media interviews that Theranos often used this to cloak the fact they had no real technology to speak of.

It’s like if Apple had a keynote and talked about how innovative their new products are, without showing any demos. Imagine if they were asked about product specs, and they responded with: “Hey, we’re challenging the status quo here!” That’s basically what Theranos was doing.

While you can hold up your “why” as a badge of honor, don’t use it as a shield to hide behind. Maybe you don’t know what your differentiators are yet — and that’s OK for now. But make sure you spend just as much time crafting the story of “how”, not just the “why”, to truly demonstrate how your company is planning to bridge the gap between vision and product.

2. Don’t try to impress, express your “why” authentically.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on mission statements for startups who then told me, “This is so boring. Can you spice it up?”

People think that for a “why” to be compelling, it needs to be big, bold and lofty. Here’s a typical formula for most tech companies’ mission statements: “We are disrupting <industry> with our innovative and revolutionary <offering> to empower <target audience> and make the world a more <adjective> place.”

Instead, try to truthfully and clearly express what drives your business at the core. And then test it with employees — if one or more of them can’t keep a straight face as it’s being read out, then you know it’s probably too highfalutin and out of touch with reality.

3. Don’t use it just as an external-facing message, embed it internally.

Your company purpose isn’t just a bunch of inspiring platitudes to put on Powerpoint decks, or in PR/advertising messages. The secret about a good mission statement is that the real work begins after you’re done writing it. You know the old adage: Actions speak louder than words.

See, there’s another key difference between the best and the rest that Sinek hadn’t mentioned. Great leaders and organizations align culture with purpose. This means the “why” is reinforced in a visible and consistent manner. Patagonia’s updated mission says they’re in business “to save our home planet” and it’s thoughtfully reflected throughout their business operations. Not just in a couple of sporadic CSR activities. From being one of the first companies to source for eco-friendly organic cotton to offering customers free clothing repairs so stuff can be worn longer, they clearly walk the talk.

The challenge is translating the “why” into a set of core values that are lived and breathed by everyone within the organization. This helps move it from the fuzzy and vague into something tangible and clear. If you say you believe in creativity, what are the concrete actions you take to support it? How are employees encouraged to put forward new ideas?

So start with why — but don’t stop there, don’t underestimate the “how”, and don’t forget to keep it real.

Infinitely curious storyteller and communications specialist at a Fortune 500 company. Here I grapple with ideas about marketing, technology and culture.

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