It’s time you step up your Simon Sinek Game

Why you’re wrong about what the golden circle is

In 2009 Simon Sinek, with his Ted talk “How great leaders inspire action” created a paradigm shift in the business world. The Golden Circle went on to become one of the most influential concepts for brand strategists, brand designers and marketers alike. The idea is simple: “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. And whether you like it or not his theory has had undeniable effects on today’s corporate landscape.

Since the talk went viral (5th most viewed TedTalk as we’re writing this article) having a why has become the talk of the town for big corporations, SMEs and startups. It is easy to understand and seems to fill the inspirational void inside a lot of people, desperately seeking meaning in their work.

But unfortunately, all that glistens is not gold.

A golden circle won’t make you Apple

The main concepts he’s credited with are: the Golden Circle (tool) and starting with why (theory). Both concepts are explored in more detail in a book called “Start with why.” Behind it, an idea: great leaders inspire through vision-led management and inspiring brands communicate about their products/services in the following manner: why, how, what.

In quoting the speaker, people cite, incidentally, examples such as Apple or Nike. Which is, in part, why the theory falls short when facing business realities. Because ultimately not everyone is Apple (nor should be).

To be fair with Sinek, he didn’t claim otherwise. It’s a tool he made available to everyone and it can be somewhat useful for leaders. But too often people fail to realize that his analysis is more of an observation than a business strategy. Although brilliantly put together, the examples in his talk are successes retrospectively fitted onto the communication of great —and already profitable— brands.

In all honesty, we’ve been guilty of doing this (using Starbucks and the Golden Circle as a reference for a construction company might have played a part in losing us the deal). As Mark Ritson says it best: “Your portable toilet business has nothing to learn from Steve Jobs”.

It is not a business strategy

Working in the field of branding, marketing and communication, we’ve had countless discussions about the infamous why with agencies’ strategists and brand experts but also ─on the client side─ with CEO’s, CMO’s and marketeers. Most often than not it tends to be a shallow discussion about the effectiveness, need and power of having a why (or vision or purpose or just cause for that matter).

Too many people attribute having a why front and center of the strategy to the main factor in creating a successful business. And they are wrong. At the very least, what people should have understood from Sinek’s theory, is that all three levels why, how and what should be aligned, inspired by a sense of purpose and thus infused in everything a company does. 

The what being obviously the product or service, the how referring to tangible actions, principles guiding the way to do things, and the why focusing on the mission and vision (therefore not tangible). And if many companies are too much focused on creating and talking about their what’s (which come from a reactive attitude towards the market environment : “We should do A, because the market is doing B.” ), you will —obviously— never generate real results when you’re only focused on the why. That’s where the big misunderstanding of many lies. From Simon’s theory, people often make the false assumptions that it’s enough or mandatory to communicate through the why or that having an answer to the question why makes them future-proof. 

The industry (i.e creative agencies, branding agencies even advertising agencies) has an obsession around finding their clients’ why. Mistaking having a purpose-led perspective as the answer to the question: “What should my brand strategy be?”.

So again: no. Why isn’t a brand strategy and even less so a business strategy.

The perilous simplicity of the why

People like Simon Sinek have successfully nudged organizations to find their why (or again their vision, their purpose or their just cause). Shifts of the corporate mindset have resulted in the urge of adaptation from the creative industry. We’ve had (a lot of) discussions with other branding agencies —which in reality are mostly design agencies— confessing that they had to add Strategy as part of their offer to retain their appeal as there has been a rise in clients in need of it.

Being so easy to use and remember, the Golden Circle has become some sort of an alibi for the creative industry. Want strategy? “We’ll help you find your why in a two-day workshop!” Need positioning? “Let’s challenge the status quo of your industry!”.

If you think there’s an added value for your plumber to show he has a powerful why then you might have too much faith in this model. Unfortunately, today we see too many people think the most important thing to a business is having a why.

In my opinion, strategists, marketers, advertisers, branding and creative agencies at large have fallen into the trap of simplicity. Guilty of convincing themselves (bad enough) or their clients (even worse) that with minimal effort you could check the box of brand strategy.

Time to raise the bar

Even though a why isn’t a solution there’s still a clear demand for some sort of canvas or model that’ll help one’s brand be more relevant and meaningful to more people.

So how can you further the conversation started twelve years ago by Simon Sinek? How to work on organizations’ raisons d’être without falling on the oversimplification or single focus strategy (aka. going all in with the why as the sole brand strategy)?

First, understand that if you use the Golden Circle, it is incomplete. If there’s why, how, what… The who (among other things) is missing. Note also, that if for some (Apple, Nike or Starbucks) that are leaders in their field a why helps build better culture, inspiring leadership and engaged following, for most companies, the how’s (the principles by which you do things) are way more important than an impalpable why (and still help build better culture and engaged following… Good enough in my opinion).

Second, know that having a vision isn’t having a strategy. A brand strategy is only good if it helps build your brand equity, and business strategy is only good if it helps build your business. Let’s take it further up a notch: if brand strategy builds brand equity, brand equity itself helps building a better business, thus a brand strategy is always a business strategy. Food for thoughts: Peter Drucker, said, “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.”

Lastly, if you’re in a leadership position and need to take a step back, observe your company’s ambitions and purpose or probe its DNA… well you’re on the right track. For this purpose (ahem…pardon the pun) the Golden Circle is a great exercise if —obviously— combined with other introspective efforts.

“Go Deeper” *moaned the brand* …what?

A thought for those who want to strengthen or broaden their brand strategy game:

Instead of settling for simplicity, dive into the daily business challenges, weed through the surface information and get to the things that really matter. With real insights in mind, extract a truthful Narrative. A Narrative that’ll serve as a compass to take concrete decisions and transform strategies (ideas) into tactics (actions)… Then work your ass off to implement it at every level of your company, consistently.

Please take into consideration that I’m not saying having a why isn’t a good thing. When done right it plays the same role as the Narrative: Guide business decisions with consistency. Nothing more. 

But if your why is your scenario, you still have to shoot the movie!

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