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

This is the core message behind Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” This talk was brought to my attention about a week ago, and Sinek makes a number of valuable observations throughout the duration of the presentation. One of the concepts he centers his ideas on is the “golden circle,” a codification of the manner of communication that can turn a simple marketing pitch into an emotionally moving and powerful statement.

For those who have not seen this presentation, the “golden circle” focuses on the layers of communication you can use to promote a product, whether that be a commercial product or a novel idea. The outermost layer is the “what,” or the actual product that is being presented. Within that is the “how,” or the way that you provide a better product than your competition.

Then, at the center of the circle, lies the most powerful value behind the product: the “why.”

Diagram made me hungry for eggs. Eggs are never a bad decision.
Sinek’s “Golden Circle” diagram

In order to truly understand this concept, pick a product that has great value to you. This could be any product at all: Sinek chooses to focus on Apple products, but there are multiple companies that have utilized this idea well. (In keeping with the talk’s primary examples, I’ll choose my MacBook Pro for the purpose of this exercise.)

Years of design expertise, squandered in a single drawing.
Nothing in this picture is drawn to scale.

Now, let’s go through the layers of this so-called “golden circle.” The outermost layer concerns “what” the product in question is: in my case, a laptop.

Speaking of eggs, you could probably fry one on the underside of this laptop. Results to follow.
The superheated underside also doesn’t do wonders for your future children. It does, however, make your lap irresistible to cats. (Who wants kids, anyways?)

As you can see, this product really isn’t all that impressive when analyzed at this level… it’s just a laptop, after all. It does laptop things, and despite the rantings and ravings of the High and Mighty iCult, it does laptop things about as well as other laptops do laptop things.

The next layer in the circle ask “how” Apple provides a better product than the competition, and Sinek covers this in his talk: by making their products “beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.” This affords the MacBook Pro a competitive advantage over similar products. The design of this computer is undeniably beautiful, especially when compared to the matte black slabs many technologists use every day. While suitable from a utilitarian perspective, these nondescript form factors lack the aesthetic appeal that has become one of Apple’s hallmarks. Apple puts this same uncompromising focus into their user experience, creating a fluid computing environment that has made them a favorite among many.

Science has proven that cooking an egg on the underside of a laptop does not end well. Be warned.
Not pictured: the irrefutably wonderful lack of Windows Updates.

But Apple’s value doesn’t stop there: the real difference lies in “why” they do what they do. Apple is known for disrupting markets with innovative products that are both beautiful and perfectly functional. Their drive to “think different” creates an image of them as a company that pushes the envelope and endlessly strives to challenge the public notions of what presently is, and also what can be in the future. This mentality brings another dimension to the product in the form of Apple’s intrinsic value: a passion for disruption and innovation.

Which, in turn, drives the unwavering devotion of the aforementioned iCult.

Once I figured out I couldn't copy and paste the people bowing, I kind of got lazy.
Artist’s (hastily drawn) rendition. Actual congregation happens at 4x the pixel density discernible to the human eye, and includes considerably more Helvetica Neue.

Now that the three layers of this model have been isolated, think about the way Apple markets themselves: their ads, their product reveals, and even their stores. They never put the product out there first. Instead, they always somehow allude to their vision as a company, and tell the customer “why” they do what they do. Then, lo and behold, there just so happens to be a fancy computer or a slick phone in front of your eyes. Seems pretty appealing, doesn’t it?

Now that we’ve driven the Apple point home, let’s look at the concept in another context – music. Before we do this, think about your answer to an incredibly simple question: “What music do you listen to?” Think it through, and come up with a few examples.

Got it? Good.

If you’re like most people in Western culture, you’ve probably listed off a few bands you enjoy. Westerners tend to emphasize the artist over the art in many cases, which explains why bands tend to get such loyal followings throughout their careers. It also helps explain why, when bands change their style or evolve, they are often accused of “selling out” and end up with an alienated and jilted fanbase.

Beyond a certain point, people are no longer buying the music solely for the music’s own merit, but out of devotion and loyalty to the band who performs it. It’s clearly not commoditized at that point, so this purchase decision doesn’t happen on the “what” level of thinking, or even the “how.” The buyer has bought into why the band makes the music they do, and look for that value in the product they release. When a band changes their style, this value has changed and their product is no longer authentic.

The “why” is the real power behind the brand.

There are many more examples to demonstrate the power of the golden circle, but the best way to grasp this concept is to try it out in everyday conversation. Next time you explain what you do to someone new, begin by talking about your motivations (“why”) instead of your occupation (“what”). See how much more powerful your points come across, and observe the reactions you get from the people you’re talking to. Chances are, if you “market yourself” in this way, you’re going to get a stronger reaction than if you simply say “I write code,” or “I design computers.”

Even if you aren’t selling anything: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

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