Belief Before Benefits?

I've been challenged by a debate I'm having with John Wall via email regarding a new book by Simon Sinek, called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action.

The basic premise of the book challenges the accepted wisdom of business, and that much I like. The premise presented is quite intoxicating. Mr. Sinek promotes the idea that "Why" is more important than "How" or "What" to a brand. To quote the description on Amazon:

"Any organization can explain what it does; some can explain how they do it; but very few can clearly articulate why. WHY is not money or profit — those are always results. WHY does your organization exist? WHY does it do the things it does? WHY do customers really buy from one company or another? WHY are people loyal to some leaders, but not others?

Starting with WHY works in big business and small business, in the nonprofit world and in politics. Those who start with WHY never manipulate, they inspire. And the people who follow them don't do so because they have to; they follow because they want to."

Sounds great to me. And I totally see it. People are inspired not by making a widget, but the reason you made the widget in the first place. People like the story of the couple who started a dog treat company to help other dogs avoid the dental problems of their own dog much more than the fact that the treat cleans teeth.

For me, though, the disconnect in Sinek's argument is when he moves from inspiration to marketing. As a leadership concept and even a brand driver, I agree with him. But when he says (as he did on a recent episode of Marketing Over Coffee) that brands need to move away from talking about features and benefits and begin starting with "why" you should believe, warning bells go off.

Clearly he's right that brands who start with features and benefits as a driver can often end up creating commodities, not unique brands. No matter how unique your features and benefits are, they are assailable and eventually can be challenged or even copied. However, it's also equally clear that ignoring features and benefits in a brand is where many brands experience a disconnect with reality. 

Gatorade is the poster-child of this, with their whole G Campaign. That's a campaign purely based on the "Why." It's also been a failure because it doesn't really say anything about the product. 

There are always exceptions to every rule and I realize for every Gatorade example I can throw out, there's an Apple to foil me. But we need to use common sense when it comes to ideas like Sinek's "why." I'm sure even Mr. Sinek himself would agree that pure branding has it's place, but consumers still sometimes need to understand what it does and how it works before they decide why they should buy it.

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