Published on January 2, 2014

All marketing strategies should start with ‘Why’

(Crain News Service photo)
Wendy Clark

By Wendy Clark, Crain News Service

NEW YORK (Jan. 2, 2014) — In a recent strategy meeting with our team at Coca-Cola Co., we watched Simon Sinek’s landmark TED talk, “Start with Why.”

Again.

For the uninitiated, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

If you haven’t watched it, you really should. It’s 17 minutes of marketing common sense. Simon lays out a simple yet powerful observation that the companies, leaders and brands we hold up as innovative, market-shaping and successful, start with “why”—why they are in business, not what they are selling.

It’s obvious when you think about firms like Apple, Nike, Google or any other leading, growing, prospering company. They don’t start their planning and strategies with computers, sneakers or search engines; they start with why they make computers, sneakers and search engines.

At Coca-Cola, when we’re at our best, we do the same.

Coca-Cola was created in 1886 by Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist who wanted to create an elixir that would give people a moment of refreshment and uplift, a moment of happiness. And thus our “why” was evident: to make the world happier.

For over 100 years, using the scale and reach of our business, we’ve championed a world of more happiness. We’re clear that the prosperity and viability of our company and bottling system is directly correlated to the prosperity and viability of the communities in which we operate.

Our sustainability agenda and our public commitments on water neutrality, carbon-emissions reduction, women’s empowerment and active healthy living are focused on impact in these communities. We take the same approach with our associates, with inclusive and flexible workplace practices that deliver on our why.

Our marketing partnerships, programs and ventures, like Spotify and Misfit, are with those who hold a shared ambition in creating a happier world. Across our content and communications from Facebook posts to mobile apps and Super Bowl ads, there’s our why. Happiness is our ultimate decision filter and business guide.

Still, like others, there are times when we wane.

For some, happiness can feel amorphous, ethereal, not direct enough of a link to our product (what). As Simon points out, we too can feel the pressure to start with the product (“We sell beverages, not emotion”) instead of the why. Prolonged economic recession in many parts of the world makes us question, “Can we really talk about happiness when so many are not happy?”

In these moments, when we lead with the product (what) and not our mission (why), our decisions get smaller, our perspective less brave, our work less memorable, our world impact more limited.

In fact, a challenging economy is really the most-critical time for all marketers to even more passionately champion their whys. People are seeking values, leadership, assurance, clarity. As Douglas Holt says in “How Brands Become Icons,”—“Icons serve as society’s foundational compass points—”anchors of meaning.”

This is never more true than in times of uncertainty.

Leading with why doesn’t mean there’s not a critical need to focus on the what. Of course there is. Our product is the very reason we’re in business. We relentlessly innovate our product portfolio in terms of beverage launches, packaging, production, equipment, availability. But we never forget why we relentlessly innovate the what…to give our fans, consumers, employees, partners and communities more happiness.

And this brings me to the single behavior and characteristic that is fundamental for companies that lead with why: belief.

If Nike’s employees, suppliers, celebrity endorsers, agencies, media partners and salespeople didn’t believe that there’s an inner athlete in everyone and with the right inspiration (and equipment) anyone can “Just Do It,” it really wouldn’t matter that Nike leads with their why. Because unless everyone believes, all of our massive ambitions and strategies will simply remain in PowerPoint decks.

When we’re interviewing people to join our team, the most important characteristic we look for is belief—Do they believe in our company? Do they believe in our products? Do they believe in this mission, that by joining our team they can be a part of making the world a happier place?

As Virgil said, “They succeed because they think they can.” Belief in our company, in our mission, in our products, is non-negotiable.

As 2013 came to a close and we start gearing up for the opportunities of a New Year, let’s all resolve to lead with our whys, to believe deeply in these missions and to fuel our teams to create more growth and goodness for our brands, companies and, indeed, the world.

Wendy Clark is senior vice president-global sparkling-brand center, Coca-Cola Co., and a self-described relentless optimist. She wrote this piece for Crain’s Advertising Age magazine, a New York City-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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