The most important word in marketing: “Why”

Published: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I believe that at the heart of every great marketer is an inherent curiosity. There is a need to understand both how the world works and also why it works that way.

Why — as opposed to how, what, when, or where — is the result of both internal and external factors, psychological inputs, personal preferences, and any other number of elements that go into any decision-making process. It’s almost never a logical statement of fact like these other questions, which means it’s usually a lot more difficult to understand.

But, it’s exactly because of this that so much power can be derived from asking such a simple question. To understand why something happens is to have the power to change it, which is the why behind marketing and advertising to begin with: to positively impact consumer behavior.

This is exactly why I say that this is the most important question in all of marketing. Because why is often such a difficult question to answer, finding that answer can lead to truly breakthrough work.

Here are some ways that simply asking why can make everything in marketing better.

Develop better messages

“Sell the benefits, not the features,” is one of the basic rules by which marketers live. And even this age-old tenant is really just a matter of why: Features can be cool, but why those features are important to consumers is always more compelling.

Better messaging doesn’t just end here, though. Before any communication goes out, it should pass a few basic tests — what I call why tests:

Why should we say “x” and not “z”?

Sometimes, the main message can seem like a foregone conclusion. You’re attempting to communicate about X, so your message should say X. But, taking the time to simply compare this message to alternatives can make or break an effective communication.

Why would this message resonate with consumers?

Like the features vs. benefits rule, think next about why — as a consumer — you would connect with the message that is being communicated. Does it actually speak to you as a person, or does it simply speak about the company itself? “We’re the best,” rarely gives consumers something that will actually resonate with them.

Why does this proposition make sense?

Again, put yourself in the mind of the consumer and ask yourself why you would take the action that you — as the marketer — are asking them to take. Are there other unaddressed barriers? Does the fundamental value proposition make logical and emotional sense?

There are diminishing returns with asking why, of course. To overanalyze every aspect of a communication is to never execute. But, in almost all cases you can make improvements by forcing yourself to think objectively about what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re trying to accomplish it. Create some time in your process to step back from the project and evaluate it at a high level.

Understand your competition

Short of corporate espionage, there usually isn’t a great way to understand how your competition may react to different pressures.

That is, unless you use the power of “why”.

Just like with directing your own strategy, it’s likely that you can gain some knowledge about your competition’s future actions by asking this simple question about their past actions. Why did they take this approach rather that one? Why did they use specific messaging or images in an ad?

You may not be able to uncover their entire strategy as an outsider looking in, but it makes a lot more sense to consider their underlying motivations than to simply perform a surface-level audit of what they’re doing at any given moment. As logical patterns begin to emerge, it’s possible to put together a rather deep understanding of the underlying motivations that are driving their actions and be able to plan accordingly.

This is critical in any sufficiently-competitive market that requires a sophisticated level of research and strategy.

Uncover real, human insights

I’ve written previously about how critical I think research is to informing strategy. But, I understand why it tends to get a bad rap in many circles; too many people take data at face value and never consider the deeper implications — the story behind the data.

Numbers usually tell you how, when, where, or what people do — but not always why they do it.

Deep, intrinsic human insights almost never come from statistics alone. They come from an understanding of human psychology and behavior (behaviorial economics) that drive those statistics. Why consumers act is almost always more important than what action they take.

And, it’s because of this that we should always dig beyond basic research to uncover to kind of insights that drive ground-breaking work.

Learn and improve

Analytics rule. Most organizations embrace the power of data to assess their successes and failures. Looking at things like click-throughs, page views, and bounce rate can all be informative.

But, just like with strategic insights, the real value is not found in the raw statistics. It’s in the story behind those statistics — the why. Why did one campaign perform more effectively than another?

Don’t be afraid to dig into layers here. Maybe you’re testing different ad copy and notice that one receives a higher response than the other. If you can presume that it performed higher because of that particular change in copy, then there is another level to be answered: why did this copy resonate more than that copy?

It’s at this intersection that we’ve begun to transform our analytics from a simple scoreboard into an adaptive feedback and insight mechanism that will help us improve everything over time.

Build a brand

Great brands are built on a “why”. That is, why they’re in business in the first place (other than just to make money).

It’s a fundamental driving force that keeps the brand moving forward and gives them purpose.

A technology company may be driven by a desire to make things faster or more efficient, clothing companies may have a fundamental desire to create the best clothing for athletes.

Whatever it is, the world’s most successful brands are built on a foundational promise; a reason for their existence. This core brand truth drives everything that these brands do and say.

One of my favorite TED discusses this concept and how brands can harness the power of their why to steer everything they do.

Before you do anything, find your brand’s why and put it to work. You’ll be amazed at how easily you can make decisions when you have a single guiding principle.

Featured image via Flickr user BuzzFarmers.

About me

My name is Tyler Hakes. I'm a digital strategist in Des Moines. I write and tweet about marketing, strategy, media, and technology.

More to read

comments powered by Disqus