He who has a why to live can bear almost any how


Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote captures in a single short sentence, an extremely powerful concept – if people believe strongly in something, it inspires them to take on difficult tasks, put themselves in danger, or support action that may not be in their immediate best interest. The Arab spring is a potent example of action driven by a belief that was shared across otherwise disparate groups.

The power of shared beliefs to drive behaviour is not restricted to politics or religion ‒ people also share, or express, beliefs through their choice of brand. A great example is Harley Davidson. People who believe in what Harley Davidson stands for, buy the product in preference to other motorbikes with superior specifications and performance at a lower cost. More notably, some have the logo tattooed on their bodies – branding in its purest sense, and something almost unimaginable for most people and most brands. Harley Davidson inspires this radical loyalty because it doesn’t try to appeal to everyone. It represents rebellion and the love of the open road but most importantly it believes in empowering a specific type of freedom that its customers fervently believe in, and feel compelled to express. In that context a tattoo, or purchase of the bike, makes perfect sense.

This example shows that having a customer base that believes what you believe has some significant commercial benefits, including:

  • Loyalty
  • Reduced price sensitivity
  • Brand advocacy.

So how can we inspire and motivate people to not just buy from us, but to believe in us? The first step is to understand why your company or brand exists – what it is the company believes in. Your company ‘why’ is not making money. That’s a consequence of what your do, but not why you do it. You could, after all, make money in any number of ways. To find your real reason for existing you might need to:

  • Go back to the founder of the company and ask what motivated them to start the business
  • Ask the inventor or designer of your products what inspired them
  • Think about what makes your company different or what its purpose is.

Once you have a clear ‘why’ it should form a central part of the company’s communications. Ideally it should be the first thing you say. This is the opposite of the traditional marketing approach where companies tend to start by talking about what they do. Below are a few examples of the traditional approach taken from the ‘about us’ sections of well-known ad agency websites:

  • We work with 88 brands and have one simple aim with all of them: to help solve their business challenge with creative ideas that change the competitive landscape.
  • An independent, innovative, integrated creative agency with over 22 years’ experience delivering market-leading campaigns in the UK and across the world.
  • We’re an independent, integrated marketing agency that’s all about creating remarkable ideas to help make brands matter in the UK and around the world.

All three examples start with ‘what’ the agency does and then tell us ‘how’ they do it. In summary all three say the same thing ‘we are an agency; we solve problems with creative ideas’. None of them tell us ‘why’ they do what they do so they all sound very similar.

So how is communication different when it starts with why? Let’s look at three more examples:

  • We exist to inspire original thinking through a deeper understanding of technology and human behaviour. We have proven strength across the entire digital stack from strategy and communications through to design & build, and provide implementation at a UK, pan-European and global level.
  • At the very heart of our business is ‘Brand Entrepreneurship’: a philosophy that permeates every area of our agency model – from our planning approach to how we write creative briefs, from how we present solutions to how we recruit our diverse talent. This becomes more than agency packaging; this is what defines our brand.
  • We are committed to being the most future-focused global ideas agency. We invest every day in becoming more agile, more collaborative, and more digitally innovative. We know that the best way to thrive in rapidly changing markets is to get out there ahead of everyone else. Getting to the Future First is our vision—and it is the promise we make to every client in every category and every market.

These examples are completely different. They stand out from the crowd because they start with why – sharing what’s unique to them – before telling us what and how they do it. They will appeal specifically to people who believe in the same things, motivating greater action from new customers, and loyalty, reduced price sensitivity, and brand advocacy, from existing customers. Clearly Nietzsche’s principal that “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” doesn’t just apply to brands, it sits at the very heart of their appeal.

Chris Bartley
Chris Bartley


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