The Golden Circle of Motivation

This column originally appeared in the September, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.


The Golden Circle of Motivation
The art of explaining why

A friend recently shared with me an inspiring TED talk by Simon Sinek that introduces a visual model of motivation that can be applied to both individuals and organizations.  This model has three concentric circles--it looks like an archery target.  In the outer most circle, Simon writes "What" to represent the idea that all enterprises know what they do.  At the Northwoods Casket company, we manufacture and sell green caskets.  Most organizations create their marketing messages from what their business sells (ex. Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?).
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

The middle circle represents a smaller group of companies--those who know "How" they do whatever it is they do.  In many organizations only a select few individuals know exactly how they do what they do.  For example, think of food companies where employees and consumers really don't want to know "how the sausage is made" when deciding to purchase.  For some companies there is much benefit in explaining how as it more easily (but still indirectly) conveys the seller's motivation.  Some marketers use the how in their marketing messages to motivate consumers to buy their products.  We've certainly experienced success in telling our story and explaining how we manufacture our eco-friendly casket products.  (ex. We make green caskets by using locally harvested sustainable pine lumber.  We air-dry our lumber instead of using a fuel-burning kiln.  We use no metal in our caskets and no chemical finishes making both our manufacturing environment and our product clean, safe, and healthy for our craftsman and for the environment.  Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?)
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

The inner-most circle is where this model gets interesting.  This small circle represents "Why" we do whatever it is we do.  And "make money" isn't a valid answer.  Despite how Wall Street and Banking has shaped our economy, consider for a moment that companies make money to exist--they don't exist for the sole purpose of making money.  Just as we humans do not exist for the sole purpose of breathing air, but rather breathing is a necessary activity to support life.  Without making money a corporation's life would be short-lived.  Not every organization knows why it exists, but those that do demonstrate inspirational leadership.  Mr. Sinek cites several examples of individuals and organizations that truly understand why and use it in their messaging.  Apple, for example, illustrates this with the simple fact that loyal consumers are willing to buy phones and music players from a computer company.

Planting trees is important to our family.
The reason my friend shared Simon Sinek's TED talk with me is that he recognized that we know why we do what we do at the Northwoods Casket Company, but our marketing message does not espouse this.  We exist to plant trees--lots and lots of trees.  We helped plant more than 10,000 trees last April in state forests as well as urban areas with the guidance of the Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Initiative.  We have a goal of planting 10 million trees in the next decade.  We do this for the health and enjoyment of our community.  This is important to me, my family and others close to me.  Planting trees is the reason my wife and I created our casket company, but we haven't taken this message to our customers--at least not as bluntly as Mr. Sinek suggests.  Here's how our message might change:  At the Northwoods Casket Co, we value the quality of life and the world in which we live.  That's why we plant 100 trees for every casket we make. This is our permanent commitment to our children and the next generation.  We do this by making green caskets with locally harvested sustainable pine lumber air-dried and assembled using no metal and no chemical finishes making both our manufacturing environment and our product clean, safe, and healthy for our craftsman and for the environment.  Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

There is some science to Mr. Sinek's Golden Circle model.  As it turns out, scientists and psychologists have understood for years that the part of our brain that makes a purchase decision is emotional.  It is not logical.  This is why it can be so difficult to make a purchase decision.  I've done this before by grabbing a pair of jeans at my local home improvement store.  The jeans were on sale for a good price, the right size, satisfactory color, and good brand name--the product is functional and logical in every respect, but I didn't come to this store to buy a pair of jeans.  Something doesn't "feel right" and I cannot explain it despite how logical this purchase decision might seem.  That's the emotional part of my brain at work in making this decision.  We can't explain it with logic and the best thing we can do is simply say, "It just doesn't feel right."  Then I put the jeans back on the rack.

The opportunity for marketers is to recognize the why and supplant our messaging to lead with why we do what we do and the rest will follow.  If we can appeal and attach our message to the emotional part in decision making, the how anbd what will naturally follow to support the decision.  I think this whole idea is particularly compelling in funeral planning decisions--especially when related to being green.  We already fully understand that families making funeral decisions are doing so in a very emotional context.  Simply espousing how "green" some part of the funeral may or may not be isn't likely to generate an effective response.  Those of us who learn to lead with why and be transparent in our motivation may find more success in marketing our products and achieving our mission--whatever that mission may be.  Making a purchase decision motivated by agreement with your mission is a very powerful motivation in any decision.