Simon Sinek, “Purpose” and The Golden Circle

A few years ago, as I started my career in Marketing (as an intern !), I read my first book about business and entrepreneurship : “Start with Why” from Simon Sinek. 

This book absolutely drove my set of mind, how to do the right things for my career, on how to choose the right job, even today. That’s maybe why I am focusing on Inbound Marketing today. It also allowed me to dream of what my perfect job would be. It made be understand that the best thing about having a purpose, is the journey leading to it.

Anyway, enough blablating – So I decided to write a series of articles about “Purpose”. 

And this is the introduction : “the golden circle”

(I share below a great video of one of Simon Sinek speeches) 

In his book, Simon Sinek gives examples of many great leaders such as Steve Jobs or Martin Luther king, and how they reached success. An example he always uses, is of course Apple. Maybe not because it’s the best example, but surely because it’s the easiest to understand. 

See : Apple has been over the years more innovative than their competition. Yet, “they’re just a computer company”. Indeed, by looking at the facts, Apple has the same access to the same talent or the same media as any other computer company. So why are they so successful ? 

Simon says :

“All the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, all think, act and communicate the exact same way, which actually is the complete opposite to everyone else.”

He calls it the golden circle:

Golden circle

Why? How? What? The Golden Circle explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others are not.

  • “WHAT” represent the product or service
  • “HOW” explains the way of making the product or service
  • “WHY” represent the purpose of creating a product or service

Most companies or people know WHAT they do. Some know HOW they do it. But only a few of them really know WHY they do what they do. By asking any people running companies why they do business, most of them would reply “to make profit”. However making profit is a result. The real “Why” refers to a purpose, a cause, a belief, “La raison d’être”.

Usual people think and act from the outside to the inside of the circle. They go from the easiest to see (What) to the fuzziest (How). 

On the opposite, all inspired leaders and organizations think, act and communicate the opposite way.

They first think “Why”.

So, If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them would be: “We make great computers (What). They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly (How). Want to buy one?”

Actually this scheme is how most marketing is done, and how most of people communicate. Most companies say “What” they do and “How” they are better. Then they expect a purchase from their customers. (As Inboundies, we try to be a bit more original, but yeah..)

Following is how Apple actually communicates:

“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently (Why). The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly (How). We just happen to make great computers (What). Want to buy one?”

The message is totally different, yet all they did was to reverse the order of the information.

As a result of this discovery, Simon Sinek said:

People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it


See how it worked for Apple :
They actually started selling the iPod a few months after Creative’s introduced mp3 players. Already on the digital sound market, Creative had more chance than Apple to be successful. However creative advertised their product as a “5GB mp3 player”, whereas Apple’s message was “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

The hit was the iPod and not creative’s mp3 even though they sold approximately the same device and even though Apple was not a digital sound company. The reason of their success is that in the ads, Apple did not describe their product, they described the dream they were offering, their purpose.

For instance, DELL also tried to sell Mp3 players. But as they defined themselves in the first place as a computer company, most of people thought: “Why would we buy an MP3 player from a computer company?” However they bought Apple products because Apple defined itself as why they do what they do.

Let’s get deeper into how it works in our brains (yes, I just said in our brains !)

Indeed, there might be is a biological explanation to the Golden Circle: By looking at a cross section of the human brain, we can see that the levels of The Golden Circle correspond precisely with the three major levels of the brain:

brain scheme

  • The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational thought and controls language. It corresponds to the What.
  • The Limbic system is responsible for our feelings, such as trust and loyalty (How)
  • Reptilian initiates instinct and gut decisions, and it has no capacity for language. (Why)

I will go on with the example of Apple to explain this biological reason:

I have been for years an Apple user. I have had a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. Few years ago, when I told my friend that I wanted to buy the iPhone 7 plus red, he told me all the good feature and benefit of the Xperia and how it was far better than the iPhone 7. But still I bought the iPhone 7. When he asked me “why?” I vaguely replied, “I am used to the user interface, i like the simplicity, the design…” Actually I could not rationally explain the reason I wanted so much the iPhone 7. The reason is that my decision came from the part of the brain that controls behavior, not language.

In reality, my purchase decision was biological and it was made upon my loyalty, my personal emotion because I stick to Apple’s purpose.

So, with this theory I could have had replied to my friend : “Well, I see myself as someone who likes to challenge the status quo, I believe in thinking differently, and it’s important for me to surround myself with the people, products and brands that prove to the outside world who I believe I am.”

Well.. That was back then. I actually purchased a Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 pro, 2 months ago. 

Why didn’t I bought the last iPhone ? 

  • Main reason : My $1000 – 2 years old iPhone 7 plus wasn’t working properly anymore and I just had bought a 20 years old motorbike for 1500 $. (See the point ?)
  • 2nd reason : I didn’t see how buying an iPhone was challenging the status quo anymore. 

Actually, when I told my apple user colleagues that I was going to buy a Xiaomi after years of using iPhones, they were pretty surprised. (I told myself : huh, that’s challenging the status quo !)

Then I read online : “Xiaomi is committed to continuous innovation, with an unwavering focus on quality and efficiency. The company relentlessly builds amazing products with honest prices to let everyone in the world enjoy a better life through innovative technology.”

Yeah, that’s spoke to me. 

Anyway, by communicating using only the “WHAT”, customers can understand vast amounts of complicated information like the features and benefits and facts and figures. But is doesn’t drive their behavior. If a company starts by telling the “WHY”, such as Apple did back then, they are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, which will lead to a purchase.

So, when I read this book and learned about Simon Sinek work, I was amazed by the golden circle theory and I couldn’t help myself looking for leading companies driven by their “purpose”. 

As I promised, Simon Sinek talk (2010 !) 

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