What’s with the why?


What do you want out of your marketing and communications? Because if you don’t really know, it won’t really be effective. Doesn’t sound like rocket science, does it?

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I keep thinking about the story of the NASA janitor. You may have heard it, but here it is just in case.

The story goes that, before the Apollo 11 mission, President John F Kennedy was touring the NASA facility. As he was walking around talking to staff, he came across a janitor. When the President asked him what he did for NASA, he got an unexpected reply.

The janitor could have given a short-term response. “I’m sweeping this corridor.” But he chose to not be blinkered by his immediate goals and environment.

His answer could have been driven by his personal KPIs and the needs of the other NASA staff, his stakeholders, by saying “I’m keeping this place clean for the everyone who works here”.

But he didn’t. He took the ultimate big picture view. He was a living example of what the organisation was there to do. He had the understanding to see beyond his own world – literally.

“I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

This is what the current buzzword lexicon calls the ‘why’. It might also be referred to as the purpose, the key proposition, the reason for being or core objective. Ironically, some might call it the mission. (See what we did there.)

But whatever you call it, and wherever it fits into other parts of your planning, if you can’t explain what you want to achieve, you’re probably going to be floating aimlessly in space.

Fifty years on, we could say that putting a man on the moon was really one objective on the way to a broader ‘why’ in terms of what mankind would achieve as a result of this incredible feat. But the example does serve as a reminder for us to think big and step away from the detail and the now.

I was at a networking event where we had to introduce ourselves and say what our business was all about. A standout answer for me was from the owner of a restaurant and bar. He could have said he sold food and drink. He could have said he gives customers great dining experiences in a place for people to socialise. But no, he said he “creates memories through food and friends”.

I have lost track of how many times over the years I’ve had to ask clients or potential clients that ultimate question, rather than it be one of the first things they tell me. 

We’d regularly have clients come to us asking for a brochure, for example, only to work through the process to discover that a brochure wasn’t what they needed at all. Their problem could be solved by a smart bit of PR, or their message could hit home harder through a well-targeted advertising campaign. Yes, a brochure might have been right for some circumstances, but it shouldn’t necessarily have been the first tactic, leapt to purely because it was what other companies did or because it was a format they could relate to themselves.

It wasn’t our job to shake them out of their comfort zone or say they were wrong in their thinking. It was our job to find out what outcome they wanted and help them get there.

That’s not a criticism. In business, we all naturally find times when we get focused on immediate needs, market demands or reactive responses to whatever our competitors are doing. Or we jump on the bandwagon of a new technological idea or marketing trend, or build an approach around themes that are in vogue. 

Yes, all those influences, and more, should be part of our marketing and communications planning, as we have to understand the people we’re targeting and the environment in which they make their decisions.

But we also have to relate this to what our brand is there to do and how our marketing will achieve that. Where does this campaign or piece of collateral fit in to the wider story we want to tell? What problem are we trying to solve, what are we trying to change, what need are we trying to fulfil? Does it sit comfortably with how we want to be perceived?

I’m not suggesting every piece of marketing demands a soulful weekend retreat of navel gazing, getting in touch with your business’s inner feelings. But take time to put yourselves in the shoes of NASA’s janitor, and think beyond the immediate tangible outcomes of your marketing to the bigger story your brand needs to tell.


About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz