The Five "Why's" Applied to Brand Purpose

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // January 25, 2017

I answer questions about determining brand purpose so often, I have decided to capture one particular aspect of that conversation.

If you have any experience with Kaizen (constant improvement), lean manufacturing or Six Sigma methodology, you are already familiar with this background. If not, here’s a brief synopsis:

The 5 Whys is an exploratory method of cause-and-effect relationships. It is used to determine the root cause of a problem. With a statement of the problem as a starting point, you ask the first “why.” The answer to that question then becomes the basis for the next “why,” and so on. The fifth “why” generally reveals the root cause of the initial problem and can then lead to determining an effective root-level, long-term solution rather than a surface level, short-term solution.

As a standardized method, the 5 Whys are exclusively used in root cause analysis (within the broader methodology of Kaizen, etc.). However, it can be an extraordinarily useful tool when applied to other cause-and-effect relationships, particularly why people don’t follow brands, why people do follow brands and how brands can transition from the former to the latter.

The 5 Whys help us see beyond our assumptions

We make unconscious assumptions almost constantly. In many ways, this quite simply helps us survive and be productive (because we aren’t evaluating every last little detail of daily life). However, we often rely on our assumptions to the detriment of our improvement. It’s this dividing line between what assumptions are worthwhile and what assumptions impede our progress that makes it difficult for us to see beyond them.

The process of 5 Whys, in a sense, is merely a tool to consider our assumptions, to shine a light on them that allows us to see them differently. When applied to the creation of a brand’s position or to a brand’s analysis of its position, this process helps reveal what we take for granted in our perspective, which may significantly differ from how others perceive it. What we believe is valuable about a brand may differ greatly from what others believe is valuable about a brand. That one, seemingly minor, misalignment is often the root cause of a brand’s decline or failure to launch.

The 5 Whys help us determine our underlying intentions

If our assumptions prevent us from seeing our brand as others see it, our intentions can be an even more subtle detriment to our improvement. We may reach the point where we are objectively viewing our brand from another perspective, but can dismiss the value of that perspective because we have an intention that overrides it.

For instance, when presented with a consumer’s negative perception of my brand, I may dismiss it.

Why? Perhaps I don’t want to expend the effort to weigh its merits.

Why? Perhaps I don’t want to be accountable for making changes.

Why? Perhaps I have significant time and effort invested in the direction and don’t want to make changes.

Why? Perhaps I worry about how a change will be perceived.

Why? Perhaps I want to be seen by others as having expertise or good judgment and a change could call that into question.

If we are to improve, if our brand is improve, if our business is to improve, determining our underlying intentions is an indispensable step in the process.

Our root cause is ultimately what drives us

It is often a bit scary to think about how much we take for granted in business. We typically view business in strictly economic terms. Often business students (who become business managers and leaders) hear that the purpose of business is to “maximize shareholder value.” However, that’s not a root cause. There is an intention that underlies that, and by applying the 5 Whys process, you can start to determine your assumptions, your intentions and then ultimately your “root cause” — or put another way, your purpose. That’s what drives us as individuals. That’s what drives brands. That’s what drives businesses.

If you want to improve your brand, if you want to drive innovation or if you simply want to improve as a human, then be daring enough to ask “why” until you get to the root.


*Photo by Ryan Searle on Unsplash