THE BLOG
05/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

If The CEO Speaks, Make Sure He Says Why

Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, is back making commercials for his company. In the latest version, he is doing more of what he did in previous ads -- selling on price. The top guy in the company, the big boss, numero uno, looks straight into the camera and tells you Sprint's latest calling plan is better than the competition's. That's what the most senior person in the company wants us to know about his company -- they're cheap.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Phil Knight, the charismatic founder and former CEO of Nike. Knight was the keynote speaker at a conference and, like the CEO of Sprint, he too made a case for why you should choose Nike over the competition. But Knight took a different approach. He didn't say what Nike does or how they are better. And he certainly didn't attempt to differentiate the company based on price. Instead, he told a story that explains Why Nike exists.

Looking across the audience, Knight asked those who run to stand up. And a good percentage of the room stood up. Then he asked those who run three or more times a week to keep standing; everyone else was asked to sit down.

Looking out at the people left standing, Knight said, "we are for you."

"When you get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to go for a run," he went on, "even if it's cold and wet out, you go. And when you get to mile 4, we're the one standing under the lamp post, out there in the cold and wet with you, cheering you on. We're the inner athlete. We're the inner champion."

Without a single mention of their latest technologies or which athletes wear their products, Knight makes a vastly more compelling case for why we want Nike in our lives. Nike may or may not be better, but we are drawn to them because they have a cause. They know and we know why the do what they do. The same can not be said for Sprint and so many other companies.

Phil Knight knows why Nike exists and he tells us. It is the same purpose, cause or belief that inspires his employees as well as his customers. "Just Do It" is more than a tag line, it's a motto. It's a cheer. It's a rallying cry. Are Sprint employees inspired to be cheap?

The mistake Mr. Hesse and so many other marketers make is that they tell us what the company does and how they think they are better, but is not a single mention of why the company exists in the first place. And it's the why that matters most in a purchase decision. People are not attracted to what you do, they are drawn to why you do it. And why is what truly differentiates one company from another.

Nike doesn't want to make products for everyone, they want to make products for champions. Champions are not the ones who always win races, champions are the ones who get out there and try. And try harder the next time. And even harder the next time. Champion is a state of mind. They are devoted. They compete to best themselves as much if not more than they compete to best others. Champions are not just athletes. Champions are entrepreneurs, politicians, nurses, soldiers, students and Hall of Famers. Nike wants to make products for all champions.

What Phil Knight can do that so many other CEOs can't is put his company's why into words. And because he can, so can all those who work at the company. And because everyone in his company can put the why into words, so can we. Sprint and Nike are both companies built on brand equity in industries in which there is little to no real difference between one company's products and another's. But we all know what Nike stands for. We only know what Sprint does and we may or may not believe they are better or cheaper, but we certainly have no clue why they exist.

Before consumers can know your why, you must know it. If you don't know why you do what you do, how will anyone else?

Your why starts as a feeling. Call it drive or passion or inspiration or something in your gut, it doesn't matter. Only when that feeling is translated into words can it become actionable and scalable. Only when others can repeat your why as clearly as you can, can you lead. And when you lead, you never have to sell on price.

Someone should tell Dan Hesse to stop talking about price and start talking about why. Come on Mr. Hesse... just do it.

To learn how to talk like Phil Knight about why your company exists in terms that inspire, pick up a copy of Simon Sinek's new book, Start With Why