The Five Whys and How to Improve Your Marketing

Start with why. And then ask it again. And again. And again. And again.

3-year-olds get to ask a lot of why questions.

It’s undoubtedly torturous for their parents, but the 3-year-olds can’t be blamed. They’re in a phase of rapid learning, development and discovery.

Do the sense of curiosity and a desire for understanding carry into adulthood, and specifically into business and marketing?

If not, why?

The Power of Why

The power of why in marketing was popularized by Simon Sinek in his TED talk (and subsequent book) “Start with Why”.

People don’t by what you buy, they buy why you do it.

Sinek’s codification may have actually been an expansion on another thought leader — Theodore Levitt — who came decades before.

In 1960, Levitt — a Harvard economist and professor — penned a paper entitled “Marketing Myopia”, in which he criticizes businesses for focusing on selling products and services, rather than seeing (and marketing to) what consumers really want or need.

People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

Recently, marketing guru and author Seth Godin has taken this concept several steps further. Godin shares part of the premise of his latest book, This is Marketing, in a podcast interview with Tim Ferriss —

You don’t actually need a quarter-inch hole. You need a place to put a screw in the wall. But you don’t actually need that — you need a place to put the shelf on the wall. But you don’t actually need that — you need a place to put the books that are cluttering your bedroom. But you don’t actually need that — what you need is the way you will feel when your spouse thanks you for cleaning things up.

The feeling that you did something important.

That feeling is what marketers should be selling.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a powerful technique originally developed by Toyota’s Sakichi Toyoda to diagnose and solve for problems as part of the Toyota Production System and lean manufacturing.

It’s proven to be an effective problem-solving tool to get to the root cause of problems and to help individuals and organizations to better create processes.

The technique is simple:

  1. Identify a problem.
  2. Ask “why did this happen?” There may be several causes.
  3. For each cause, ask “why did this happen?” again.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 several times (the 5 Whys technique may actually take 3–8 whys depending on the situation). By now, you should have identified the root cause of the problem.
  5. Find counter-measures and build processes to fix or prevent the problem.

A basic example of the 5 Whys technique at play is as follows:

The problem: you did not close the deal in your recent sales presentation.

  1. Why? Because your presentation did not adequately address the problems of the prospect or how your business could solve them.
  2. Why? Because you did not know all of the prospect’s problems.
  3. Why? Because you were not able to uncover all of their problems during the initial meeting.
  4. Why? Because you did not ask all of the right questions about their problems during the meeting.
  5. Why? Because you forgot to ask some pertinent questions during the course of the meeting.

Counter-measure: Write a list of questions and print out to bring with you to every initial sales meeting.

People don’t fail, processes do.

Finding the Root Cause of Customer Motivation

The 5 Whys technique can be adapted to get to the root cause of consumer motivation and desires, to help you do better implement a marketing strategy that addresses your customer’s wants and needs.

Imagine you are an entrepreneur your digital product teaching other entrepreneurs how to run Facebook ads. Your 5 Whys may look like this —

Goal: sell more subscriptions to your digital product.

  1. Why does the prospective customer want your product? Because they want to learn how to run Facebook ads.
  2. Why do they want to learn how to run Facebook ads? Because they want to sell more products through Facebook advertising.
  3. Why do they want to sell more products through Facebook advertising? Because they want their business to be as successful as possible.
  4. Why do they want their business to be as successful as possible? Because they want to achieve financial independence they seek to achieve through entrepreneurship.
  5. Why do they want to achieve financial independence? Because supporting their family is the most important thing to them.

Your prospective customer isn’t buying Facebook ads. The customer is buying a service that helps them support their family, which is the root cause of their motivations — not just the motivation behind their interest in your product, but their motivation behind starting their business in general.

You’re not actually selling a product — you’re selling the shift from current to desired state. Facebook ads are merely a means to an end; a mechanism that facilitates the customer’s desired end state.

If you are selling a digital product to other entrepreneurs, your marketing must address the root cause.

Are you in the business of solving problems or selling products?

Growing Your Business Using the 5 Whys

When we use the 5 Whys to uncover the root cause of customer motivation, we are not only benefitting our current product and service offerings but creating future growth opportunities, as well.

Using the example above, your business isn’t to sell Facebook ads but to help solve your prospective customer’s problems, including and especially helping them achieve their goal of supporting their family.

To that end, what other products or services could you offer — within your circle of competence — to help them achieve this desired state?

Airbnb isn’t just selling rooms to stay overnight, they are facilitating their customers’ desires for adventure and local, cultural experiences. Knowing the root cause, they created Airbnb Experiences to better help meet their customers’ desires and motivations.

Conclusion

The 5 Whys is a powerful technique to get to the root cause of a problem. It can be used to solve strategy or operations problems in business, help an individual determine the root cause of their motivations for better decision making, or help determine the root cause of prospective customer desires for better marketing.

Once you have a problem, ask a series of why questions until you get to the root cause. Solve for that problem.

Applying this technique to marketing allows entrepreneurs and marketers to better address their customers wants and desires, rather than merely marketing a product and its features.


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