Build a Following, Not a Customer Base

“If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business”, a reasonable claim from Simon Sinek, renowned author of Start With Why, at the beginning of his talk at last year’s 99U conference.

Sinek explains that companies like Apple have been able to build a fanatical following because they understood that business is done through people. People who are looking for connection and meaning.

Simon argues that trust is the foundation of any and all relationships, and that if business fail to create that bond with customers — they will fail to succeed.

Founders who have successfully built a true following have done so by surrounding themselves with people who believe what they believe, and spreading an honest gospel about those values — attracting like-minded customers people by the millions.

An American in Paris

“At the end of the day” Sinek explains, “the human animal is a social animal, and our very survival depends on our ability to form communities”. He explains that communities, cultures, and countries are a group of people who share a common set of values and beliefs.

This is hardly revolutionary insight. But what is unique, is Sinek’s suggestion that companies should also be a group of people who share a common set of values and beliefs. “When we’re surrounded by people who believe what we believe, something remarkable happens” says Sinek, “trust emerges”.

Trust, explains Sinek, is a necessary condition for risk-taking, innovation, and experimentation. Because we know that if we try and fail, there will be a community of like-minded, supportive people to fall back on. “Our very survival depends on it”, explains Sinek. And that trust is based around shared beliefs, values, and experiences.

Sinek gives the example that a New Yorker isn’t going to be friends with everyone in the big apple, but if they ran into a New Yorker in LA, they would instantly bond over their hometown. Similarly to how an American in Paris would gravitate to his fellow countrymen, simply because they share an American identity.

We’re biologically programmed to be able to find people like ourselves. It’s a gut feeling that comes from a survival instinct. “The problem”, explains Sinek “is that it’s not scalable”. The gut feeling you have about a bond of trust with someone can’t be scaled. So instead, we rely on symbols to express who we are, and find others who believe what we believe. Symbols like an American accent, a type of clothing, or a Macbook.

The companies that ‘win’ at the customer acquisition game are the ones whose symbols become mainstream tools of personal expression.

The Tiger Woods Problem

Sinek claims that “every decision we make in our lives is a piece of communication”, as individuals and as companies. “It’s our way of saying who we are and what we believe – this is why authenticity matters”. Companies live and die by their ability to produce authentic symbols that customers are attracted to and can identify with. “If you put out false symbols” says Sinek, “you can attract people to those symbols, but you won’t be able to form trust”.

And that was exactly the problem with Tiger Woods. He told us what he thought we wanted to hear, explains Simon. We loved and identified with the good guy, and when that image came crashing down – he lost our trust forever. Sinek argues that if he had portrayed himself consistently as the ‘bad boy of golf’ from the get-go, he would still have his loyal following.

Sinek argues that the most effective symbols come from “companies that are crystal clear in what they believe and are disciplined in how they do it, and [are] consistent in what they do”. These are companies like Apple, whose symbols have become a mode of self-expression for millions of people worldwide. Through countless waves of products, the Apple battle-cry has remained the same: we want to change the world for the better.

As a founder, your ability to attract clients and customers is based on your ability to form trust and connections, and there are two things you need to do to make that happen.

  1.  Hire people who believe what you believe; people whom you trust, and who can trust you. This breeds an environment of innovation and inspiration.
  2. Be authentic and honest in all of your brand messaging. The worst thing you can do for your brand is to sacrifice your integrity.

Stop Talking About Yourself

Make it about them, not about you – Simon Sinek

What do beggars on the street and giant corporations have in common, according to Simon Sinek? They talk about themselves — a lot. To prove his argument that effective marketing should be about our customers, and not about us, Sinek ran the world’s most unconventional A/B test.

He came across a homeless woman whose sign said all the typical things like ‘I’m poor, help me, I’m hungry, I have kids’, which was netting her roughly $20 per day. Sinek made her a new sign that said ‘If you only give once a month, please think of me next time’. With this new donor-centric messaging on her sign, the woman’s collection skyrocketed to over $40 in one hour.

So what can your startup take away from this bizarre A/B copy test?

Remember that your customers are human beings yearning for connection. In a sea of advertisements and branding that shouts product benefits at consumers 24/7, make it about them, not about you.

So, when was the last time you talked to a customer, or a client? Really talked to them. Human beings are the foundation of all business, and as founder, it is your responsibility to make sure people never get lost in the shuffle.

What are you doing to build your following?


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Comments.

  • april

    This is good info, clear and easy to understand. Thanks for making it simple!