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Business of Design

Finding Your Why: How to Differentiate Your Business Through Your Brand Story


I don’t need to tell you that the interior design industry is arguably more noisy and competitive than it’s ever been. In addition to distinguishing yourself from the other 67,000 interior designers in the U.S., you’re going toe-to-toe with platforms like Houzz which are taking a whole swath of the market into DIY. So what’s going to truly differentiate you from similar interior design brands with similar products and services and similar access to the same resources? Your brand story.

As an interior designer, you are your brand. This might seem like a straightforward and even obvious concept, but let me ask you this: how much of you, and why you do what you do, is actually in your brand story?

In his book (and TED talk) Start With Why, author Simon Sinek makes the argument that most businesses start their brand stories—i.e. their company boilerplates and “About” pages—with what they do and how they do it.

But your most powerful brand message and your biggest differentiator is not your “what” or your “how.” Chances are, there are plenty of other businesses that do what you do and explain how they do it in a similar way. Your most powerful brand message is your “why.” Why do you do what you do?

Using Apple as an example, here are two brand stories Simon shares in his book:

  • We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?
  • Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. We happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

Which version of Apple would you buy from?
Answer: Always the second one.

Turns out, we’re programmed to pick the second version. When you look at how our brains function, you find that the neocortex is responsible for rational and logical thought and language. The limbic is responsible for our feelings, our behavior and all of our decision-making. Perhaps surprisingly, we don’t make decisions in the rational, logical part of our brain (neocortex), but in the limbic brain. Which means we make emotional decisions and then we back them up with logic and information.

We don’t buy what people do—we buy why they do it.

Why Image
Simon Sinek, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Let’s look at how this plays out in the interior design industry. While an intensely personal and human-to-human industry, the traditional “what”-”how” framework is rampant. You’ve likely come across dozens of businesses that follow this format with “About” pages that read something along the lines of:

 "We have an eclectic style mixing traditional and modern interiors. We work with our clients to tailor our design to their unique style and needs."

Similarly to Apple’s first example, this provides us with information, but it doesn’t make us feeling anything. It speaks to the logical part of our brains, but not the emotional one.

In comparison, here’s the first thing you see when you visit Rockwell Group’s “About” page:

"We’re driven by a deep curiosity about the world. This keeps us open to possibilities—for our clients and ourselves."

The rest of the section then outlines how that belief translates into the work they do and their approach to it. Feel the difference?

To find your why, answer the following questions:

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What is your purpose, cause or belief about this work?
  • What motivated you to start your own design business?
  • What gets you out of bed every morning?

The easiest way to incorporate your “why” into your “About” page and/or brand boilerplate is to begin with an “I believe…” statement.
Using your answers from the above questions, fill in the blank: I/we believe ________________.
For example, here’s LMB Interiors “I believe”:

I believe interior design is a process of shaping your external world to match and inspire the you that you are, and the you who is always in the process of becoming.

Katerra’s “We believe” reads: 

“We believe a thoughtfully designed space should enhance your life, not impede it.”

As you’re exploring your own why, remember that it’s an inside job. As Simon writes “The why does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there. It is not born out of market research. It does not come from extensive interviews with customers or even employees. It comes from looking in the completely opposite direction from where you are now. Finding why is a process of discovery, not invention.”

Brands often stay away from emotionally-resonate messaging because they’re afraid it’ll call their professionalism and credibility into question. But when you get to know the brands that start with why—Apple and Rockwell Group among them—you see that sharing your brand’s driving motivations and beliefs only increases your competitive advantage.

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