brand, culture

Why did I just write a post about Viking Longships?

vikingshipA great brand can seem from the outside to be an awesome speedboat, like the kind they rode around on Miami Vice… Just grab the wheel, hit the throttle, and send it screaming through the water to wherever you want to go. He who controls the brand has all of the power to steer and go wherever he wants… right?

I’ve always envied those brand managers (kind of…) who have a marketing budget of millions and can go out and “buy” an image for their brand using advertising. They are driving the speedboats. If they want, they can associate their brand with skydivers and bungee jumping (Do the Dew, man!) or whatever they choose.

But the reality is that a brand like Red Hat is more like a Viking longship. Here’s what Wikipedia says about how longships moved:

The longship had two methods of propulsion: oars and sail. At sea, the sail enabled longships to travel faster than by oar and to cover long distances overseas. Sails could be raised or lowered quickly. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river, to gain speed quickly, and when there was an adverse (or insufficient) wind. In combat, the variability of wind power made rowing the chief means of propulsion.

In a longship, sometimes you can use the sail to get where you are going on the power of the wind (assuming the wind is blowing in the right direction). But when you really have to get somewhere, in shallow waters, when you need to move fast, or when you are in combat, there is no substitute for having a bunch of people chanting and rowing in unison. The wind is not enough.

On a Viking longship, internal communications was surely a strategic function, just like it is in Red Hat (as I’ve discussed here and here). Some guy is sitting near the bow of the boat, chanting the same thing over and over, keeping all of the people rowing in rhythm. On the longships, sometimes he was even a drummer, beating his Viking drum at an even, consistent pace over a long period of time.

To build a brand like Red Hat without the benefit of huge advertising budgets, you have to set a simple, consistent rhythm. Teach everyone how to row. Sure, use the sails when you can. But when you need that extra burst of speed, be sure that everyone already knows how to row.

Always remember that as a brand manager, even though you are often the guy with the drum, chanting away, you are rarely actually rowing. You need help if you are going to get the brand where you need to go.

Unless you have a huge budget to spend on advertising, the people that are out there building the brand for you are the people with the oars in their hands. Salespeople. Customer service. Support. These are the people who talk to customers every day. They are the brand.

So let’s be straight with each other, shall we?

You are where you are because you know where your brand should be, not because you know how to row. Create a simple message. Teach it over and over. Make it interesting. Make people want to listen to you. Make people want to follow.

We’ve done many things over the years at Red Hat to build the ryhthm and get people rowing together.

  • We collaboratively created a strong core set of values.
  • We collaboratively created a shared mission for the company.
  • We’ve defined a strategic plan for the organization.
  • We’ve identified a set of behaviors we want to focus on instilling
  • We’ve defined a model for explaining the company value proposition

So now that we’ve written the tune, how do we keep the rhythm? We have multiple “drums” we use to communicate internally. Some are traditional, like regular company meetings. We also incorporate these themes into training, like new hire orientation, or sales training, or our leadership classes. And we try to do it in interesting ways.

We also do some non-traditional things. One of my favorites is a regular internal video series (designed and created by some smart people in the Brand Communications + Design group) called The Show. The beautiful thing about video in general and The Show in particular is that it gets you out of the mode of talking in generalities, and lets you show specific examples of living the values, living the mission, living the behaviors inside the company. It also allows you to show the emotions that people feel. They are proud of their accomplishments. They are excited. They are happy. We called it The Show and not The Tell for a reason…

We use The Show to tell stories. About real people in Red Hat. Doing real things. By showing the stories, you give people examples that they can see, believe, and potentially even emulate.

Almost every company does customer success stories. But a lot fewer show employee success stories, and this is one thing that The Show does exceptionally well. I wish I could screen an episode for you, it’s one of those things that you have to see to truly understand. But if you want to see The Show, you’ll have to come work at Red Hat:)

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


3 thoughts on “Why did I just write a post about Viking Longships?

  1. Still wishing the show was public. :)

    Posted by Christopher Blizzard | April 5, 2009, 9:49 am


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