The first copies of The Ad-Free Brand showed up at the house on Friday afternoon. So I guess that means, after nine months of work, it is finally out. Awesome.
This book is the work of many people. It is filled with the helpful edits and brilliant suggestions of Jonathan Opp, Rebecca Fernandez, and Rick Kughen, plus the insightful contributions of Kevin Keller, Greg DeKoenigsberg, Paul Frields, and many others. It is a product of the patience and support of my wonderful girlfriend Maggie and my New Kind friends David Burney, Matt Muñoz, Tom Rabon, and Elizabeth Hipps.
There are so many people who’ve helped me out over the past year, and I owe all of them a debt of gratitude.
I thought I’d share the acknowledgments from the back of the book here in the hopes of introducing you to the work of a few of the people who helped me make this book a reality. Please take a few minutes to click through the links and get to know some of these great folks and the very cool projects they are working on. I can only hope you learn as much from them as I have.
One day last September, I received an interesting email out of the blue from someone named Lisa who had stumbled across a blog post of mine. She asked me whether I had ever lived in Indiana as a child. I was born in West Lafayette, Indiana.
As it turns out, Lisa was my neighbor and childhood best friend. I moved to Kansas City, Missouri at age 5 and had lost touch with her until I received this email, almost 35 years later.
As Lisa and I caught up, we learned we each had book publishing in the blood. Lisa is a Senior Publicist at Pearson in Indianapolis. I spent the first five years of my career as a literary agent and editor. In one email to her, I mentioned that I had been thinking of going back to my publishing roots and actually writing a book of my own. Lisa introduced me to Rick Kuhgen, an Executive Editor at Pearson. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was writing.
So I’d like to thank my childhood friend and current publicist, Lisa Jacobsen-Brown, without whom this book would probably still be something I was thinking about doing… eventually. I’d also to thank Rick Kuhgen, a true writer’s editor—responsive, thoughtful, and with a hint of poetry to his own words.
I’ve benefitted from the wisdom and friendship of many wonderful people along the journey.
Thanks first to Maggie, my source of energy. This book would have never been possible without you.
Thanks to my mother and father, who I hope see parts of themselves in me and in this book.
Thanks to my sister, Erika, who has been a great friend and confidant ever since she quit telling on me.
To Matthew Szulik, my mentor and friend, for letting the best ideas win. To Jonathan Opp for helping me find a voice. To David Burney, for opening my eyes and making me a designer. To Matt Muñoz, for always bringing optimism and passion.
To Jeff Mackanic, for your friendship and for quietly, consistently making everything happen. To Rebecca Fernandez, for bringing value before words. To DeLisa Alexander, for your faith and friendship.
To Tom Rabon and Elizabeth Hipps, for making each day at New Kind better than the last.
To all of my friends from the Red Hat nation, past and present, around the world. Special thanks to the Red Hat Brand Communications + Design team, a group of the most talented folks I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside.
To Kevin Keller, for your wise advice, guidance, and contributions.
To Michele Zanini, Polly LaBarre, Gary Hamel, and the team at the Management Innovation Exchange for introducing me to a new set of friends.
To Bob Young, Lisa Sullivan, Michael Tiemann, and Donnie Barnes, who were open when open wasn’t cool.
To Greg DeKoenigsberg, Jeremy Hogan, Chris Blizzard, Paul Frields, and Max Spevack, who know more about inspiring communities than I ever will.
To Kevin Trapani and Dan Moore, for inspiring us to consider a better way.
To Alina Wheeler and Jelly Helm, for perspective, at the right time.
To the rest of the Pearson team, especially Seth Kerney, Megan Wade, and Bill Camarda, for all of your hard work bringing this book to life.
And finally, thanks to my other friends who don’t give a crap about brands, ad-free or not. You know who you are, and I appreciate everything you do.
When I was at Red Hat, I sometimes got questions from folks who wanted to know the secret to Red Hat’s brand success. First off, I’d always say you don’t grow a $1 billion technology company on brand alone. We sold great products. We treated our customers and developers well. We had a revolutionary business model. Those kinds of things are the bedrock of a successful brand.
But if I was to point to one “secret” thing I think had a big impact on the brand it would be a very simple one:
We said the same thing. Over and over. For years.
For me personally, sometimes I said things so many times I was just as sick of hearing myself as others were.
When people would come to me and ask if they could make a tan hat to give away at tradeshows rather than a red one, I would always repeat: “But we are Red Hat.” We brand folks would always be the ones to bring up the company mission, values, and culture. We’d steer conversations back toward the open source way when they went astray. When my colleagues and I would speak about the culture and brand in orientation, we’d tell the same stories, show the same videos of Bob Young and Matthew Szulik to new employees year after year after year.
When it comes to brand positioning, the biggest mistake you can make is to invest your time, money, and energy in discovering your optimal brand position… and then give up on it before it has a chance to do its magic. Building a great brand has to be done over time and, to paraphrase Jeff Bezos of Amazon, there are no shortcuts.
I’ve worked with a lot of creative types over the years, and most of them love to come up with new ideas. Heck we all do. But sometimes the thing that makes you stand out when everyone else is saying something new is to say something… well… old.
Ten years ago today, I showed up for my first day of work at Red Hat.
The office was an ugly one-story building in the back of an office park in Durham, NC, a far cry from the monstrous IBM campus I had just left. No longer would I be walking 10 minutes through a parking lot to get to my car, instead we were only a few steps from the front door, which was kind of a big deal for me at the time.
I was 27 years old, and ready to change the world.
At the time, this building was both the only office and the global headquarters for Red Hat, although this would change quickly as we opened offices in Asia and Europe over the next few months. There were about 125 or so people working for the whole company. In the marketing group that I joined, I think there were eight of us, and my first boss was Red Hat employee #1, Lisa Sullivan, who now runs two independent bookstores in Vermont. She had started working for Bob Young in Connecticut, before he joined up with Marc Ewing and moved the company down to North Carolina.
At the time, Marc Ewing and Bob Young still roamed the halls, in fact, Marc sat just a few cubes over from me next to Bascha Harris, who still works with me at Red Hat today. Marc tended to leave his empty drink cans stacked on his desk for weeks, so sometime swarms of fruit flies would descend on my desk after gorging on his leftovers. I’m not sure Marc even knew who I was. To Red Hat folks, I was just another guy coming in from a big company, itching to ruin everything.
The interview process was tough. I distinctly remember being interviewed over the phone by Matthew Szulik. He was Red Hat’s president at the time, and had only been with the company about a year. I still remember him asking me one of his famous interview questions, something like “How will you know if your life has been successful?” I have no idea how I answered that, but I’d really like to hear my answer now.
On a recommendation from Michael Tiemann, I got the book Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About by the folks at Sid Lee, who have done work for brands like Cirque du Soleil, Adidas, and Red Bull.
Michael had sent a note at Red Hat a few months back where he said this book helped him understand the “x-factors” that had allowed Red Hat to create a strong brand position at such a small, young company. Thought I should check it out.
In case you were wondering, that headline above is an example of Relevant Sensory Oddity, one of the topics they cover in the book. I thought I’d try it and see if it works:) I actually am wearing pants. Today.
The main thesis of Conversational Capital is that there is a more powerful way to get consumers engaged with your brand by “making your story part of their story,” creating stories or experiences that are meaningful to them. The authors turn their noses up at “buzz marketing,” equating it to style over substance, with no depth or continuity, all sizzle and no steak.