It’s been a week now since Steve Yegge of Google fired the shot heard ’round the tech industry. In case you missed it, Steve wrote a thoughtful, yet highly charged rant intended to begin an internal conversation about Google’s failures in learning how to build platforms (as opposed to products).
In the post, he eviscerates his former employer, Amazon, and in particular CEO Jeff Bezos (who he refers to as the Dread Pirate Bezos), but doesn’t pull any punches with his current employer either. It is an extremely passionate, well-written piece which, my guess is, will change the conversation internally at Google in a positive way.
But there was one problem:
When posting it to Google+ (which he was admittedly new to), Steve accidentally made his rant public, where the whole world could see it.
And over the past week, pretty much everyone has.
This prominent re-post (Steve took his original piece down, which I’ll get to in a second) has generated, as of this writing, 487 comments and over 11,000 +1s on Google+.
The comments are spectacular and largely supportive. Some have referred to this as Steve Yegge’s Jerry McGuire moment.
But my post isn’t about Steve. He’s received plenty of attention in the past week, poor guy.
It’s about the Google PR team that, in a time of crisis, made the tough decision to stay true to the spirit of openness that Google Senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock described in his recent piece in Think Quarterly. From Laszlo’s piece:
“And if you think about it, if you’re an organization that says ‘our people are our greatest asset,’ you must default to open. It’s the only way to demonstrate to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy adults and have good judgment. And giving them more context about what is happening (and how, and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively and contribute in ways a top-down manager couldn’t anticipate.”
So if “default to open” is the overall philosophy at Google, how does it play out in practice? As it turns out, Steve Yegge’s rant provides a pretty good data point.
In a Google+ message explaining his decision to take down the original post, Steve described the reaction of the Google PR team this way:
“I’ve taken the post down at my own discretion. It was kind of a tough call, since obviously there will be copies. And everyone who commented was nice and supportive.
I contacted our internal PR folks and asked what to do, and they were also nice and supportive. But they didn’t want me to think that they were even hinting at censoring me — they went out of their way to help me understand that we’re an opinionated company, and not one of the kinds of companies that censors their employees.”
This is not, in my experience, the kind of support that most PR folks would have given Steve in this situation:) And because of it, this episode, however traumatic, serves as one piece of proof showing that Google’s “default to open” approach is not just aspirational bullshit.
I’m sure there are plenty of places where people could argue that Google is not being open enough, or could stand to be more open than they are today.
But in this particular case, in a moment of crisis—where many weaker leaders would have given in to the frightened urge to attempt a cover up—Google stood by its core beliefs and defaulted to open.
While openness is sometimes ugly and painful (as it certainly is in this case), it often allows great opportunities to emerge that would otherwise never see the light of day.
I suspect that when the waters recede, this authentic, beautiful, and raw piece of communication might be the starting point toward something better, not just within Google, but in the tech industry as a whole.
And for supporting openness, even in its most painful form, Google PR team, I salute you.
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.
One nice thing about this new gig blogging over at opensource.com is it gives me some room to go back to my brand and culture roots here at Dark Matter Matters. So today we return again to my favorite subject: brand positioning.
Specifically, I want to cover one of the scariest brand positioning mistakes a company can make– abandoning the position that got them where they are before they’ve established a credible new position.
You’ve seen it before. You walk into a meeting with a new advertising agency or an overzealous marketing executive, and, with great dramatic effect, they say something akin to this: “We are not in the toilet paper business! We are in the cleansing and renewal business!” Then they pause and look around, waiting for the cheers and high fives to start as people salute genius.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe strongly in establishing a higher purpose for your brand. And I think it is fantastic when brands are aspirational. The mistake is not in extending your brand position– in fact, we’ve covered some good tips on how to do it responsibly in this post and this one.
The mistake is abandoning the position you already own in the customer’s mind before clearly establishing the new position– in their mind, not in yours.
I’ve shown this chart inspired by Kevin Keller (one of my brand positioning mentors) before, but it is directly relevant here.