Red Hat has long been in the vanguard of brand storytelling in the B2B marketing arena.
Unlike other software companies, Red Hat does not sell proprietary software. It was one of the earliest proponents of open-source software that anyone can freely use, change, and share. People from many companies collaborate to use the Red Hat open platform to develop applications. Red Hat’s challenge has always been to sell an entirely new concept to the business world and to inspire trust within potential customers.
By telling true stories about its brand in a compelling fashion, Red Hat has been able to forge emotional connections with its audience and explain its revolutionary concepts in a way that’s easy to understand. For example, Red Hat’s Truth Happens video tells the tale of scientific “facts” that were later disproven and “truths” that were initially dismissed in an attempt to ultimately dispel misconceptions about Red Hat’s own open-source model.
Voice is Integral to Story
When you tell any story, the way your story sounds as your audience reads it to themselves is just as important as the story itself. This concept, “voice,” is what gives the writing its unique personality. Voice is to writing what seasoning is to chicken. (Is your chicken charbroiled? Slathered in barbecue sauce? Swimming in curry? Marinating in molé?) And when you tell your brand story that voice needs to embody and exemplify your corporate culture.
When a company relies on trust to sell a revolutionary concept, the voice needs to communicate authenticity. Chris Grams, Senior Director of Brand Communications and Design for Red Hat from 1999 until 2010, explained this idea on his blog. He wrote that Red Hat, which is headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, adopted the North Carolina state motto, esse quam videri, “to be rather than to seem” as the unofficial litmus test for the Red Hat brand voice. Said Grams, “When Red Hat is communicating at our best, we use esse quam videri as the muse of simple, honest talk; conversation that doesn’t hide behind the foreign languages of marketing, law, or business.”
Red Hat continues to care passionately about maintaining a brand voice that exemplifies its values and corporate culture. High-Tech Communicator interviewed Laura Hamlyn, Manager of Red Hat’s Global Content Team to find out more about what brand voice means to Red Hat and how they ensure that it’s applied consistently across the company’s 6,900 employees.
HTC: How do you define brand voice?
Hamlyn: I just got back from Content Marketing World in Cleveland, and I heard a good talk by Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners. He was keen on helping people understand what voice is. What you say can be considered brand. How you say it is voice. Brand doesn’t change, but voice can change depending on the situation.
For example, you can have a sense of humor. But, as Kessler said, when you inform your customers that their credit has been denied, you don’t want to make a joke.
While it’s often an afterthought at the bottom of your content strategy, the tone of voice drives the user experience of the content. Kessler said it’s the most important content in your content. It’s particularly important for pieces that primarily rely on words. If you’re sending out a text-based email without a design, tone of voice is everything.
HTC: What’s your definition of an authentic brand voice?
Hamlyn: I just read an article in BuzzFeed called “Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” In it, the author told the story of how J. Crew bought out her family’s company, Madewell, took the company’s name and its founding date of 1937, and spun that into a new brand story. The original company has nothing to do with what the company does today. To me, Madewell feels inauthentic. They borrowed something. That’s okay, but it feels like a white lie.
An authentic brand voice is one that’s believable and true and told well. Everyone has a story; it’s the way you tell it that makes a story interesting. You need to tell a true story well.
HTC: How do achieve an authentic brand voice?
Hamlyn: If you work for a company with a very clear differentiation and everyone understands that, and if you can explain what’s different and what you stand for, that’s gold.
HTC: How would you describe Red Hat’s brand voice?
Hamlyn: We have brand guidelines. Our voice is “approachable, authentic, bold, confident, cool, friendly, and humble.”
What we struggle with is that we’re humble, but we’re also bold. We’ve resolved this by saying we don’t brag about anything, but we have strong convictions. We’re bold about the things we believe and about what we think is true. Of course, you change the tone depending on where you are and who you’re speaking to.
HTC: It’s difficult to understand brand voice without an example. What are some good examples of Red Hat’s brand voice?
Hamlyn: We just launched our website. We were able to control the message and see things holistically in that so we felt our voice was able to shine. You can see examples at: http://www.redhat.com/en/open-source
HTC: What are the biggest challenges of creating your brand voice?
Hamlyn: We acquire companies fairly often so it can be challenging to keep the voice consistent throughout the company and all types of pieces. That’s a work in progress.
HTC: What do you do to maintain a consistent brand voice?
We have a training course called “Writing for Red Hat.” More important, our “Truth Happens” video is a legend around here. It’s a voice piece. As a company grows, it’s helpful to have core creative pieces that people can watch and remember who we are. As we grow, people need to see examples of us being Red Hat.
Red Hat software is built by communities that volunteer. Our software is built by people who can see far ahead as far as what they want and need. We don’t decide in a vacuum what the product should be. Our brand is focused on these communities. We donate a lot of resources to helping them flourish. The concept that our software is built by communities is a hard one to get across. We have to build creative pieces to help people understand our amazing software. These voice pieces help people remember who we are. They’re a touchstone. We use them to train internal people so they can communicate externally.
HTC: What are the benefits of having a strong brand voice?
Hamlyn: It’s hard to quantify. But people tell us that they like talking to Red Hatters. We’re plain spoken and passionate about what we do. There’s not a lot of jargon. That’s something that sets us apart and it’s an area where we shine. People appreciate that. Whether it’s a customer or a reporter, people want to understand what we do and want to know that we’re telling the truth.
Do you have a fascinating story about content marketing, lead generation, demand generation, social media, or something related? I’d love to share your story in an upcoming post. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @cherylgoldberg8.