In this episode

Creating a successful brand requires vision, boldness, and a belief system that transforms challenges into opportunities. In this episode, Tom Butta talks about the importance of creating a strong brand vision, ambitious goal, and firm belief system. He shares the challenges he faced in managing the internal dynamics of crafting a compelling brand direction. He also talks about overcoming internal obstacles, getting support from important people, and balancing consensus with taking bold steps towards success. Learn about the language of branding, how words matter, and the reality of “work-life” balance. Tune in now!

About Tom Butta

Thomas Butta is the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Airship.

Butta brings over two decades of marketing leadership and brand positioning expertise that has accelerated growth and established market leadership for several global enterprise SaaS companies. He hosts Masters of MAX: The Mobile App Experience Podcast, where brand leaders and experts share how they navigate the twisty path to mobile app mastery.

Prior to joining Airship, Butta was CMO at SignalFx, and before that Sprinklr, where he redefined brand value around software observability and customer experience management respectively.

Before that, Butta was a consultant in residence for Andreessen Horowitz, where he developed the firm’s points-of-view on market-changing technologies that supported its industry-leading executive briefing program on innovation. His career spans CMO leadership roles at AppNexus, NICE Systems, Parametric Technology Corporation and Red Hat, among others.

Butta serves as a director of, a leading global nonprofit that activates young people to solve problems facing their communities. He is an advisor to early-stage companies, a speaker on many podcasts, a guest lecturer to graduate students, and holds a BA in English and Economics from Hamilton College. He completed executive education studies at Harvard Business School.

Read the episode transcript

The word technology, brand, and brand management can sometimes be viewed as a dirty word. Today I’m talking to Tom Butta who has decades of experience leading brands and companies in the tech sector. It’s great to have you on, Tom.

Thank you. I’m super happy to be here. I am looking forward to our chat.

Tom, let’s dive straight into it. Give us a little bit of your background, some of the brands and companies you’ve been at, and then a little bit of background on Airship where you are now.

I’d say the arc of my career from the very early days, I’ve always been on the side of the challenger. The challenger brand, the challenger concepts, where we were introducing a new way of thinking about something, or in fact, a new way of doing something. It started way back in the training program when I was at the Young and Rubicam. I worked for Dr. Pepper versus Coke, as an example.

Throughout my career, I seemed to have always worked for that next-level brand. In the early days of software, we did work for Lotus versus Microsoft, and that followed the arc of my career. For the first part of it, I was a consultant strategist helping from the outside and frankly thought I knew a lot about our client’s business because I was typically playing a senior role as a strategist working with internal teams.

Once I was plucked out of that consulting role and brought inside and I accepted the first chief marketing officer role at Red Hat before its public offering, I was amazed at how much I didn’t know from operating from the inside. For the last many years, I’ve worked for software companies and I’ve helped to introduce new market enterprise software categories and the brands that were leading those. In the case of Red Hat, it was the whole open source movement, which I think created ultimately Marc Andreessen’s famous saying “Software is leading the world.”

It enabled us to create more software more quickly through open-source techniques. I then went and worked in a turnaround of a public company that had outlasted its core space of product development as a Computer-Aided Design or a CAD vendor that invented 3D modeling. You can now model all these different products and software. We evolved that to become a product lifecycle management enterprise class category.

Ultimately, the goal was to get a seat at the big table where the big investments were being made. We were able to prove that product development and a platform like product lifecycle management was very much a value creation playbook. That work led me to do similar work in other categories with this playbook that I had helped to create there. I helped introduce the category of customer experience management, software monitoring, and observability.

Now, I’m at Airship and we’re all about helping brands capture value from their mobile app customers, who are proven to be 3 to 4 times more valuable than all other customers. We’ve we’re up against Salesforce. Again, it’s a challenger brand with all these clouds. I don’t think I’ll ever not work for that type of company because I’m so rooted in it.

What is it that you love about working for a challenger brand and what are the unique skill sets that you need to have when you’re constantly working with a challenger brand compared to working with the leader? Is there any difference?

I don’t think you can afford to play it safe. First of all, take a good look. There are a lot of companies that are challenging some form of conventional wisdom or conventional ways. I was fortunate to be able to be a lot more selective in choosing the companies that have it backed up with great technology. The idea that Red Hat was a company with under $10 million of revenue and was being looked at as the next public company was pretty amazing.

We had to figure out a way to capture attention and get inside of the minds of people and how they thought about things. You have to operate very differently. You have to have a provocative point of view. You have to have people who can advocate on your behalf. There needs to be a level of proof. Sometimes that’s hard to get particularly early, but it’s ultimately not what you say. It’s what others say about you.

You have to find ways to be super creative. How do you get one of the most successful companies of all time who’s a customer? How do you get them to talk about the kind of work that you’re doing together when they have rules about “We don’t ever endorse any of our ‘vendors’” and finding ways to get them on stage and have them tell a story? You tie that story to a public earnings call to some data that the engineering team might have put forth in a medium or channel. You have to think differently.

You talk about value creation in tech and product engineering. Sales typically view themselves as driving the organization forward, and marketing is viewed very much as a lead-gen engine. In your experience, how have you been able to have a brand play an influence? How do you have those discussions and conversations internally with your other stakeholders because it’s always been a dirty word? It’s very rare that even in larger software companies, and tech companies, you even see brand management as a dedicated function compared to other aspects of a lot of other sectors. I’m not even talking about consumers in a lot of other B2B or corporate brand structures.

The way I think about the brand is that the brand is simply a reflection of the company’s strategy. It’s what a brand stands for. A lot of things that people don’t understand that make up a brand. I think about a brand as having a series of elements that taken together make up the brand essence. Frankly, if you can identify the elements and also, understand how they link to each other, then you’ve defined the point of the spear.

Frankly, you’ve informed everything that should follow behind it like the wood behind the arrow. I can give you some examples. The elements of a brand that I have in included in it are things like, “What’s our vision?” A lot of people do pretty well with talking about what we’ve got now, but they don’t necessarily have a vision about where they see things going. This is like some BHAG. Some Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Microsoft at one point said, “We envision a day where there’s a computer on every desk.” In those early days when that was so far from being real, that was pretty audacious.

I think that’s a key thing about vision. The one that sticks with me these days is GM’s because they said that every single car was going to be electrified. I think it’s about three zero emissions. It’s very tangible.

Also, it’s a pretty big audacious goal. “We’re going to put a man on the moon. How do we go about figuring that out?” That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. It can’t be something that’s so far afield and that has nothing to do with what we do but there has to be some connection. It’s an audacious goal. That’s one vision. The second is being able to articulate what business you’re in. It’s like when you think of this thing, you want to think of this company. When you think of open source, you want to think of Red Hat as an example. If you want to think about electric vehicles, you’ll think of Tesla. It’s that kind of idea. Also, it’s what position do we have in the world?

That is the simplest way to describe what you do and what’s unique about that. I’m not talking about four sentences. I’m literally talking about a slide that has each of these seven elements with anywhere from 2 to 6 words for each. What are the beliefs that you have that have caused you to basically be in the business that you’re in and have the vision that you have? That becomes interesting. What led you to that? People want to understand that because it gives you credibility.

Just on that Tom, how important is the origin story as part of telling that?

I think your origin story links back to why it was you started. You had some belief. Marc Andreessen’s belief was software is eating the world. They built a venture fund out of nowhere talking about a challenger brand. They created a venture fund that invested 100% in software. They looked at what is software starting to change and then they looked at the different categories. They made these investments across it. The fundamental thesis was it’s all about software. I think your founding belief system very much informs who you are and what kind of business you’re building.

What’s an example of a belief system whether you want to talk about it at Airship or any of the previous companies that you’ve been at?

I did some work for Citrix back in 2012 and they were very evolved in terms of trying to understand who they were and where they were going. I got involved with the company when it had surpassed $1 billion in revenue and they wanted to set the course for how they get to $5 billion. However, their core belief was that they believed that you should be able to work from anywhere at any time on any device. This was in 2012.

In other words, work is not a place. At the time, people had desktop computers. Yes, there were laptops and yes, there were mobile phones, but they didn’t talk to each other. You couldn’t work remotely because of how things were connected through network systems, etc. That was a belief that caused their acquisitions. It caused where they were taking the company.

To push on you, what’s the difference between that and a vision? Why wouldn’t that be their vision or how different would their vision be to that?

It should relate tightly. Their vision was if they were setting out a course that enabled people to work from anywhere at any time, at any place, and on any device, their vision was to envision a world where work and life were harmonious.

The vision encapsulates it.

You get it right but the point was everybody talks about, “You need work-life balance. Their point was, “Work life balance? Nothing’s ever in balance because life happens.” Also, we know this is 2012 pre-pandemic when we all discovered that life interrupts us. We’re all working remotely and stuff happens. That was their point. How do you enable the ideal of a harmonious relationship? I’m not sure you can ever quit, but they’re certainly going to help work towards it.

We’ve probably both seen countless companies’ great examples of vision statements and these elements are written and not-so-great ones. It’s not as if in each of these scenarios you get to write it and then everyone says, “Great. We’re done.” What gets in the way oftentimes the internal is too many cooks and everyone wanting to wordsmith it. You worked for a lot of CEOs as well. Talk about a couple of the stories or things that you had to do to manage that process internally so you get to a good outcome and not one of those convoluted examples.

At some point, you need to have enough confidence and juice to stop the consensus building and be willing to take a bold path and pursue it. However, you need to enroll people who influence an organization in that vision and approach because ultimately they’re going to help persuade others like them more so than me. My role has expanded over time. As I used to say as a marketing person, what you do is either just marketing or it’s everything.

Ultimately it’s going to be the difference between success and failure or success and marginal path but finding people who have a lot of credibility in the organization who’ve maybe been a part of the contribution of what you’ve created. Certainly, you’ve got to talk to all these people and get their views that’ll feed where you want to take things. However, pulling them in and having them be part of the future and be part of it with both feet on the ground is key.

I’ll give you an example. When I talked about this turnaround that I was involved in, this was a company that had gone from $0 to $1.2 billion in about a dozen years. It had invented a category of software. It had built a legendary extraordinary sales force and had done a lot of this without any marketing. The problem was that others came along and they had similar software that provided 75% of the value at 25% of the price. It was a lot easier to use and they were heck of a lot nicer to deal with.

However, the company was so good at selling. They kept selling and selling to the point where the only way to get rid of those salespeople was actually to buy something. When I got there, it was in a post-9/11 environment. The economy was very much uncertain. The world was uncertain. The company for the first time in its history missed two quarters in a row given all of the other factors I mentioned.

It was in a world of hurt. It was trading at a little over one times current revenue, which is unheard of in software. The board bought the vision of what needed to happen, which was more of an enterprise approach to software in this case to product development. They turned to the CEO and said, “You need to bring somebody in who can help tell this story,” and that was me. To say that I was dealing with an organization that was extremely proud, tough, and bright and I was a change agent was a difficult role. It was probably some of the best and most exciting work I’d ever done.

We helped market category, which was products matter and they create great value. We helped reposition this company as a leader in that new space. We helped ultimately get a seat at the table. I created this value playbook. I looked around for, “How do you win in this space,” and it didn’t exist. We created it. If products were so important, only two of the Fortune 500 had a chief product officer. We were tapping into something, especially when executives were cutting their weight to success and they were desperate to find other ways of creating value.

Here I was with this brand approach of talking about children don’t go to bed on the evening before their birthday in the hopes of unwrapping a CRM system or people don’t get a tattoo from a CRM system. We had all these interesting ways to talk about the category and yet we also had this playbook over here that was basically built for companies to use internally. I kept exposing it in draft form at all of our executive briefings and people started to lean into it.

Also, some of the sales team leaned into it. Some of these people were super influential. When I did our roadshow or our kickoff for the year, I had put together some very compelling work, some emotional stuff as well as what felt like a consulting approach of also. I got a standing ovation in Europe. I got applause in Japan. Everyone’s like, “Tom, you’re not only not going to get a standing ovation. People are going to sleep through your entire presentation. That’s how it is there and I got applause.

In China, between the Chinese and the Koreans, they were super excited and then I got to North America and everybody was arms crossed, “What the heck is this all about?” I gave the same compassionate presentation, the evidence of it working. I said, “Just in case you don’t understand this in the future, here’s somebody to talk to you. It was one of those salespeople.

He said, “I’ve taken this now for the last three months and I booked all of this business. I’ve changed the relationships. I’ve done this and done that. I’m here to tell you.” He was extremely aggressive and forceful in what he was saying. He said, “If you don’t adopt this, you’re not going to be here next year.” It was a moment and then we worked hard with the sales team, with the training team, with enablement, and with the product team. I infiltrated all of these places to get other people to advocate, and frankly, it worked.

It’s a real story of ambassadorship that you built and that notion of finding someone who is a real supporter, who believes in the same idea, who can deliver that message, and other people listen to them.

The other thing that made it particularly difficult is that we literally had five reductions in force. We had five layoffs in eighteen months while this was happening. I talked to the CEO. I said, “Tell me where I need to get to, and let’s go there right now because this is too important. I don’t want to keep having people looking over their shoulder. Let’s cut to where we need to get to and then let’s go forward.” We were able to do that with 40% of the staff originally when I walked in the door.

There is a lesson also in this because I’ve had a couple of these experiences. You learn sometimes the hard way, and that is how you ultimately get your CEO to advocate for what it is you’re doing when that CEO doesn’t come from your world. The initial instinct is to educate them. “This is why this matters. This is what others are doing. Here’s some data to support that,” but it’s like you’re talking a different language.

What I realized in two experiences was that my point of reference had to be their point of reference. I had to talk about how they could see what we were introducing through their lens. In this case, they happened to both have roots in sales and they were super competitive in both cases. They are very similar personalities and two different companies. It was amazing to me because we were crushing it I thought, from all intents and purposes but there was something that was missing.

Somebody once said you realize you’re trying to educate this person who believes that their view of the world is right. You need to reorient what you’re trying to do through their lens and my guess is you’ll probably get way more acceptance. This was despite the fact that everybody else in the company was on board.

Double-clicking into that Tom because it’s a very common challenge which is how do you start to bring in marketing or brand story through that sales lens? How do you do that?

One of the elements that I always include in this brand pyramid is emotion. I think you have to understand what the emotional response is that you’re trying to trigger because that will help you shape what that brand is all about. Frankly, that’s maybe even more important internally than it is externally, but it’s particularly true. What’s an emotional trigger? It could be confidence, excitement, or inspiration, or it could simply be belief. In this case, you ultimately had to tap into somebody’s belief that there was a better way and this was the right way and then you had to back it up. Ultimately, I knew that I had to get them to believe.

When we were talking, you talked a lot about the importance of language as an area that’s a real passion point of yours. I think we’re relating it to even what we call things internally. Every company has their own language. Talk a bit about the importance of language to you, how you use it, and where you use it.

Words matter a lot and I may be a little bit too obsessed about that. There’s a big difference in phrases that look similar, but in the end, they mean different things. The reason why words matter is because you ultimately want people to be saying the same thing. It’s okay for them to adlib around it or to have their spin on it but you want them to use a phrase or two and have everybody lean into that and use that. That’s how you create momentum. It’s because even our executive team, they are people that have who are rooted a little bit in and they firmly believe in our strategy and what it is we’re doing but sometimes I notice that their language is slightly different.

We created a handbook of words to use and words not to use and how to use them. When I see it, I always try to correct it because some of these people are particularly influential in terms of the size of their teams. It becomes a little bit of their point of view versus the company’s point of view. I’m trying to institutionalize that.

Again, I’m not saying that we’re trying to have people repeat the exact same words in all circumstances. I’m not saying that. What I am saying though is there are a few of those things that matter a lot and you want their perspective and then their context to support those words. They can come at it however they want to come at it but at the end of the day, you stand for something.

Any good examples from any of your current or past?

When I went to work at Sprinklr, Ragy Thomas, talked about a bold vision, his vision was that there needed to be a front office operating system, which was effectively an operating system that was built around the customer. Also, the world was completely different from social media, which is where he started his business. It wasn’t what you said anymore. It was what everybody else was saying about you and you’re now out of control and you have to either choose to participate in that or not because if you don’t, you’re dead.

His vision was so far out there that it was hard for people to translate where they were with where he saw the company going. An operating system for the front office versus their current position as a social media management platform. It was a big leap. I helped create the bridge and we created this digital customer-first transformation system of models that help companies organize their internal teams and their strategies. Also, ultimately with the things that they measured around their customer. We invested a lot of money and then did all these workshops inside of organizations.

It was only through that work that we were able to show that, yes, the customer matters and this is how to go about it. Ultimately, it’s an investment that is going to make a difference in the future, which then could be seen as maybe it is an operating system for the front office. The company didn’t gain the level of momentum and become an enterprise-class software with its vision and where they were. They needed that bridge.

We went from doing three deals over $1 million to 34 deals over $1 million in two years. It changed the dynamic. It changed who we needed to hire. We needed a very different type of selling organization but that bridge took a few years, but that’s the bridge that took them to where they are now as the only unified customer experience management platform.

A lot of great lessons from the trenches there. Your personal experience hired a lot of people and you’ve been part of a lot of different teams. What’s the best interview question that you’ve used with everyone or your favorite or the interview question that you like to use?

I like to ask people what they believe in that they don’t think other people believe in. What do you believe to be true that you don’t think other people believe to be true and why? What I’m looking for is original thinking.

If you don’t mind me putting you on the spot, how would you answer that?

I believe in magic.

What kind of magic?

I believe in the power of belief fundamentally. If you ask me what gets me excited, why do I keep signing up for another effort? It’s because there’s something powerful when you see belief take hold and you feel momentum. Momentum is super powerful and the thing that you’re operating against makes me want to continue to push for that. The thing you’re operating against is the most powerful barrier that every company has to deal with and it’s called inertia.

Mine is that I don’t believe that you can convince anyone of anything.

I can understand that.

It’s because people have their beliefs and all we can do is present people with information and they’ll decide. They might change their mind.

That’s what’s been interesting about this kind of playbook that I’ve somehow developed is there are two very different pieces of the playbook. The first is how do you present something in a way that taps people emotionally and gets them to look maybe differently at something and feel something? It could be agreement, surprise, and all that but then how do you create the tangible approach that can prove to create and capture value?

They’re very different things, but when they work together, that’s when you can create momentum and you can move things in ways that you couldn’t otherwise, in my view. Otherwise, it’s a marketing or consulting firm coming in and giving you lots of stuff to work with. That’s part of the way you do stuff as opposed to it connected to the big things.

With all of your experience, how do you stay fresh and current?

I try to pay attention. I was in New York and I met some people who happened to be friends of an architect friend of mine who used to inspire me a lot. We started going and talking about like the beginning of the meatpacking district and how that happened. We were at the Chelsea Hotel which has been completely renovated and the history that took place there. Some of the people that were part of that and the influence that they had. It was a spontaneous conversation and I was quite fascinated by it.

I picked up a lot of stuff. I bought a book based on what they suggested. I try to stay attuned and you find it when you’re not looking for it. In museums, I watch shows, I find some shows to be interesting because they’re entertaining but in other cases, they tell a story. I watch a lot of documentaries and I love that medium. When a story is told, I think it’s because it’s about real people and real life. It’s not fabricated. I think that’s compelling. Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is change people’s approach to things so it is very real.

Any recent examples of a brand that you love or admire that is doing what you talked about that is telling those real stories in a way that you admire?

I think Stanley Tucci.

It’s an interesting example. Talk more about that.

He created a brand for himself. “Come with me and discover parts of Italy you didn’t know existed.” He did it as one of them, but also as the custodian of the journey. David Gelb who created Chef’s Table, the series. The first version of that was an actual movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. When I watched Chef’s Table, I thought, “This feels familiar,” and then I saw the credit and I realized, “He was the guy.” I love Jiro Dreams of Sushi because you talk about a story. I think Netflix is doing a great job of bringing those kinds of things, whether it’s Formula 1 racing or whether it’s the ATP Tennis Tour, the golf tour, or just bringing the real-life story.

We hero-worship a lot of these athletes and such. Chefs and every one of them has gone through the paper that I wrote in my senior year in college, which was called the Quest Theme. It was the quest theme in American literature but it’s this idea of a quest you have an ambition to do something in most cases, but there’s always something that happens that causes you to have to suffer, rethink, or challenge yourself. You’re usually pretty significant just when you least expect it, whether in sports it’s injuries or there’s other things out of your control. In the case of that one company, the fact that they were trading at one time, revenue is saying, “You guys are done,” and here we are.

The quest can be that unifier.


Tom, I feel like we could go on for hours. Thank you so much for being on sharing your learnings and wisdom with us.

I’m not sure about wisdom, but I’ve accumulated a lot of experience and I remember when I was the youngest guy in the room for many years, and now, I have a lot of stories to tell. I’d love to be able to share and hopefully, have some influence. Gabriel, thank you for your time and I do look forward. Let’s chat another time whether it’s being recorded or not.