Why Captain Birdseye is really a pirate

Alex Dobson is a Brand Innovator at Nomad Foods, the parent company of well-loved household name Bird Eye. After several years as a brand strategist working with everyone from Unilever to the National Trust, he joined Nomad in September 2018.

 Alex is on mission to prove that Captain Birdeye is in fact, a pirate.


Most people know Birds Eye for two things: fish fingers and peas, a stellar combination that has been gracing kitchen tables for several decades. But times are changing; a new generation of health and environmentally consumers are driving trends like veganism and drawing attention to the impact of overfishing.

In light of these challenges, Alex spotted an opportunity to try and change people’s perception of frozen foods, which are in fact, a cheap, healthy and sustainable way to eat, yet tend to get lumped together with other convenience foods.

About three weeks into the job, he found himself in Scotland on the Isle of Iona (incidentally, the island which first brought Christianity to the UK). After listening to Sam speak about Be More Pirate on Ed Milliband’s podcast, he downloaded the audiobook to listen to on the drive back to London.

Nine hours later, Alex found himself driving beyond his final destination, just so he could keep listening.

“I didn’t realise how much I wanted to hear this message.”

Although new to the company he felt certain that Be More Pirate would give Nomad an injection of the rebellious spirit required to tackle a challenging year ahead. With limited budget but a lot of enthusiasm Alex wrote to Sam to ask if he’d come and work with them. To pay for the time, he switched out the money usually spent on hiring external venues for events and meetings, and put it towards two Be More Pirate workshops.

The first session focused on Alex’s team who’d been tasked to come up with a new innovation for a frozen fish product – something to rival fish fingers (not possible?). The second session encompassed the entire central commercial team and looked at how to apply professional rule breaking tactics to change the internal culture and accelerate their agenda.

The result was a series of internal mutinies. After identifying the rules that needed breaking, Nomad established three core mutinies and within them - new rules and norms.

 Their three mutinies look like this.

1. Building our culture:

  • Be More Clarence - Clarence Birdeye was first and foremost an entrepreneur. He saw the potential for frozen foods by learning from Eskimos, and bounced from bankruptcy in 1924 to selling the company for $22 million in 1929. In essence:  be brave, be curious.

  • Meeting Free Mondays - Mondays are for talking and connecting – this will be tested for three months with the senior team leading the way.

  •  Be Here Now – no mobile phones in meetings!


2. Accelerating our agenda

  • Diversity and balance – drawing attention to different thinking styles (diversity is broader than HR box ticking)

  • Readiness to act – take more risks, be willing to ‘kill’ things quicker, anticipate trends, follow an 80:20 mindset.

  • Plastic waste reduction programme – supporting the Ghost Gear initiative, changing labelling to help consumers recycle correctly, and working out what it will take to eliminate single use plastic from all Nomad sites.


3.  You own it! Be Accountable

  • Power to say no

  • 1 in 1 out - accept that things can be dropped.

  • Fuck it time – allowing a few hours each week for proper uninterrupted time to think and reflect, rather than react.

When asked what a pirate state of mind means to him, Alex described it as this: knowing what values matter to you, doing the ‘wrong’ thing with the right intentions, taking ownership, and thinking in a more offbeat way. 

The actions in each mutiny are a mixture of changes to behaviour and mechanisms that will demonstrate them. But it is the behaviour that has to come first: identifying the new rule you want to have will not work if you don’t cultivate the bravery and trust required to sustain momentum. And breaking a rule is simply anarchy if you don’t know what you’re breaking it for: get your values, your code, sorted first. 

So is it working?

Steve Axe, Nomad’s CMO said that “Sam's workshop turned us all into pirates and gave us a mantra we can all live by – needed now more than ever.”

Alex added, “I’ve never been somewhere so receptive to this kind of thing, there is definitely a new focus on being entrepreneurial that wasn’t here before.”

 For Alex, ‘Be More Clarence’ is the part that really sticks.

Clarence Birdseye is a pirate not because of the connection to the sea, but because of the way he thought and lived. We don’t tend to think about Birds Eye in relation to poverty or food scarcity but in the 1920s, when Clarence chanced upon an entirely new way of storing food, he improved the ability of millions to eat healthily, for less.

Like Golden Age pirates, he innovated at the edges and ended up creating something that we now take for granted. Not because he was a saint, but because he was experimental, trusted his instincts, collaborated well outside of his usual circles, and was very very prepared to fail.