Marketing isn't the first word that one associates with the Linux community, but it is a necessary activity for those who wish to bring new users into the fold (and perhaps make a buck at the same time). The recent Ubuntu rebrand, and the subsequent media attention surrounding it, provides an opportunity to consider the larger question of branding for Linux distributions and open source projects.
The brand of a project includes the name, theming, artwork, fonts, logos, and even audio cues for a project. Community projects, especially those with a primary sponsor, have a unique set of challenges and considerations when it comes to branding. Companies promoting proprietary projects can pour millions into building cohesive brands, and have the ability to dictate branding decisions from the top down. No one at Microsoft need worry about whether branding decisions will affect the community distributions of Microsoft Office, because there aren't any. Nor do the decision makers in Redmond need to worry about offending a community art team when imposing brand changes, or worry about a lack of talent when it comes time to develop and implement branding.
Not so for community distributions and open projects. The tradeoff for strong community involvement is a diverse set of stakeholders that will want to weigh in on branding, but come with considerably less money and talent on tap to develop branding.
Corporate and community branding
Canonical has created a somewhat confusing situation with the Ubuntu
brand, because it is the corporate and community brand simultaneously. The
company has been criticized
for using its community brand, specifically the Ubuntu trademark, for
proprietary offerings as well as its community distribution. It has also
been a slight source of problems in the past
when the community team didn't produce work that lived up to Mark
This time around, Canonical brought members of different sub-projects
together to work on the rebrand effort for 10.04. This hasn't satisfied everyone,
and the decision to
re-arrange the window buttons has generated quite a lot of grumbling. Overall, though, Canonical's handling of the rebrand seems to have gone well with its community.
While Canonical pursues a unified brand for Ubuntu, other companies attempt an approach of using a derivative of the corporate brand for the community project, such as was done with openSUSE and with OpenSolaris. This strategy has its merits, but can lead to a number of problems. Coordinating with a corporate marketing communications team can be a bit challenging for a community project. As with a single brand, it means that the commercial and community efforts will occasionally generate friction when the community wishes to go in one direction and the company wishes to go in another.
Coordinating community-generated materials with a corporate art
department also leads to unexpected challenges. Community members tend to
use, not surprisingly, free tools to generate art. Tools like Inkscape,
GIMP, and Evince have come a long way and are capable of generating and displaying professional-looking artwork. They still, however, pose challenges when trying to send artwork to a professional art department that works with proprietary tools — and vice-versa. While Evince, for example, is perfectly capable of displaying most PDFs with reasonable fidelity, it does not handle all output perfectly. When developing art for the openSUSE retail box sets and t-shirts, for example, I still needed to rely on Adobe's reader to ensure the output matched what would be sent to the printer.
Further, tying the community brand and name to the corporate brand has side-effects. The upside is that a successful and healthy project will reflect well on the corporate brand. If the community project is well-known and popular, it has a "halo" effect on the commercial brand and has a marketing benefit for the corporate parent. The downside is that the association runs both ways, and if either the corporate parent or community project takes a drubbing, the other suffers as well.
The downside is that this means the primary sponsor has a vested
interest in the community's handling of the brand, in particular trademarks
and logos, that are derivative of the primary brand. This means a community
may wind up with a slightly more restrictive trademark policy, and
requirements to coordinate with the marketing communications team rather
than leaving decisions to the community. This is also true of a shared
brand, of course. Even when the corporate backer has been relatively
hands-off with the community branding, as was the case when I worked with
openSUSE, it still introduced some minor problems. For example, SUSE chose
a proprietary font (Cholla) for its logo and associated marks, a practice
that continued under Novell.
This meant that community members interested in producing art for shows, swag, and derivative projects were out of step with the "official" openSUSE brand. Ultimately it was necessary to create a look-alike called FifthLeg, which has worked out relatively well.
The other end of the spectrum is the Debian Project. With no primary sponsor, Debian's community can develop the brand as it sees fit without interference. But Debian has done relatively little with this freedom. It has an art team and has created a site for community contributed artwork, as well as official and unofficial logos with clear guidelines on how they may be used. But there's little in the way of an organized effort to produce a coherent Debian "brand" beyond logos and related artwork.
A more practical and community friendly approach for sponsored projects may be the one taken by Red Hat with Fedora. By providing a separate brand, but providing at least some corporate support for the development of the branding in conjunction with the community teams, it's possible to avoid the conflicts between commercial and community brands. Fedora has a relatively free hand in creating artwork for the distribution, and most of the guidelines are oriented around practical issues rather than sponsor issues — excepting the prohibition on artwork including hats.
Red Hat's trademark guidelines around the Fedora mark, however, have generated some friction with the community. The company has shown interest in trying to satisfy reasonable complaints with the trademark guidelines, but it is rarely possible to please everyone with a trademark licensing agreement.
Distributions: How branding affects downstreams
When a project rebrands, it also has an impact on all the affiliated downstream projects that make use of its branding. All of the major distributions have one or more derivative projects or "respins" that make use of the core distribution but include significant changes from the standard offering.
This means that when an upstream, like Ubuntu, makes changes they roll downhill to Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and other assorted Ubuntu derivatives. Fedora has its respins, and openSUSE now has quite a few offshoots like the Education project or custom spins of openSUSE generated via SUSE Studio.
Derivatives have technical and legal issues to consider. When a
distribution actively seeks spinoffs, it has to ensure that it's reasonably
easy to rebrand the distribution. This means providing clear guidelines
— as Fedora has
— on what is allowed (and what's not) with regards to using trademarks and branding for remixed distributions.
Distributions also need to provide tools and instructions on rebranding. For instance, Fedora provides guidelines on replacing the branding packages for Fedora to ensure that Fedora and Red Hat trademarks are stripped from Spins. The openSUSE Project provides instructions and a tool called Rembrand to create derivatives — though prospective respinners may find it easier to use SUSE Studio to create rebranded openSUSE derivatives.
Another issue crops up for LUGs and advocacy projects like Spread Ubuntu. With the Ubuntu refresh, all of the Loco groups and downstream advocacy projects are left with outdated materials. Projects should tread carefully, and slowly, to reduce issues here.
Upstream and downstream cooperation
Distributions not only have to consider the effect of branding on derivative projects, but also have to consider the presentation of their upstream projects. For example, the branding decisions made by distributions have a direct impact on the presentation of GNOME or KDE.
The KDE Project's Aaron Seigo has taken some exception to distributions rebranding KDE and creating "microbrands:"
[...] we have made it hard for people to take notice of what we are doing with the Linux Desktop since none of the brands are identifiable as "belonging to the same thing". Instead we end up with microbrands that nearly no one outside of the server room or the hardcore F/OSS community recognizes.
Many (most?) operating systems bearing KDE packages come with their own logo as the application launcher button, many ship their own icon sets or their own (for branding purposes) customizations of the default icon set, many ship their own wallpapers, many change the default window borders or widget themes.
This is even more unfortunate because there is a scarcity of quality artists in the F/OSS world, and when each distribution or project gobbles up one of them to work exclusively on their own mojo ... we just divide and conquer ourselves.
While this may make their individual believers-in-the-cause users happy and may make corporate management feel they are getting some good corporate marketing out there with that happy little logo in the bottom left hand corner ... this is obviously inspired by the "old way" of doing things that is centered around corporate balkanization of the consumer space: flags or fruits, right? (Microsoft and Apple .. :) We need to rise above that and consider the long term benefits of the entire ecosystem because each of our projects thrives or diminishes in step with it.
What KDE has done in this case is to propose a service to work with distributions to customize some elements to achieve a shared visual identity. For instance, the openSUSE 11.2 release included work from Nuno Pinheiro of KDE to provide a shared theme.
Does it matter?
Ultimately, one has to wonder how much branding actually affects open source adoption. While Ubuntu received a great deal of media attention surrounding its rebranding for the 10.04 release, it was only because Ubuntu is already popular and well-received — thus making the rebrand effort noteworthy even in mainstream IT press.
One might argue that some small amount of Ubuntu's success stems from previous branding efforts, but very little. What has proven more effective for Ubuntu is the distribution itself and an effective marketing campaign beyond branding. ShipIt to put the distribution in the hands of, literally, millions of users and a motivated community of advocates that have provided word-of-mouth marketing for the distribution.
This isn't to say the look and feel of projects is unimportant. Some have argued, persuasively, that pretty is a feature. Clearly if a project is gunning for mainstream acceptance it has to be attractive enough to stand side-by-side with proprietary software. But it would be a mistake to assume that a distribution's brand is the key to success.
But it can be a key to failure. As Seigo and others have pointed out, ugly software or "micro" branding make gaining traction with a wider audience unlikely. Projects that are looking to succeed with mainstream audiences will need to pay attention to branding and find ways to harness the relatively small number of talented designers that are interested in working with open projects, or find new ways to attract them.
to post comments)