brand, community

Fedora, Red Hat, and open brands

A Twitter friend asked me the other day if I had been doing any more thinking about open brands. Turns out I have. Two weeks ago, she and I had a conversation where we discussed how Red Hat had opened up the Fedora brand and the positives (tons!) and negatives (some) of doing so.

openbrand1This week, on an plane ride up to Boston, I read the book The Open Brand by Kelly Mooney, which another friend had handed to me a while back.

The book is a eulogy for brands that are not willing to open themselves up, and an instruction manual for those that are considering becoming more open.

It was particularly interesting to read as a Red Hat guy, because the book is based on the idea that today’s single most powerful technology is “a mashup of the World Wide Web and the open source movement.”

The book opens with the question… “are you dangerously CLOSED?”

Whew… passed that one. But the book did make me think some about where the Red Hat brands fall on the spectrum of closed to open.

We have multiple experiments going on within Red Hat exploring how open a brand should be. On the far end of the open spectrum is Fedora, a brand where our active community of contributors has an enormous amount influence into the visual direction and the positioning of the brand.

Where most people think about open source as a software development model, the Fedora project is open in almost every way. In addition to coding projects, Fedora hosts a Fedora infrastructure group that maintains the servers and other utilities used to distribute Fedora online. There is an (extremely active and passionate) Fedora marketing group, where volunteers build and execute often brilliant marketing campaigns and plans. There’s even a Fedora artwork group that creates and maintains all of the images, icons, and graphics used in Fedora. Almost all of the members of these groups are volunteers.

Red Hat owns the Fedora trademark and has a clear set of guidelines on how to use it. The Fedora Project board, made up of both Red Hat and non-Red Hat members, is a trusted partner in ensuring the future direction of the brand. It’s a collaborative effort between Red Hat and the Fedora community.

I’d invite any of my friends in the Fedora community to comment below on how they think this experiment in open brands is going. From my point of view Red Hat is, as Paul van Riper would say, in “in command and out of control,” which feels pretty good to me.

On the brand side, I continue to be amazed at how well the Fedora community does at innovating and maintaining the look, feel, and voice of the Fedora brand. It’s not an accident. It’s the good work of Greg, Max, Jack, Paul, Mairin, and many others who have figured out the right mixture of authenticity, collaboration, meritocracy, accountability, and some other things I probably still don’t and might never understand.

On the other end of the spectrum, at least for us, is the Red Hat brand. It is by no means a closed brand, but we’ve, by necessity, had to be a lot more careful about how much we open it up. After all in a company like Red Hat, where our software is open source, our brand is one of the most valuable assets we have.

Legal folks always like to tell you the stories like “elevator” and “band-aid” (look, ma, no capitalization!) where companies have not protected their brand assets and have lost some control of them over time. Those legal folks are really smart. There is a downside to opening a brand too much, especially if that brand value is paying your paycheck.

I sometimes worry about the future of brands like “Twitter,” where a lot of control is in the hands of the users. How do you assess the value of these brands? Is the value permanent or temporary? Is the wisdom of crowds enough to keep the brands healthy, or without care and feeding, will a fickle consumer move on to the next big thing and leave an uncared for brand (Friendster or Napster anyone?) to wither and die?

Thankfully The Open Brand is full of tips as to how open is open enough. And like any good consultants, they’ve come up with an acronym providing the recipe for becoming a successful open brand… what’s the acronym? You guessed it, OPEN: On-demand, Personal, Engaging, and Networked. I friggin’ hate acronyms like that, and I’m so jaded about it that they almost lost me right there. But I got over it, and kept reading. From the book:

Open brands are strategically opened, emphasizing one or two consumer experiences that most represent value to be captured, and disruptive change that will keep competitors following fast. Brands have to find their ‘sweet spot’ through careful assessment…

You know, if you can get through the business-speak, that sentiment is right on. I sometimes watch companies caught up in the allure of opening the brand completely, the sexiness of it all, and do a full on belly flop in the process.

It’s kind of like when you are at a karaoke bar (hey, it happens to the best of us), and one of your buddies refuses to sing a song because he is shy and says he can’t sing, but you egg him on, then he has enough beer to get up the courage to go up there, and all the sudden you hear him and are like, “whoa… that’s embarrassing…”

The book gives an example or two of some pretty outrageous open brand belly flops, including when Chevrolet ran a campaign encouraging people to mash up videos of the Chevy Tahoe in action, and some people took the video clips and created mashups featuring the Tahoe as a gas hog and an environmental disaster. Oops. Funny for us, but oops.

The best section of the book for people who think Dark Matter Matters is the open brand metrics system they propose for measuring the success of open brand initiatives. This kind of brand stuff is notoriously hard to measure, but the ideas in here are about as good as I’ve seen. They offer both a set of foundational old school metrics that are still meaningful, and emerging metrics like pass along and Net Promoter scores that are starting to be used more and more.

The book is a quick read (I read the whole thing on the plane ride to Boston from Raleigh) so it is low commitment, and has plenty of good ideas, especially if you are having trouble convincing the-powers that-be why and where opening your brand makes sense. This book will speak to them. It didn’t speak to me quite us much just because the tone was a little too markepoetry-fodder for my taste, but, hey, I already drank the Kool-aid, people!

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


4 thoughts on “Fedora, Red Hat, and open brands

  1. Very good post that encourages me to read The Open Brand.
    I was wondering if OPEN as used in the above context was an acronym or an initialism.
    After a little review it seems that acronym is correct:

    Posted by Jeff Mackanic | March 14, 2009, 5:23 pm
  2. Did you get a chance to read my recent blog entry on the subject of opening up the Fedora trademarks? I’m pretty proud of this accomplishment, which was many moons in the making. Our community members do a great job of promoting Fedora and it was about time we recognized that formally by giving the right to do so without being worried of running afoul of outdated restrictions.

    Paul W. Frields
    Fedora Project Leader

    Posted by Paul Frields | March 14, 2009, 8:01 pm
    • Paul! I knew I’d left someone important out, thanks for sending the link, have edited the post above as well to include a link to your blog. Congratulations on the hard work on the guidelines, I know that was a big project–

      Posted by cdgrams | March 15, 2009, 7:43 am


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