Open Source Project Branding: Lessons from the Pros

Is branding important for open source projects?

As exemplified by such big open source brands as Linux, Mozilla and Firefox, branding does matter. It defines how your project will be seen by the world, helps to differentiate your project from the rest and gets your project to stick in people’s minds. And it’s even more important when you consider what open source projects are often up against.

Proprietary software, though many of which are already integrated with open source parts, are still open source software’s biggest competitors. In order to compete, open source software projects must appear as more viable alternatives to paid software, and proper branding can help with that.

Elements Proven to Work

Many of today’s most successful open source projects can teach us a thing or two about branding. Take for instance Linux, with its famous penguin mascot Tux.

Tux was created by Larry Ewing at the suggestion of none other than Linus Torvalds himself. At the time of brand conceptualization, Torvalds had a fixation of penguins after he was bitten by one in an Australian zoo. He wanted a fun image to represent Linux, and thus, Tux the penguin was born.

Tux the penguin is a great example of how a personal story can help define an entire brand, and is also an example of one element that almost always works well for branding: animals.

Countless projects have proven animal logos and mascots to be effective for branding. Examples include Linux’s Tux the penguin, Firefox’s red panda and GIMP’s Wilber the GIMP (although exactly what animal GIMP is, no one can really say for sure).

This doesn’t mean however that you should immediately choose an animal to represent your brand. Of course, the animal or symbol that you choose must still have some relevance to you or to the project, be it a symbolic connection or a personal story.

Involving the Community

To ensure that a brand is well-established and received by the general public, a lot of projects involve their communities in deciding what goes into their brand. This is another great idea, but projects should be careful to go about this in the right way.

According to Chris Grams, President and Partner of tech branding agency New Kind, involving people in brand creation pays off because “If you invite people along on the journey, they are more likely to embrace the destination.” However, he notes that when involving people it’s better to establish a meritocracy instead of a democracy. But exactly what is the difference?

In a democracy, project leaders would give brand options to people and ask them to vote on the option they like the most. This would seem like a good idea initially, until the people decide to vote on the project team’s least favorite option. In a meritocracy on the other hand, this situation never has to happen. Instead of letting people vote on the final brand, a core group within the project is in charge of branding. They simply get the people’s input on how they think the final brand should be, and the core group decides on the final brand based on this input. The key difference here is instead of the people making the final decision, the core group within the project makes this pivotal decision and the community is only there to provide input and inspiration.

But this can only work if the original sources of inspiration and ideas are given credit. When people see that their own ideas are there and recognized in the final brand and that the brand is truly a result of the entire community’s input, the more likely they are to embrace it.

It’s an Evolution

Sometimes it takes a rebrand, like the Mozilla Foundation’s rebrand, to get a brand that’s an even better fit for the project. Sometimes, a brand may have to change several times.

Take for instance Firefox. Firefox was originally nicknamed “Phoenix”, as it had risen from the ashes of Netscape Navigator. Due to trademark disputes it later became Mozilla Firebird, but because of the confusion it caused with the Firebird RDMS project, it finally settled on Mozilla Firefox. Its icon also underwent a similar evolution.

Though it took a while and several changes for Firefox to get its final brand identity, based on its current standing it’s clear to see that it was all worth it in the end. This goes to show that sometimes, it can take some time and a handful of changes to achieve the right brand identity.

In summary, based on existing successful open source brands it’s a good idea to use elements such as personal stories and animals in your brand so long as they remain relevant to the project. It’s also good to involve the community when coming up with a brand identity as long as you establish a meritocracy rather than a democracy. Finally, remember that branding is not always a one time thing. It can be an evolution or it can take several rebranding efforts before you can achieve the brand that’s just right for your project.


[Category: Open Source]