The Agony of FOSS Branding

Tuesday Jun 9th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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The Free and open source software community disdains marketing, which is a great help to competing OSes.

Traditionally, any mention of marketing has the average member of the free and open source software (FOSS) community reaching for the garlic and crucifixes. Yet, despite the baying of mobs with pitch forks and torches in the background, the topic of how FOSS presents itself to the world at large has started to be raised in blogs. The consensus is that FOSS has not taken control of its identity, and would be more successful if it did.

I am as uneasy as anyone when the idea of marketing is raised -- maybe more so, since I worked in marketing for several years before I found an honest job, and know its faults as only an insider can. All the same, I welcome the discussion as distasteful but increasingly necessary.

Within the community, FOSS is well established as a brand. However, outside the community, FOSS' identity is less clear. There are at least seven reasons for this lack of clarity, all of which need to be addressed if the community is going to grow much beyond its current size.

1) Allowing the opposition to establish the FOSS brand

The trouble with the present FOSS brand is that it is not created by those with a stake in it. To a large extent, it is created by those who oppose FOSS and all that it stands for.

Part of the problem is the propaganda that companies like Microsoft have spewed out for years, such as the claim that FOSS is hard to use or poor quality. This propaganda is usually false, or a half-truth at best, but in the absence of any strong public counter-claims, it is widely accepted. Such claims also put the FOSS community on the defensive, distracting it from developing a counter-claim and opening it to the charge of being entirely negative, or perhaps envious of its rivals.

Yet this propaganda is not the worst problem. Despite the attention given to the propaganda by those involved, the average computer user has probably never heard its claims. Instead, the larger part of the problem is that FOSS' opponents have managed to a large extent to remove it from the discussion entirely.

In many unsophisticated users' minds, operating systems and Windows have become so synonymous that the idea of an alternative like GNU/Linux is impossible for them to imagine. Similarly, when Apple ran its famous "I'm a Mac" ads, FOSS operating systems were nowhere to be seen. In effect, reality is being continually rewritten so that FOSS does not exist.

Georg Greve of Free Software Foundation Europe correctly identifies these problems as an example of framing: the setting of the language and the terms of the debate by one side.

Just as a negative election ad traps its target into a discussion where the terms are stacked against them, so the image of FOSS keeps its supporters on the defensive (or even non-existent), and unable to present any alternatives of their own. The fact that dissecting framing fits well into the Internet tradition of flame-wars only makes answering the claims all that much more of a distraction.

2) Creating micro-brands

As Aaron Seigo points out, the branding that does exist in FOSS usually occurs on the project or the corporate level. The reason for this emphasis, he suggests, is the pride that project members have in their accomplishment, and the wish to have corporations' customers focus on the company rather than the community. Some of these micro-brands, such as Firefox, have been enormously successful, others less so.

But the point is that these micro-brands do not emphasize their connections to a greater whole called FOSS. For instance, when a distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora adds a unique theme and wallpaper to the GNOME desktop, it is furthering its own brand, not GNOME's. Considerable effort goes into these micro-brands, yet each is too small to become a successful brand by itself.

Or, as Seigo puts it, "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."

As a small step towards a solution, Seigo proposes a joint visual marketing effort with KDE and other projects, especially distros. Whether this effort will attract any attention is uncertain, but the point is that, just as everyone benefits when code is shared, so everyone in the community might benefit by establishing the larger brand of FOSS. By contrast, continuing to promote micro-brands means considerable effort for very little return.

3) Being distracted by minor divisions

For as long as the personal computer has existed, users have championed their favorite software. But FOSS users are often contributors to their favorite software and tend to have a larger stake in it. Consequently, FOSS users can be much more fanatical about software than proprietary users. The result is endless flame wars -- for instance, vi vs. emacs or GNOME vs. KDE, or free software vs. open source.

The objects of these flame wars have real differences, and the differences are worth discussing. However, the trouble is that, by focusing too closely on these differences, you can lose sight of the fact that they are far more similar than difference. For instance, although GNOME and KDE provide very different user experiences, they are both FOSS, and alternatives to Windows or OS X.

Occasionally, this obvious fact is noticed, and the result is something like freedesktop.org, which attempts to create cooperation between FOSS alternatives at the coding level. Too often, though, such efforts peter out after a while, and bickering returns, making any joint efforts at branding or anything else impossible.

This tendency is so strong that when Seigo's proposals were linked on the LWN site, the comment thread was soon hijacked by the obsolete discussion of the relative merits of KDE 3.5 and 4.0 -- a topic that was both irrelevant and minor compared to the idea of joint branding efforts.

4) Focusing on features instead of benefits

One of the first things you learn in marketing class is that you should focus on benefits rather than features. Instead of telling the public that your brand of milk is vitamin-enriched, you say that it promotes health. Instead of giving the detail about how your car's engine was redesigned, you explain how the car now has increased fuel efficiency.

In general, potential users are not interested in the technical features so much as what your product can do for them.

In the same way, Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, faults the community for always talking about free source code instead of the value that users receive. He makes an analogy to recycling, noting that activists did not make it a public concern by talking about how smelters work and the temperatures needed to melt old plastic. Rather, activists promoted recycling as an ethical act, a civic duty that might help avoid environmental disaster.

Brown suggests that, in talking with the general public, FOSS needs to use a similar strategy. Talking about code will appeal only to developers. When talking to anyone else, advocates need to talk about having control of their computing, or consumer choice, or extending the working life of hardware to keep it out of landfills.

These messages are both easier to understand and more relevant to the average person, yet most of the time they are mentioned in passing at best. Not being developers themselves, most computer users see no personal benefit in accessible source code, so they fail to be impressed with this feature.

5) Not distinguishing between free and gratis

So far, FOSS has failed to make a distinction between the political freedom it advocates and its usually free cost. The best it has managed is "free as in speech, not as in beer" -- a superficially amusing catchphrase to those in the know, but one that conveys almost nothing to everyone else.

Yet this distinction is crucial. Not only is free cost far from the epitome of what FOSS is about, but it means that any other software available for the download, such as Adobe Flash Player, is just as good as FOSS. It also opens FOSS to the accusation that, if it is free, it cannot be high-quality. But, despite the importance of making this distinction, no one has made any serious effort to express it plainly.

6) Allowing FOSS to become just another business strategy

Within the community, FOSS is not just a license. It is a view of the world, a collaborative method for running projects, a declaration of the proper relation between users and their hardware and even a vocation. It is an activist worldview, one that hopes for a genuine social transformation.

All these could be powerful elements in a successful FOSS brand. Yet almost none is mentioned. So far as a FOSS brand exists, it is simply one business strategy among many possible ones.

This approach has helped FOSS to become more accepted in the short term. But in the long run, it is probably self-defeating. If the FOSS brand is based purely on pragmatism, sooner or later, the businesses who have adopted it may abandon it for another strategy that promises greater returns.

I suggest that FOSS as a whole is playing for larger stakes, and needs to look beyond the immediate advantages of viewing it as a business strategy. At the very least, FOSS should be branded as a means of transforming business, not just as an easily-discarded expedience.

7) Losing the basic message

All the distractions and faulty efforts at branding have obscured the fact that FOSS actually has a potential brand that marketers can usually only dream about. At its heart, FOSS is about making computers accessible, and ensuring that users -- not software or hardware vendors -- control their hardware.

This is a message that cuts across political lines, and fits easily into our views about consumer advocacy. Emphasized consistently, it would explain, simply and powerfully, why FOSS is so appealing that thousands of people devote their lives to advancing it. Yet it is the one message that is almost never heard. Instead of this effective brand, FOSS gets an obscured and confusing one, and, too often, not even that.

The oxymoron of ethical marketing

I don't pretend to know how to overcome these mistakes. They did not arise overnight, and opposition and long habit make them difficult to oppose. The most I can say is that overcoming them -- as well as any mistakes I might have missed -- requires clear thinking, stubbornness, and considerable diplomacy.

All that is clear is that as FOSS grows, its community needs to look beyond its aversion to marketing and take steps to establish and safeguard its own image. Since marketing is almost synonymous with misrepresentation, the idea is distasteful, but it still needs to be done.

And, really, does branding need to be dishonest, when FOSS legitimately has so much to offer? It is not a misrepresentation to present yourself in the best possible light when writing a resume, as long as you do not lie by omission or commission. So why should a community balk at doing the same? Especially when the alternative is to leave the image of FOSS to chance or manipulation by others.

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