Red Hat, opensource.com, and the high road


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In my role as Red Hat’s brand manager, I am always on the look out for interesting and provocative readings about brands and branding in general. Inside the technology industry, outside the technology industry – it’s all good. There’s something to be learned from every great case study, thought piece, theory, and brand story.

Typically, I come across various articles on brand positioning and differentiation. Sure, many are great – they provide reminders of the branding basics and can be reassuring that what we’re doing is following a good course.

But what really interests me are readings that take traditional brand theory and turn it on its head, pushing the topic of branding for companies that want to stay ahead of the curve – like Red Hat.

I recently came across an article that made me stop and consider how we’re approaching our brand strategy – both at Red Hat and here at opensource.com. This post has been in my brain for a couple of weeks now, and that stickiness convinced me that it’s something I want to share.

And not just share. I'd also like to hear your thoughts on the topic. It's important, and could influence the future of the opensource.com brand.

The post I’m referring to is What is Your Brand Against?, a Harvard Business Review article written by Scott Goodson (February 15, 2011). In it, Goodson introduces a new-to-me term: oppositional thinking. It represents a tactic that savvy marketers have employed to effectively communicate what their brand stands for.

The premise is simple: “If you really want to show the world what you believe in and stand for, how about telling us what you stand against?” Goodson argues that by only talking about your brand’s beliefs and ideals, your marketing communications may come across as generic, dull, and predictable. And we’ve all seen plenty of that type of marketing and advertising. A little bit of oppositional thinking might be necessary for a brand to truly and authentically position itself in the minds of its customers.

Goodson talks about his first-hand experience with this theory while working on the smart car brand. Traditional thinking would have focused on the things that differentiate the smart car from its competitors: efficiency, economy, and reduced environmental footprint. But Goodson and his team applied some oppositional thinking to help the smart car really find its voice. This helped the brand define what it’s against: over-consumption, excess, and thoughtless behavior. This type of strategy gives the brand messaging a little bit more bite.

The smart car brand’s declaration that it’s “against dumb” made me think of a similar branding and messaging campaign, method home products’ people against dirty initiative. (Interesting side note: In doing my research on both smart car and method home products, I couldn’t find a capital letter between them. people against capital letters, perhaps?)

To me, the ‘against dumb’ and ‘against dirty’ initiatives seem to be lightweight, somewhat humorous, and media-driven campaigns – appropriate for the consumer audience they’re both trying to reach. When I try to apply this strategic thinking to some brands closer to home, the subject matter takes on a bit more gravity. We consider both the Red Hat and opensource.com brands mission-driven brands that stand for much more than selling products.

The Red Hat brand (and the open source movement overall) certainly benefited from some oppositional thinking. In the earliest stages of the company’s history, in fact, some might argue that the brand was more well known for what (or who) we stood against than what we stood for.

And company artifacts from that time-period support this theory. Look no further than the Truth Happens video to see Red Hat’s oppositional thinking in action.

Did we run the risk of becoming too oppositional? Perhaps. As the company grew, and gained credibility within the industry and on Wall Street, we shifted our focus from boxed products to the enterprise. Red Hat strategy also shifted. We focused on educating the world about the merits of open source software and the leadership position of our brand and products.

This quote from Goodson’s article rings particularly true, considering that point in the company’s history, and our actions since:

Don't simply take a stand "against" your competition. You may hate your competitor's guts, but nobody else cares; the outside world is looking for you to take on something more meaningful and interesting.”

And that’s really what we’ve tried to do. With few exceptions, we eschew taking pot shots at our competitors and knocking proprietary software down. Instead, we want to tell great stories about our company and our many successes. More importantly, we value when others tell that story for us. In both cases, we focus on the positive aspects of what the Red Hat brand stands for.

Goodson’s assertions reassure me that it’s not an either-or situation. I think the most effective brands figure out how to marry oppositional thinking with an overarching positive and inspirational message, leveraging the strengths of both:

Your campaign, or the movement you're trying to lead, should (not) amount to one big gripe-fest. The conversation you have with the public may start by pointing out something wrong, but ought to move beyond that to offer better alternatives, ideas, and actions you can help people take. If you can do that, it's possible to transform negative energy into a positive force — both for your customers and for your brand.”

I believe the Red Hat brand is well-positioned for this type of approach.

As we conceived and launched opensource.com over the last year, we’ve applied a similar branding philosophy. There are so many great stories about how the open source way is being applied in business, law, government, education, healthcare, and life that it’s easy to generate daily content promoting all of the things we believe in and their merits.

But, upon reflection, our approach hasn’t employed too much oppositional thinking.

So my question to you, dear readers, is this: Are we on the right path? Can we continue to promote the ideals of open source through vehicles like opensource.com, breaking through the clutter and staying the course on the highest of high roads?

Or is it time to take a hard stand and be more aggressive about the alternatives? Will some oppositional thinking spark a more meaningful and broader conversation with the audiences we’re trying to reach?

We're curious what you think. Sound off in the comments below.

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6 Comments

Colin Dodd's picture

The way software patents are abused was a natural thing for anyone who cares about open source to hate, and I've always wished we could make a bigger deal about this issue, and this fight.

It's also a bigger human story, that goes beyond patents, about the use of power and money to stifle sharing and slow the "democratization of information" and it's a pretty black/white, good/bad issue that you can build a lot of good stories around.

We could say clearly that anything that impedes the exchange of ideas is bad, and never run out of ways to show how our company fights and often wins.

The whole patent troll story also sparks other conversations about shared knowledge vs. intellectual property, so it's another natural fit.

However, as a company, our legal team has to decide how we handle and speak about these issues. It's a situation where battling on the specifics in court (actual patent litigation) necessarily limits what we say about the general subject in public arenas. Also, Red Hat holds its own software patents (albeit defensively), so that takes some explaining.

That's the line Red Hat has to walk.

Opensource.com, as a forum, should be a safe place to talk about these issues, and take a strong stand against the abusers of software patents, but it shouldn't be (and can't be) a soapbox exclusively for Red Hat.

Still, if there's one big thing we can take a stand against, it seems to me, it's got to be patent trolling or any abuse of intellectual property law that limits the sharing of knowledge, expertise, information, etc.

There's nothing especially radical about taking this position, but figuring out how our brands interact with these issues is tricky.

RemyD's picture
Open Source Evangelist

The story of our Movement has been traditionally one of oppositional thinking, and underdoggedness. Fighting proprietary lock-in, predatory intellectual property policy, and monopolistic business and collusion. One of Red Hat's strongest branding messages is a Ghandi Quote seen hanging in various places, both online and physically in the Westford Offices:

"First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

This statement really sums up life in Opensource, pre-S&P 500. For the average technologist at this point, Opensource has arrived. The days of oppositional marketing are somewhat passe. Companies now try to "band wagon" and "double speak" their way into the hearts and minds of our community by claiming they are doing it Open, not by decrying  themselves as oppositional to Freedom! With the rise in popularity of open web technologies, wikis, new distros, and social coding communities, brand differentiation, for me, really falls to showing the high-road of Software Freedom--and how that particular freedom begets Freedom of Information, Expression, and others--as you move from the bit-level higher up the stack.

As a community, we want (and need) to "Be the change we want to see the in the world", to borrow another Ghandi quote. Telling that story is not a slogan campaign, or a marketing appeal, or gimmicky 'don't think of an elephant' messaging: Walking your own talk, is the highest high road.

Remy DeCausemaker
Research Associate
Lab for Technological Literacy
Center for Student Innovation
Building 87-1680
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY 14623

mchua's picture
Open Source Evangelist

Stand against problems, not companies or people. After all, it's not the companies or people we dislike; it's what they're doing, and if they were to turn around and change their actions, we'd welcome them as friends.

I think Colin hit on a good theme when pointing out that we're against "anything that impedes the exchange of ideas" - perhaps something like "Every human being in the world should be able to instantly share their ideas with any other human being, without fear. This isn't the case. Let's fix it." (This isn't quite it - it misses aspects of remixability and actually doing something with the ideas instead of just thinking about them, but perhaps it's a start.)

This is actually a nice counterpoint to something like Wikipedia's missoin, actually - they want to give all people access to all human knowledge, we'd like to extend that and give all people the ability to contribute to it. Making. Discovery. Invention.

Unidentified's picture

I'm glad your not run by a billionare-college-dropout!

gscarborough's picture
Open Minded

I have long admired Red Hat for sticking to a set of ideals that promote openness. However, Red Hat's brand took a bit of a beating recently. I am referring to the decision to change the style of source code Red Hat publishes for the kernel. I can completely understand the reasoning behind the decision. However, it is absolutely clear that the decision was made based on a business thought process, with no regard for branding or ideals. I have to wonder if the people who made the decision asked themselves a few simple questions. Is this change in keeping with the ideals of the company? Will this change hurt more people than we intend? Will this change have the actual intended impact that we want? To me at least, the decision seems poorly thought out.

Its kind of hard to promote brand when the company your promoting goes and does something that is completely opposite to their ideals. Is Red Hat still within the terms of the GPL? I guess. But they are surely less open about the kernel than they used to be. Sometimes holding on to one's ideals means taking a hit in other regards. Ghandi was revered because he stuck to his ideals no matter the cost. For a company that has his quotes hanging around, you obviously forgot about that when changing the kernel source code.

craigharffey's picture
Open Source Evangelist

I think it's incredibly hard for a company to maintain its public persona as it grows from small to large and it seems inevitable that big brands eventually incur the public's scorn.

When you start up (and my fledgling company is in this space now) your passion, ideals and vision define your brand, yet as a firm grows that founding passion becomes diluted, those ideals cost too much and your vision stops matching your board's.

This is the path every firm wants to avoid, but reading the tech press it seems a well-trodden one. Almost all of the current technology powerhouses (Google, Facebook, Dell, IBM, Microsoft, [insert your fave here]) polarise opinion in a way other industries don't and I think it's because technology fans are more engaged by definition than other consumers.

For open source this is amplified to near zealotry; for example fans shunned Red Hat because they started looking "corporate"; some switched to Ubuntu and are probably now looking around for a new fave because their new desktop looks less geeky than before - you truly can't please all of the people all of the time. We love a plucky scrapper until they do too well then we tend to look for the next one.

Whilst this may sound a little negative and depressing, I believe that our open culture, as it spreads throughout the mainstream, will seed the change. Only a more collaborative, open business world will break this cycle as firms stop squabbling with each other and instead focus fully on finding value for their customers.