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.