Emotional Branding in Open Source

The power of a brand lies in its ability to communicate core product attributes to consumers and evoke an emotional reaction from them. Every marketer knows that emotions can drive purchase decisions and so, a brand that is able to evoke them effectively has a strong market advantage over its competitors. Apple is one of the best in the game at this: the emotions evoked by the brand are so powerful that the company is able to sell its products at a significant premium over its competitors, even though competing products may boast more bells and whistles.

Emotional Branding and Open Source

This type of emotional branding has been in use for many years in customer-facing industries such as automobiles (Ferrari and its sports cars, Volkswagen and its Beetle), but it’s just beginning to gain traction in Open Source product marketing. This is because, for many years, Open Source firms have focused mostly on communicating the technical features and business benefits of their products to end-users, rather than attempting to build strong emotional connections with them.

Today, however, Open Source marketers have realized that end-users aren’t just interested in technical specifications; they’re also taking buying decisions based on more emotional reasons such as ease of use, elegance, social acceptability and community engagement. And so, Open Source marketing is evolving as well, with more and more Open Source firms writing emotional taglines and carving out emotional positioning territory for themselves. Look at the CMS marketplace, for example, and you’ll see WordPress promising “beautiful sites”, Magnolia offering “simplicity”, and Drupal highlighting its “community”.

Reasons for Emotional Branding

There are a number of reasons why a mature Open Source firm should consider an emotional branding strategy:

Differentiation: As the marketplace becomes more competitive, with many products offering the same basic functionality, a firm must seek new ways to differentiate itself from competitors. A purely technical messaging strategy will not work, as other products in the marketplace will offer the same or similar features. An emotional brand provides a way for the firm to build a brand identity that is different from its competitors, and carve out emotional territory for itself. If it is successful, it will gain an advantage over competitors that have not yet begun emotional branding.

Identity: Emotional branding helps to imbue a software product with a life and personality of its own, distinct from its feature set. As an analogy, contrast describing a human being purely on physical attributes (two eyes, two ears, one mouth…) versus personality (handsome, joyful, elegant, …), and you’ll realize that the latter offers more meaningful insight than the former. In the same way, creating an emotional brand for a product helps give it a distinct identity and personality that is reflective of the parent company and also allows users to enter into an emotional relationship with it.

Community: An emotional brand helps with community development by creating excitement and enthusiasm. For example, by using a friendly green robot as its primary brand identity, Google has created a personality (user friendly, fun, innovative…) for Android that allows it to attract and excite even non-technical users and thereby motivate them to build a relationship with the product. This community is critical for bottom-up adoption and word-of-mouth marketing; it also motivates partners and staff.

Emotional Brand Architecture

In general, emotional messaging and branding works as a layer on top of current category- and feature-based messaging. The basic idea is simple: focus on the user rather than the technology in order to communicate the emotional aspect of the brand. This emotional brand identity is communicated through the visual identity and copy style of the brand, and by using product images alongside product features to “humanize” the brand (and avoid plain vanilla stock photos).

It’s also important to realize that emotional branding is not just about positioning the brand externally, but also has a relationship with the internal culture of the company. The emotional brand needs to resonate well with the corporate culture, because it’s important that everyone in the company should feel comfortable when communicating the brand externally. As any brand manager knows, consistent messaging and images requires thorough review (so-called “brand policing”), but the more the emotional brand is in sync with the company, the lower the cost of ensuring consistent communications. Syncing the brand identity with the corporate culture is even more important for organizations in Open Source due to a higher degree of transparent communication.


As the Open Source marketplace evolves and categories become more and more crowded, emotional branding provides a way for a firm to regain its competitive advantage. By building an emotional relationship with new and existing customers, it can speed product adoption, shorten the sales cycle and build a loyal following for its product. Emotional branding also provides a springboard for the firm to take its marketing activities to new levels, by connecting with consumers and making its Open Source product brand stand out.

Brands Develop Over Time

All too often, companies think of branding as a one-time effort: they define the market positioning, create a brand and logo to reflect this positioning, and then take this brand into the world. All marketing activities that follow from this – advertising, public relations, promotions, customer communication – are based upon the defined brand identity. The truth is that brands develop over time and while they mature, the messaging needs to be revised.

Brands Reflect Perceptions (and Vice-Versa)

A brand is special, because it is an identity constructed in our minds and it creates an emotional as well psychological connection between the company and its customers. Each customer is likely to interpret the same brand in a subtly different manner. Thus, a brand isn’t a “one size fits all” representation of a company; rather, it is the composite of multiple individual perceptions and emotions. As Daryl Travis, in his book Emotional Marketing, notes “…a brand isn’t a brand to you until it develops an emotional connection with you.”

What many companies forget is that a brand is a living entity. Just as a brand shapes customers perceptions, it too is shaped by perceptions – both of its customers and of its staff. And as a company learns more about itself over time, as it begins to look at itself from different perspectives, its brand too must evolve and reflect this additional knowledge and intelligence.

A Few Examples

If you take a look at some software brands, you’ll clearly see this evolutionary process taking place. Here are some examples:

  • Apple‘s original logo (pre-1976) depicted Sir Isaac Newton under an apple tree. However, this was soon replaced with the famous “bitten apple” silhouette, which had cleaner lines…perhaps intended to highlight’s Apple’s clean, smooth designs. Initially filled with rainbow colors, the logo has evolved into a monochrome design – first black and then the current transparent/glass version. In short, as Apple’s unique design culture has emerged and as customers have also begun to recognize (and expect) cutting-edge design from Apple, the brand has evolved to match and reflect these expectations.
  • Another interesting example is SugarCRM which, back in 2004, had a tagline describing it as “commercial open source customer relationship management”. However, as time has passed and the CRM category has become well established, the company has dropped this explanatory tagline from its brand identity. The cube-shaped logo is a relatively recent addition, and perhaps is intended to represent how its product brings together different facets of information to create profiles of customer relationships.

The Evolution of Identity

A brand’s identity typically goes through the following phases, which usually manifest in the taglines you find in Website headers or advertising slogans:

  1. A young brand needs to be explained, thus a category-style tagline is chosen (just like SugarCRM did in its early days, see above).
  2. The brand has established itself in its category, the company has a strong identity and changes its tagline to an emotional one (think Apple’s “Think Different” slogan).
  3. The brand is the leader in its category and has a high visibility, the tagline is abandoned because the brand now speaks for itself (Apple or Amazon.com nowadays).

An analogy would be to compare brands with human beings. For example, when introducing yourself, you tell the other person your name, why you are there and perhaps what you do – just like in the first phase of a young brand. The better someone knows you, the more they will be able to decide how they want to relate to you and whether to enter a (private/business) relationship. The deeper the relationship, the more important emotions become. Once you and a related group know someone really well, you won’t have to explain to the group who e.g. “Marc” is, because they know him, thus the personal brand speaks for itself.

Given that brands are constructed in our minds, this analogy is actually quite powerful, because we are social beings and the way our mind works when it relates to something is greatly influenced by how we build relationships with other human beings.


What does this mean for you, the Open Source vendor? Simply this: as your product and your market evolves, you need to occasionally step back to refine and focus your brand strategy. In most cases, any changes you end up making to your brand strategy will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, reflecting the changes in knowledge and perception that have accrued to the company over the preceding period. Doing this every two to three years will help ensure that your brand is relevant and in tune with the needs, expectations and perceptions of your customers and yourself. Essentially, your brand will go through different phases of its identity, just like a human being does as it grows older.