Every so often I hear someone assert something along the lines of: "Distro X doesn't customize KDE's look and feel and instead sticks mostly to the defaults, which shows distro X doesn't really care / isn't competent / isn't doing enough to differentiate itself." At that moment the person has betrayed an interesting bias they have: they perceive the F/OSS space as the arena for competition, where Distro X is supposed to win over Distro Y and that's what really matters.
But is it?
When trying to build recognizable brand, consistency is important. Microsoft does it with Windows and their IHV ecosystem, Google with their Android handset manufacturers and Coca-Cola with their global distributors, to name but three in a see of thousands. In each case there are many companies at the "leaf nodes" of the distribution network which create products that contain Microsoft's, Google's, Coca-Cola's, etc. special sauce. The products, while differentiated, are also recognizable as being part of Microsoft's, Google's and Coca-Cola's brand all the same. This is critical for building an effective, recognizable brand which average people can and do build a relationship with. It is what people make decisions based on.
What about us? Well, we have a handful of "top tier" F/OSS end-user distributions, several dozen lesser known groups (who actually out-sell and out-ship the top tier distros for desktops, interestingly enough) and hundreds of "C listers". They all share the relatively small "F/OSS desktop" ecosystem.
This puts a choice before us: to aggregate brand or create distinct brands.
The aggregation choice goes something like this: we can aggregate the brand power of all of these groups together to create a brand that is unique and recognizable and which people can, and will, build a relationship with. Such a brand is much more resilient to one distribution or another jumping the shark (which happens from time to time in F/OSS). It also leads to the creation of common goals for us all to work towards and makes it easier, as a result, to work together; this is a bonus in addition to the chance for a larger and more effective brand footprint.
The distinct brands choice goes something like this: each distribution can attempt to build their own brand, hoping to achieve enough consistency, enough market share and enough of a compelling story over time on their own to create significant value. This has the side effect of increasing the tension between distributions since it puts them in direct competition over our own "heartland": the minds and loyalty of people already using F/OSS as well as those who might in the future choose to do so. So not only does it mean a smaller, more confusing and ultimately innefectual brand footprint in the general market, it also means higher tension between those who would benefit most by cooperating to grow the overall shared market position of F/OSS.
It comes down to a choice between competing with each other as strongly as we can or competing together for the vote of those who may use F/OSS. It means choosing whether our loyalty is primarily with F/OSS or primarily with Distro X. It means choosing whether we want a distinguished brand we all share or a hundred distinct brands each with little if any value.
At the end of the day, competing successfully with Apple or Microsoft has as much to do with the form and functionality of the software we ship as it does with our attitude towards each other and how we present ourselves as a whole to the world at large.
Which is why I feel that those who push for and praise distribution differentiation through distinct visual branding are engaged in an act of sabotage against F/OSS. What makes this tragic is that this is not their intention in the least and the act is, in that sense, completely innocent. The effect, however, is no less for that innocence. The question is: can our eyes be opened?
I don't think the distributions that engage in this kind of behavior will ever see the light on their own unless we, their supporters and users, speak clearly to them. This is not because these distributions are "evil" or any such thing: no, they are simply driven by natural incentives which push them naturally towards this end. Those of us not in the vocation (or avocation) of building distributions are the check and the balance to that result. Instead of damning a distributor for working together with others and building common brand value, praise them. Instead of praising the short sighted efforts of distributors who erode the common brand value in preference to their own interests at cost to all (including themselves!), provide (constructive) feedback that opposes such attitudes and, if need be, vote with your feet.