I figured I would start with the topic of branding as it is a fairly simple topic .. a nice way to ease into this little adventure. It's also a topic that has been getting increasing amounts of attention in the Free software communities in the last few years as products become more successful, projects progress and more companies appear on the scene.
So where does KDE stand on branding?
Brand as ReflectionBranding is used to communicate a message to the outside world. "What message?" is the million dollar question. Some use branding as a way to project an image of what they wish to be, sometimes without concern about whether that is reality or not. Some use branding simply as an abstract identifier that says "This is us" without embodying a given message. Others use branding to reflect the core values and ideas that exist independently of the branding. I like to think of these respectively as image, identification and reflection branding.
(I'm sure professionals in the marketing space who specializing in branding are ready to choke me right about now .. ;)
KDE has elected for the sort of branding that reveals inner realities. This means that there is extremely limited pressure from the branding efforts to alter the core products, values or community. Instead the evolution of KDE itself puts pressure on the branding, causing it to adjust with time to accurately reflect what KDE is right now and the direction the efforts are heading in.
This is why a few years back we chose to no longer use the term "KDE" to refer to the software itself, but rather the community. KDE is the people. The things they make, all that lovely software, art, documentation .. those things have proper names. This is not where KDE started 15 years ago, but what it became.
Brand as Permission
Sometimes KDE uses branding in a rather unorthodox way: as permission. When we took the name "KDE" away from our desktop offering (now referred to as Plasma Desktop) it gave us permission to reconsider the relationship between the libraries, the desktop and the applications. Up until that point there were two recurring sets of tensions.
A growing number of application developers were actively trying to distance themselves from the name "KDE" so that people wouldn't mistakenly think that the attributes of the "KDE desktop" reflected on their work, or that you could only use their app in "KDE" (the desktop environment).
We also undervalued our library assets. They existed simply to let us write applications. We released them in one big lump along with our applications, in fact. This kept many people from using the libraries and tied us to some very uncomfortable release scheduling attributes in which we had to release the core platform with the desktop (and the applications).
When we reworked what the "KDE" brand meant we were able to find the path to resolving these issues and now we are looking at the next major release of libraries happening independent from the desktop or applications, allowing greater access to them, and our application developer community is stronger and more tightly connected than ever.
I think this is a fascinating, and very non-traditional, use of branding and shows that KDE understands that the words we use can shape how we think.
While there have been changes in the last years to the brand positioning, the KDE brand has also retained a core consistency: that unmistakable blue, the gear, the K .. the "KDE-ness" of the websites, release announcements, the public support campaign. We've even kept our mascots, Konqi and Katie, though they have evolved too.
As with KDE's products, the brand evolves in a relatively consistent line forward. This is critical for our partners and our users who really don't need to deal with constantly changing directions. This is simply another way that the branding reflects the thing it represents.
Brand as Collaboration
KDE isn't only about the KDE brand, however. We've seen some fantastic brands crop up from within KDE over the years. Amarok was perhaps one of the earlier such brands, and these days it is joined by such names as Kontact, Calligra, Krita, Marble, Plasma and more. The relationship between the KDE brand and these brands is refreshing: KDE does not aim to control these brands nor inflict changes on them to "better reflect" KDE (whatever that would mean) or to fall into line with the desktop offering, for instance.
Rather, the various teams within KDE collaborate through social interaction to find harmonies as well as independence. This results in separately identifiable identities for each team, though they magically end up echoing unifying principles both visually and in content.
Modifications to the shared branding has also been done through a (admittedly slow) process of collaboration. This has preserve harmony over the long haul even during times of change, something people tend to dislike on an instinctual level.
As a result, we have a rather healthy valuation and respect for the brands internally. Companies are actively discouraged from trying to exclusively appropriate brands that were developed in the community. As a result companies around KDE that do use KDE branding tend to do so collaboratively with both the community and other companies, which simply opens more opportunities and lowers the risk of conflict.
It isn't all insular, inward looking work either. We have worked with downstream packagers in the past to do special editions of our wallpapers to fit their identities while echoing our upstream art direction. Which brings me to:
When KDE has had to choose between communicating our brand and respecting the freedom of others to modify our work, we've tended to lean in the direction of freedom. That freedom has an interesting impact on efforts such as artwork: we try to create the most beautiful thing we can so that our partners have no reason to modify it much. Our art team has gone out of its way to create a stunning visual identity encompassing icons, widget theme, color schemes and even a font. They've even brought this identity to toolkits other than the one we use (Qt) so that when you run application written with these other toolkits the user still gets a consistent look and feel. Our visual identity is therefore preserved by striving for quality and by being inclusive.
This is an interesting, and positive, result of respecting a certain amount of plasticity in the branding.
Branding as Not Everything
There is a theme in all of the above: branding is not everything. It always bends to, and reflects, the things we consider as more important, to be of more value: community, technology, openness, freedom. This has undoubtedly come at a certain cost to KDE's brand effectiveness, but it also contributes to the sustainability of KDE's efforts in the long term.
.. because maybe .. just maybe .. branding isn't everything, and shouldn't be allowed to push and shove around the more important things. That is something I believe you can count on in KDE for a long time to come.