I had a great lunch on Tuesday with John Adams from the Red Hat Brand team - he's one of the main guys responsible for maintaining Red Hat's corporate personality and presence, and I was curious about how he'd see POSSE as a brand of its own. Notes follow, posted with John's permission. As a technical person who has no formal training in marketing or branding, getting to see how John thought about these sorts of topics was an education in itself.

Initial questions

Before lunch, I'd emailed John with two questions:

  1. What are the metrics you can use to tell if a brand is healthy - and is the POSSE brand healthy?
  2. Where should we be positioning the POSSE brand, and what sort of next-steps can we take to grow it?

We didn't necessarily follow these questions explicitly, but they set up the structure of thinking we went into lunch to. John also carried a printout of our education strategy's "pitch to professors" for the POSSE Basics class this summer.

Is POSSE a brand?

The first question John asked was whether POSSE was a brand at all (as opposed to, I suppose, an idea or a product or something that didn't have its own distinct identity). We decided the answer was yes - POSSE is talked about as an entity of its own. It's interwoven with things like Teaching Open Source, Red Hat, etc., but ultimately, POSSE stands by itself.

How do users define the brand?

After chatting with John, we ended up sifting 3 main things that seemed like the core of the POSSE brand as I've watched it take shape on the TOS lists and conversations with professors when visiting schools and conferences - I'm curious whether they resonate with you.

  1. An open project. Open content, open infrastructure, open decision-making - there's a feedback culture and the program is amenable to being poked and shaped and guided by whoever's interested; it's not locked away and only touchable by those on high. Even if most of the work is done by a very small group of people, the opportunity to participate as deeply in the building-of-POSSE as one would like is always there. In short, we try to run POSSE the open source way.
  2. A cultural immersion experience. It's not really about software, technical skill, tools and infrastructure, or process training - those things show up in POSSE and they're certainly important, but if that's all folks get out of the workshop, we might as well just write a book for folks to memorize. What we're trying to transmit in POSSE is a paradigm, a way of thinking - and we want graduates to be able to operate independently in open source communities and teach themselves more by doing along the way. It's the difference between memorizing 1000 Chinese characters for a test and walking through Beijing chatting with your Chinese friend in broken Mandarin about how to order noodle soup.
  3. Academically legitimate. POSSE is something designed to weave into the existing teaching, publishing, etc. life of a professor - it should strengthen and enrich things you're already doing, rather than give you yet another separate project to pile on top of your already overloaded plate. And it should be recognized by students, colleagues, and administrators as such.

After reading these notes, Elaine Chapin (also from Red Hat Brand) remarked that "the bit about 'entry pathway into teaching open source" seemed to jump off the page to me as a well phrased summary of the value prop," so perhaps that's something to run with more.

Brand rocket pitch

John described a mad-libs-like exercise the brand group will sometimes do. How do you fill in the blanks for this sentence?

POSSE is a ______ that offers _______ to _______ because _______.

The first blank is about the arena you define yourself as being part of. For instance, the Carolina Hurricanes can position their hockey games in the hockey space, the professional sports space, the buddy-bonding-event space, the Saturday-night-Raleigh-entertainment space - and the space they choose determines what their competition is. So is POSSE...

  1. A source of real-world classroom projects? (Not primarily; there are tons of those; there are easier ways for students to get hands-on experience - internships, for instance.)
  2. An opportunity to work with industry? (Nah, see above.)
  3. A faculty growth and development experience? (Maybe - especially for faculty interested in getting students to be self-directed learners
    in a collaboration-rich environment... it's not quite right yet, but I think it's closer than the other two.)
  4. How else would you phrase it?

The second blank is what you're offering within that arena. Some options could be to say that the POSSE offering is...

  1. An open source cultural immersion.
  2. A workshop.
  3. A self-study path.
  4. A supplementary classroom activity.
  5. One possible entrance route into a community of faculty interested in teaching open source.
  6. What else - and which ones of these resonate the most with you?

The third blank is about audience. This one is pretty easy - the audience of POSSE is academics, faculty members. But this does mean that things like "POSSE for Industry" is a misnomer - if we want to adapt the curriculum for another audience, we should call it something else.

The fourth blank is about "points of differentiation," which I'm still a little fuzzy on, but my best stab at explaining it is "what, exactly, makes this offering a great one for the audience in the space we're working with?" This would be things like:

  • turnkey infrastructure
  • access to course funding
  • ongoing remote modules throughout the school year
  • the opportunity to write a book chapter about your course

This is a good thought exercise, especially the first blank - what is POSSE's competition? I'm curious what people think.

Measuring and growing a brand

Assorted notes, recommendations, and bits of wisdom from John on how we can think about branding:

  • Be consistent. Be consistent. Be consistent. Be the same thing, give the same message, year after year after year. It's going to sound boring to you first, since you say it over and over - but it's not going to be boring to your audience.
  • Think about associations with other brands and both the good and bad things they bring to the table. In this case, there's Teaching Open Source - a neutral, academically-oriented space - which is great - but also not a very strong brand... it's never really been defined, and not a lot of folks outside the community itself will recognize it. Red Hat, on the up side, adds plenty of credibility and weight since Red Hat is a Real Company and an open source thought leader and such with a strong brand; on the down side, POSSE could also be seen as corporate manipulation, Red Hat's marketing mouthpiece, and "tainted" with profit-thinking and non-neutrality. (John and I talked about POSSE being "a Red Hat community service" as a good positioning for this - it's a gift we give, and part of giving a gift is letting it go and not controlling it.)
  • Three things to measure. This can be done formally if you like, but also informally.
  1. Awareness. Does your intended user base know about it? (This depends on the space you choose to position the brand within - for instance, if the space is "faculty workshop," how many professors would name "POSSE" on a list of faculty workshops? If you reminded them about POSSE, how many would go "oh yeah, POSSE, I've heard of that before!"?)
  2. Consideration. If they know about it, would they actually try it? Is it appealing? ("I've heard of POSSE but I'd never go to one..." or "now that you describe it, I'd love to do that"?)
  3. Loyalty. How likely are people willing to switch to the competition? (What's the competition?)

Quick assessment: how are we doing?

Quite well. The POSSE brand seems on track for the things we'd like to do with it (provide professors with an entry pathway into teaching open source). Yay! We're doing things right!

What's next?

Suggested next-actions to build and clarify our brand-fu a bit more.

  1. Fill in the mad libs exercise - the hardest part will be "what space are we playing in?"
  2. Decide if there's anything about the branding we want to change, and make those changes now, early on - if we need a logo refresh, a font choice, etc. we should do that before we have thousands of people spreading our old stuff around.
  3. Any other ideas?

Many thanks to John for his time and ideas!