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“Branding without walls”: Mozilla’s open-source rebrand

Founded in 2005, Mozilla is a not-for-profit organisation which makes open-source, free to use software including web browser Firefox and programming tool Thimble Code Editor. It also runs educational programmes to improve internet literacy, hosting Maker Parties and coding clubs around the world, and carries out advocacy work – in 2013, it launched a campaign demanding a full account of the NSA’s monitoring of online data and communications and more recently, it has supported campaigns defending net neutrality (the principle that ISPs cannot discriminate against or block certain types of content on the internet).

Firefox now has hundreds of millions of users over desktop and mobile devices but Mozilla’s advocacy and educational work is less well-known. The brand has struggled to differentiate itself from its most popular product and raise awareness of other projects it’s involved in. In an attempt to tackle this, the company has decided to rebrand and is working with johnson banks to develop a new identity and positioning.

While most branding projects are carried out behind closed doors, Mozilla is taking the unusual step of documenting the creative process online. It has set up an ‘open design’ blog, where it will post content and invite discussion at each stage of the rebrand and has already posted a series of articles introducing possible themes for its new positioning. Each post outlines a different theme, with sample copy and a series of brand statements. One positions Mozilla as a fighter, another as a protector of online freedom and another, as ‘change makers’ devoted to creating a better internet for the masses:

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Possible themes for Mozilla’s new positioning, posted on the brand’s open design blog

Mozilla is inviting comments on each concept, asking people to consider the suitability of each theme with regards to the following questions: ‘Does this reflect Mozilla’s promise?’ ‘Does this reinforce the experiences and values Mozilla delivers?’ and ‘Does this communicate the image we want to project?’

After analysing feedback, johnson banks will begin work on the design phase of the project next month. If all goes to plan, Mozilla will share early design concepts in August before announcing the final creative route in September and introducing a new set of guidelines in November. At each stage of the process, the company will invite discussion and online feedback will inform the final solution.

In a blog post explaining the project, Tim Murray, who leads Mozilla’s creative team, says the open-source nature of the rebrand mirrors Mozilla’s open-source approach to its work. (Over 30,000 volunteers contribute to its various products and projects, writing code, translating web pages and organising clubs and meet-ups).

As a former creative director at Target, Murray says he was used to creating brand identities with little input from end users, treating customer focus groups and eye-tracking tests “like a necessary nuisance to validate what our superior experience and intuition dictated as the right design for the brand.”

“We were the experts,” he adds. “Engagement with the rest of our users consisted of them putting the freshly branded product into their shopping basket…. At Mozilla though, our independent maker mindset ignores hierarchical dictats in a constant search for the new. A top-down brand might well be ignored or rejected by the community we champion,” he adds.

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Possible themes for Mozilla’s new positioning, posted on the brand’s open design blog

But while Mozilla is keen to involve its volunteers and the wider online community to contribute to the rebrand, Murray has laid out some strict rules to help ensure the process goes smoothly: “We won’t default to a crowdsourced solution. Engagement will come in the idea generation phase, the critique of the work, and in how it gets used by Mozillians,” he writes. He has also ruled out voting on the final design, adding: “the clicks of the crowd won’t drumpf all.”

The idea to rebrand ‘in the open’ came out of discussions between johnson banks and Mozilla, says Michael Johnson. “[Mozilla’s] initial brief to us had a short section talking about the possibility of working in the open, but as our discussions continued, and we collectively worked out the pros and cons, it just seemed to make sense that since open source code was core to their history, then the design process could be shared too,” he told CR.

In the online world in particular, brands are adopting an increasingly transparent approach to branding – Google’s material design guidelines are outlined in detail on its blog, with updates and refreshes (such as a new Google Fonts, which launched last week), explained in detail by members of its creative team. Airbnb talked openly about its rebrand in 2014, creating an online tool that allowed people to adapt its new logo and responding with good humour to those who likened it to various body parts. New tech start-ups too, from apps to digital banking brands, are recognising the value in ‘open beta’ phases, inviting users to trial and give feedback on early versions of products before their official launch.

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Attendees at an open event hosted by Mozilla to kick off the rebrand
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The kick-off event was hosted during a Mozilla conference and around 150 people turned up to offer feedback on the brand’s new positioning and creative strategy

But for a brand the size of Mozilla, allowing people to actively comment on and shape its new positioning is unheard of. Johnson says he hopes it will help highlight the intricacies of branding, challenging the idea that a rebrand involves little more than creating a new logo (a misconception that often leads to knee-jerk responses to redesigns in mainstream press, something James Greenfield covered on the CR blog back in February).

“It’s pretty shocking how often rebrands get boiled down to symbols and logos and that classic ‘like/don’t like’, ‘polar’ debate. Especially as human beings are pretty much hard wired to resist change, whatever form it takes,” adds Johnson.

“We see it as a positive thing – rather than the inevitable trolling that comes at launch, let’s engage midway, test, discuss, adapt and move forwards – so a more agile process and far more reciprocal. We’re keen to show that the branding process takes twists and turns. Our hypothesis is that inviting in others will be harder but ultimately more lively and generative,” he continues.

Speaking about the problems facing Mozilla’s current branding, Murray says its style guide “consists of a wordmark and a handful of muted colours – creative assets not up to the challenge of modern social communication.”

Mozilla keeps getting tangled up in Firefox, its main product,” he explains. “With the absence of a brand system, our communities and teams have spun up their own logos to celebrate their existence on t-shirts, stickers and website. And our wordmark doesn’t do justice to our fight for a free and open internet.”

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Comments posted on Mozilla’s open design blog responding to themes

Through consulting with its vast network of volunteers and contributors, Mozilla hopes to create a brand identity that will resonate with its core audience and better reflect its focus on internet freedom and accessibility. Responses to articles posted on the open design blog so far include some insightful comments from Mozilla users and contributors (pictured above and below), and supporters were also invited to have their say at an event during a Mozilla conference earlier this month.

“About [150 people] came to our kick-off event … so this has already been really instructive,” says Johnson. “Quite how much of the process/at which point will be shared is still in debate, but there’s some fascinating work gathered in our visual audits so far, so we’ll share some of that soon.”

It’s an approach that would terrify many an in-house creative director – as Johnson acknowledges, we’re unlikely to see mass market consumer brands opening their brands up to the same critique – but it’s a fascinating experiment in rebranding.

“I think a lot of people will watch this closely,” he says. “If it fails it will confirm all their preconceptions. If it succeeds in rebranding an organisation with over a thousand employees and ‘Mozillian’ communities worldwide, well that would be quite something. But it takes a brave management team to do something like this, and I guess a design partner who’s going to stand tall if things get messy. It suits Mozilla to do this but I’m not expecting too many calls from merchant banks who will want to do the same.”

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Another comment evaluating themes posted on Mozilla’s blog. The company will be inviting feedback and discussion at each stage of its rebrand – but says it will not resort to voting or a ‘crowdsourced’ design


You can follow the project at blog.mozilla.org/opendesign and read an article by Michael Johnson about it here.

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