A divided foundation

24. A divided foundation

In times of rapid change, high-tech organisations often sink or swim depending on their skills in marketing. Done right, marketing brings about a focus of attention; it coordinates and unleashes productive energies from partners, customers, developers, and employees. In this chapter, I point out various problems with the marketing dimension of the Symbian Foundation. These problems helped lead to the failure of that organisation. However, I’d like to start this chapter by saying that there was a lot of clever thinking behind the Foundation’s marketing initiatives – especially at the start.

Part of the intention behind the Foundation’s marketing campaigns was to communicate the message that “things are different now”:

  • The Foundation was not just a continuation of Symbian Ltd, with its emphasis on profitability
  • The new organisation would kindle a huge new flame of innovation and contribution
  • Rather than “corporate values” reigning supreme, the Foundation would celebrate openness and creativity.

This transformation chimed with a message I had spoken about several times over the years at various Symbian events. The ideas came from the 2001 book by Finnish academic Pekka Himanen, “The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age”. Himanen, backed up by a foreword in the book by none other than Linux creator Linus Torvalds, had contrasted a modern “hacker ethic” from the conventional “classical work ethic”. The latter emphasised money, work, optimality, flexibility, stability, determinacy, and result accountability. In contrast, the former emphasised passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring, and creativity.

For the Symbian Foundation, the aim, in effect, was to preserve the merits of the classical work ethic, while giving special prominence to the hacker ethic. In support of the new culture:

  • The organisation commissioned its own set of fonts, drawn in a playful, almost childlike manner
  • We avoided corporate-sounding job titles such as “CFO” or “CMO” or “CTO” or “Vice President”. Instead, for example, I took the job title “Catalyst and Futurist”
  • Alongside our fonts, we adopted a zany set of cartoon imagery, for use in our slide presentations. These included doodles that became known as “fish megaphone”, “Mr. Switch”, “jetpack moo”, “disco duck”, “ideas toaster”, “tennis ball bird”, and “friendly spaceman”.

I felt a special affinity with the picture of friendly spaceman, setting out on a warm-hearted exploration of exciting new worlds. When the time came for each of the leadership team of the Foundation to choose a character image to appear on their business cards, alongside their names, I quickly chose the spaceman. Today, that spaceman adorns the cover picture of this book. The same cover picture also features a more controversial image: the Symbian Foundation heart – dubbed by one blogger as “the ugliest logo ever”.

The heart of innovation

The leadership team of the newly created Symbian Foundation thought long and hard about which logo to use for the Foundation. To emphasise our break with the past, there was no question of keeping the logo of Symbian Ltd (designed in 1998 by Jens Lundgaard of Globus Media). It was time for a change. In discussions between Annabel Cooke and Anatolie Papas of the Foundation’s marketing team, and external consultants Landor, the phrase “Symbian enables innovation at the heart” set some ideas in motion. Thus was born a simple heart-shaped cartoon logo, drawn in a bold shade of yellow. (Perhaps mischievously, that logo still remains on the Symbian Foundation area of LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/company/255850.)

Annabel took some pictures of our branding ideas to a so-called “underground” gathering of mobile developers in London. These developers were writing apps for the iPhone or Android, rather than Symbian. The feedback they gave was encouraging:

I like the “handwritten” font. It really softens the image of the organisation and makes it feel more open and approachable – so very appropriate to the new mission…

I do love the new brand you’ve created. I think it’s not too corporate, fresh and distinctive. It also gives you the flexibility with the font and graphics but you know it’s all representing the same brand, great work. You never know but it’d certainly make an interesting case study for the Chartered Institute of Marketing…

About the logo: personally I really like it. I was starting to get bored of the shiny web 2.0 type logos with reflections and bevelled edges. I was wondering what was going to come next, now that everyone has learned how to do that in Photoshop…

The hand drawn feel is nice and refreshing, to me it says: not corporate, open, and personal (and possibly: simple – in a good way). Maybe most importantly for me, it’s not at all what I expected Symbian to come up with. I have to admit, I respect Symbian devices for their internals, but I’ve always thought that they seriously let themselves down when it comes to user experience, and I’m still kind of annoyed that they didn’t produce a device that was as easy to use as the iPhone several years ago. But this is a great start and I can’t wait to see what happens to the Series 60 user interface if the same values are applied to it…

The new Symbian brand I saw last night was very untraditional for a technology brand: the lettering was clearly hand drawn, and the shape behind it was irregular, creating a very humanistic impression instead of the usual mechanical font and logo perfection. There was a strong component of appealing to the young male technology-oriented demographic by using comic-book inspired extrusion for the lettering, but the logo was using the most gravitas-imbuing version of it: capitals viewed from below, known from superhero logos. The heart shape creates a contrast to that masculine image, jarring me into wondering what it wants to convey. The colouring also steps away from the traditional business palette, clearly stating that this brand does not see itself as technology business as usual. I found the whole combination intriguing, making me want to know more about what this brand and company I thought I knew…

Not all the feedback was so positive. An executive from a Japanese company that had long been a supporter of Symbian complained that people would imagine that the new Symbian was a dating agency (or worse), with its apparent “lonely heart” logo. Industry commentator Michael Mace gave his opinion in a blogpost, http://mobileopportunity.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/ugliest-logo-ever-but-maybe-it-makes.html:

The ugliest logo ever, but maybe it makes sense

Logo creation is a thankless task. Almost all of the interesting shapes and doodles were trademarked years ago. Unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on artists and lawyers, and a lot of time, you usually settle on using your company name with no artwork at all.

Or you can take the approach adopted by the newly-formed Symbian Foundation, keeper of the Symbian OS…

I’ve already gone through a couple of stages of reaction to the logo. The first was horror. Not only is the font something out of 1974, but the color is one of the least popular in the world (step outside and count how many yellow cars you can see). I know I’ve seen uglier logos in the past, but I can’t remember where, probably because I tried to block out the memory…

Once I got over my reaction, I reminded myself that the folks at Symbian are smart and very deliberate. Let’s assume they have a good reason for choosing this logo. What would it be, and what would it tell us about the company and its business strategy?

The new Symbian is an open source software project. They need to appeal to open source developers, many of whom have a reflexive hatred toward slick and calculated marketing. After all, these are the sort of folks who, when allowed to choose their own logos, spontaneously chose a fat, stoned-looking penguin and a drunken ox…

To the open source community, Symbian has historically been kind of an antichrist – controlled by some of the biggest tech firms in the world, bureaucratic, closed, and incredibly complex. If you’re going to win over the open source crowd, you have to overcompensate by being excessively informal, friendly and “childlike.” (That’s Symbian’s word for it, not mine.)

I am wondering, though, what they’ll do when it’s time to use the logo for something other than just decorating a website. OS logos are generally used as compatibility marks. In that role they need to be displayed on screen, and preferably printed on the back of the phone, to let the user know that he or she can run Symbian applications on the device.

Picture a meeting where the folks at Symbian try to convince a product manager at Nokia or Samsung or Sony Ericsson that they should print that logo on the backs of their phones, or that it should be displayed prominently on the screen. I don’t think it’ll go over very well…

The bottom line is that any logo artless enough to please the open source community would be problematic as a marketing tool. As is often the case in marketing, you can’t please all your audiences, so you can either be universally bland or you can optimize for one audience. I think the folks at Symbian decided that open source street cred is the thing they need most.

And maybe they’re right.

Within a couple of months, the heart was gone. Bowing to external pressure, Executive Director Lee Williams decided it had been a mistake. Instead of a yellow heart, we would simply use the block-lettered word “SYMBIAN” for our logo.

This was far from being the only volte-face in the Symbian Foundation’s approach to the market.

[ SNIP ]

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