Free user development of a “marketing method": community brands

Although free innovators give their innovations away rather than sell them, they can still be interested in marketing methods for a number of reasons. Innovation communities may, for example, wish to advertise for contributors to join their efforts. According to Dahlander (2007, 930), "at times of stiff competition between communities, attracting a base of users and developers is not easy.” In addition, they may wish to increase the diffusion of their innovations, motivated by one or more of the various forms of self-reward I discussed in chapter 5.

One example of innovation in marketing methods by free innovators is the use of everyday activities to generate powerful brands at no incremental cost. A brand is a "name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competition” (Kotler 1997, 443). In legal terms, a brand is a trademark. Brands and marketing methods are typically associated with sellers, as in Kotler's definition. However, it is clear that the functions of a brand with respect to identifying the developer of an innovation and that innovators' reputation for quality would be useful to potential adopters of free innovations as well.

Studies show that open source software development communities generate their own powerful brands at no cost by simply creating and displaying a logo or a trademark with which people associate positive experiences both within and outside the community. How does this work? Consider that the general mechanism behind the strengthening and the shaping of brands involves linking similar positive associations to brand names or symbols within the minds of many potential customers (Edwards 1990; Zajonc 1968; Keller 1993). If the effort required to embed mental associations in the minds of many is undertaken for that special purpose and is expensive as in the case of many producers' marketing campaigns— it is not cheap to hire a famous athlete to pose at the top of a mountain holding a branded can of soda—the creation of a brand will be expensive. If, however, the stimulus for a broadly shared mental association arises as a side effect of activities or experiences undertaken for other purposes, brand creation can be costless.

Collaborative free innovation projects often adopt names and logos to demark their projects (for example, the Apache feather, the Linux penguin). As a consequence, community contributors will have the shared experience of working on innovations and interacting with like-minded others with a clear association to the community's logo and name. In the course of their activities, they gain rich positive experiences that are associated with the community and that contain elements similar to those experienced by other community members. The resulting shared mental associations, gained as a byproduct of common activities, should function to costlessly create and strengthen a brand.

In work reported by Fuller, Schroll, and von Hippel (2013), two colleagues and I tested this idea by conducting an empirical study of brand strength of Apache and Microsoft Web server software. We found that Apache was the stronger brand both within the Apache community and outside it with respect to that type of software. Interviews with Apache Foundation leaders documented that there was no investment made by Apache to specifically to create or strengthen the Apache brand. This is not a single-case phenomenon, nor is it restricted to open source software. Pitt, Watson, Berthon, Wynn, and Zinkhan (2006) note that the open source movement has produced a series of well- known brands, including Linux and Mozilla Firefox. More generally, Cova and White (2010) term communities that create their own brands "alter-brand" communities.

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