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Better branding for Opera

In search of a clearer corporate image

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by Lawrence Eng
(January 9th, 2005)

(Opera-tan Update: 12/30/07)
(Opera 8 Update: 4/19/05)
(Author Update: 12/30/07)

Summary: To be successful in the new "browser wars", having the best features is not enough. Opera needs to improve its brand image in order to capture a greater market share. Developing a strong image of the company's focus on user-centric innovation and following through with a thematically-unified marketing campaign will help to improve Opera's popularity.

Browsers battle for attention

Microsoft's Internet Explorer continues to receive bad press for its security holes and lack of innovation. More than ever, internet users are switching or thinking about switching to an alternative browser. Two such alternative browsers competing for a larger chunk of the market share are Opera and Firefox. Both have employed various strategies to gain more exposure for themselves. One could say that Opera and Firefox are seeking to establish themselves as brands. What's a brand, and why is it important? Quoted from Wikipedia's entry on branding:

A brand takes the form of a symbolic construct created by a marketer to represent a collection of information about a product or group of products. This symbolic construct typically consists of a name, identifying mark, logo, visual images or symbols, or mental concepts which distinguishes the product or service. A brand often carries connotations of a product's "promise", the product or service's point of difference among its competitors which makes it special and unique. Marketers attempt through a brand to give a product a "personality" or an "image".

As a fan of the Opera browser who wants to see it succeed, I am concerned that Opera's brand image is not strong enough. (Disclaimer: I am not a marketing professional, or even an industry analyst. I am just an everyday Opera user making some observations.) In recent months, Firefox has received much publicity. Since November 9th, 2004, Firefox has been downloaded over 16 million times. While some Opera advocates say that publicity for alternative browsers in general is good for Opera as well, I would contend that users are more likely to gravitate to the software product that presents the strongest brand image, and Firefox is currently winning in that regard.

Technology is not enough

I am not trying to say that the underlying technology behind each browser is unimportant. Personally, I think the Opera browser is a better piece of software than Firefox, at least according to my needs and my philosophy regarding what good software should be. Many people agree with me. I suspect that most people, however, find that Opera and Firefox are more or less equivalent in terms of features, especially since many Opera-like functions can be emulated via Firefox extensions, and each browser seems capable of doing things that the other cannot.

Feature vs. feature comparisons are fun reading for tech-heads like myself, but broader factors (such as brand identity) play strongly into the average user's choice of browser. I think Firefox's brand identity is currently more compelling than that of Opera's, at least in the United States, giving Firefox an advantage that cannot be ignored by Opera advocates. Brand image is not everything, but it is certainly not insignificant. The people in charge of marketing at Opera are aware of this, and I applaud the positive things they've done, most notably the way they've expanded "My Opera Community". There is significant room for improvement, however. The big question that Opera needs to address is this: "When people think about the Opera browser, what distinguishing characteristics come immediately to mind?"

Imagine that I'm about to ditch Internet Explorer in favor of an alternative browser. After reading an article here and there and looking briefly at Opera's website, here's what I might think about Opera:

  1. It's a well-reviewed alternative to Internet Explorer with cool new features
  2. It's customizable
  3. Unless you pay, you have to have ads on your screen
  4. Its name also refers to a type of musical performance

Here's what I might think about Firefox after reading a few articles and viewing its website:

  1. It's a well-reviewed alternative to Internet Explorer with cool new features
  2. It's customizable
  3. It's free and "open source"
  4. It has a unique name and cool logo

As you can see, points 1 and 2 on each list are the same. Many people, in debating which product is better, will argue about points 1 and 2 for each browser. Points 3 and 4, however, is where brand image comes in, and where I think Opera needs to do a better job if it wants to compete with Firefox.

The problems of selling Opera

As long as the free version of Opera displays ads, it can't be considered freeware. The smart folks at Opera know very well that having ads in their browser is something that will turn many potential users away. Having ads built into a web browser goes against the established norms of the web culture that started in the early 90's. Paying for a web browser is even more radical (in a negative sense) for many people. I don't have a problem with Opera requiring paid registration to remove the advertising bar. In fact, I have happily purchased three licenses of Opera to run on my computers at home. While a lot of us have been willing to buy Opera, I think we are far from the mainstream. In my opinion, Opera Software needs to do a better job explaining to people why they should buy the Opera browser.

Currently, Opera Software officially gives three reasons why people should upgrade to the paid version of the browser:

  1. Surf ad-free
  2. Free support
  3. USD 15 upgrade

'Surf ad-free': Essentially, this is like saying, "you are a hostage to our ads unless you pay up".
'Free support': Just call it premium support. By paying, it's obviously not free.
'USD 15 upgrade': Essentially, "Pay now so you can pay less later"

I do not find these reasons convincing, and they did not really play a big factor in my decision to buy Opera. I haven't had any need to use premium support, and the discount for the upgrade is just a nice bonus. Surfing ad-free is certainly important, but anyone can tell you that Firefox and many other free browsers have no ads at all, so why pay when there are free alternatives?

Opera fans typically explain that they paid because Opera is simply a better product. I happen to agree with them, but it's a highly debatable point, and one that is not compelling to internet users not used to paying for a web browser, and who have a free alternative (Firefox) that is possibly as good or better than Opera, and seems to be getting better all the time. Instead of selling Opera as a "better product", I think it needs to be sold as a "different kind of product", designed by a "different kind of company".

A different kind of product, a different kind of company

Even die-hard Firefox supporters tend to agree that many of Firefox's most popular features were invented or popularized by Opera (i.e. tabbed browsing and mouse gestures). Although Firefox advocates tend to underplay the importance of it, Opera can make a strong claim that it's the most innovative force in web browser development today. Opera's own press releases mention Opera's innovations, but more can be done along those lines. I think Opera's cutting edge research and development in the field of web browser design would be an excellent focal point of Opera's developing brand identity.

Some companies that are well-known for their technology research and innovation include Google (Labs), IBM (Research), and Xerox (PARC). Of course, Opera Software is not as big as any of those companies, but when it comes to web browser research, development, and innovation, Opera certainly has much to be proud about. A section of the Opera website highlighting Opera innovations and current research would improve public perceptions of the company. The mission statement is one step in the right direction, but a more user-friendly and interesting page to illustrate how Opera lives up to its ideals would be even better. My vision of the publicly-visible research arm of Opera would be called something like OSD - Opera Systems Development (kind of like how Toyota has TRD).

Opera itself is not just a browser; it's an ongoing experiment in software development. Firefox, due to its open source nature, is also an experiment. Opera is a different kind of experiment, in which innovations are supported by user contributions and collaborations with a truly impressive number of partner companies.

To further promote Opera as an innovative company that provides an innovative product, new slogans could be developed in addition to (or replacing) the existing merchandise slogans. I have to admit, I've wanted to buy Opera merchandise, but have been unimpressed by the slogans used so far: "The Rebel Browser" and "Simply the Best Internet Experience". "The Rebel Browser", in my opinion, is too affected. Rebelliousness, like coolness, is something attributed to you by others, not by oneself. Calling yourself cool or a rebel, therefore, is considered inauthentic, at least in American pop culture. "Simply the Best Internet Experience" is okay, but perhaps a bit too vague and opinionated, and "Internet Experience" sounds too much like "Internet Explorer". I don't write ad copy, so I'll leave it to Opera's marketing experts to design a new slogan to highlight Opera's new and improved image. (Here's my amateur stab at it: "Opera: Innovation for the end user".)

Once people come to associate Opera (the company and the browser) with user-oriented innovation, then suddenly they have something worthwhile to buy into. They would not just be paying for use of a browser. They'd be supporting a bigger overall effort to improve the internet experience for everyone.

One major component of Firefox's brand identity is its open source nature. Opera is not open source, and will not appeal to open source values in the same way that Firefox does. To try to do so would be a lost cause. Instead, Opera should seek to appeal to those who believe that paying money to support research and development pays itself back in the long (and short) run. While the open source movement is known for its community of developers and testers, Opera should be known for its community of researchers and its patrons, who are also the beneficiaries of the company's efforts. Through our monetary contributions in buying the browser, by helping spread the word about Opera, and via our feedback on the various Opera forums, we become part of the Opera team.

A matter of image

With a clearer marketing strategy in mind, focusing on the company's capacity for technological innovation that benefits the end user, we can more effectively envision advertising that bears a unified theme. Looking at the Opera goodies page, one will notice that it is all over the place thematically. While the selection of items is decent, I would rather wear a t-shirt that says "OSD - Opera Systems Development" on it, with the Opera logo for the 'O', and the new slogan on the back.

Firefox logo Opera logo

Speaking of logos, I have to give Firefox credit for creating a memorable and cool-looking logo. While Opera's 'O' is nice, it is not particularly provocative or memorable. Firefox's advantage, of course, comes from the fact that its name allows for the easy creation of a iconic character. Corporate visual identity, especially for tech companies, is often limited to artful renditions of company names, and Opera has that more-or-less, but in terms of brand identity for a hip product used by technologically savvy youth around the world, nothing beats iconic characters. Japanese companies have routinely used this to their advantage. Sanrio's Hello Kitty character is 30 years old and still going strong. Nintendo has Mario, and Sega has Sonic. AOL has its yellow buddy. Linux has its penguin. Firefox now has its red panda. Albeit, most software products do not have characters (a.k.a. "mascots") associated with them, and a lot of those characters tend to be from video games catering to younger demographics--generations who have grown up with mascot recognition being a major part of their media literacy. Web browsers are also a technology used heavily by internet users who have a high degree of media literacy/mascot recognition. The makers of Firefox have taken advantage of this fact with their appealing and memorable red panda character.

The branding power of mascot characters is significant indeed. The luggage/handbag company Louis Vuitton revitalized its popularity in recent years by collaborating with Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, who created colorful character-driven images to be used in place of the traditional LV logo. Even in cases where no official mascot exists for a software product, some Japanese fans have created their own, portraying the software anthropomorphically, as exemplified by the popular OS-tan characters. So far, operating systems have been portrayed the most, but it is telling that Firefox has a character, but Opera does not. Hopefully, Japanese fan artists will eventually create Opera-tan. My personal suggestion is that Opera-tan be elegant but approachable (and wearing opera gloves, of course).

I'm not suggesting that Opera has to have a mascot character or even that it should change its logo. In some way, however, Opera Software needs to create a better visual personality for itself. I would suggest that Opera give more publicity to its executive team and other developers.

Opera's executive team
Opera's executive team

Other than very brief bios, I don't know anything about these people, even though they sound very interesting. I would love to read expanded profiles and interviews of these individuals. Such content could be presented on both the Opera website and in an Opera book. Firefox has a nice-looking book, but looking at its table of contents, it seems mostly tech-oriented. I am confident that Opera could create an excellent-looking book full of content about Opera as a program, as well as the vibrant culture of its users and development team. I've always liked the fan photos section of the Opera website, combining written testimonials with real faces, providing a glimpse of the vast diversity of Opera users worldwide. In my opinion, this is a much better approach than the new Opera sticker campaign. Written testimonials are okay, but the current stickers don't do much to establish a strong brand image for Opera, and sticking them in public places can be obnoxious, or even illegal. The stickers are of other people's stories, so they don't look so good on my personal belongings, and they're a little bit too obvious in their intent to be good guerilla marketing. I'm more of a poster person, myself, so I hope that the Opera community will eventually create a poster or two. In the end, it doesn't really matter what kinds of goods Opera decides to sell, as long as those goods convey one basic theme.

Opera: Bringing tomorrow's web technology to the people of today

For any given technology to have a broad social impact, great features are only part of the picture. Brand identity operates at a higher level than software features. While Firefox advocates rally around their open source/free software philosophy, Opera advocates too often point to technical feature lists to convince people that Opera is right for them. To me, Opera is all about the ideal of innovation that benefits the end user. By leveraging this central theme, Opera can better establish itself as a popular brand, especially amongst ideal-driven internet users who are both discriminating and public about their technology choices.

I realize that my suggestions might be a moot point. For all I know, the marketing team at Opera could already have a new campaign in the works, maybe even ready for imminent release. Either way, I am hopeful that Opera will be a successful brand in the years to come. I hope my thoughts on how to make Opera better will provoke discussion and elicit action.

I am a frequent reader of the Opera community forums. Please feel free to discuss these thoughts with me (and others) there.

(Opera-tan Update: 12/30/07)

Less than a week after this article was published, a group of Japanese fan artists began the process of creating character designs for the Opera-tan character I proposed. The artist temp_h (also known as ma31), an Opera user who is also known for his Firefox-ko and Thunderbird-ko artworks, was the first to display his preliminary Opera-tan designs, and others in his circle followed suit. temp_h created the Opera-tan images below:

Opera-tan wallpaper Opera-tan image
Opera-tan image Opera-tan image
Opera-tan image

(click on the images for larger versions)

by: temp_h (ma31)

Creative Commons License
These works are licensed under a
Creative Commons License.

temp_h's original blog entries where he posted his early Opera-tan designs, discussion of the work (in Japanese), and related links are no longer on the Web. However, he has a newer blog (as ma31) where he has posted a few new Opera-tan artworks: http://my.opera.com/ma31/blog/

Other Opera-tan designs and artwork can be found here: http://orera.g.hatena.ne.jp/keyword/おぺらたん

Opera-tan is now listed in Wikipedia, as well. Needless to say, I am happy that Opera-tan exists. I am very grateful to these artists, especially temp_h, for bringing my idea to life.

(Opera 8 Update: 4/19/05)

Version 8 of Opera was officially released on 4/19/05, accompanied by significant changes in the presentation of Opera.com. Since this article was published in January (2005), some of the details I discussed regarding Opera's website are now outdated. For example, Opera has discontinued its sticker campaign, and has revamped its line of merchandise (which looks great now, in my opinion). To promote the release of Opera 8, which is an excellent product, Opera's marketing team has clearly been hard at work. Click on a button below to check out Opera Software's latest offerings:

Download Opera Download Opera

About the author: I am doctoral candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. My research work focuses on youth subcultures (anime fandom, especially) and how they engage science and technology. I have been a registered Opera user since August 2003. I am not otherwise employed or affiliated with Opera Software in any way (unless you count the Opera affiliate program that I just joined - 4/19/05).

(Author Update: 12/30/07)

I earned my PhD in August 2006, and I started working for Opera Software in September 2006. My title is Community Marketing & Research Manager, and I'm based in Opera's San Diego office.

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Last updated on December 30th, 2007
Lawrence Eng