Friday, December 23rd, 2005

What’s up with the Adobe brand?

What’s up with the Adobe brand?
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I’m one of those people who may have gone too far. I think I’ve just “looked” too much, and now I can’t go back. A menu with bad use of type makes it difficult for me to concentrate on the meals listed. Ugly spaces actually make me feel uncomfortable, and my reaction to consumer goods is very much informed by the attention to detail in packaging and design.

I think that I can honestly say that bad design makes me feel ill.

In a discussion on the same topic last week, one of the fellows at our studio noted that his friend is a gifted musician. Apparently, he finds it very difficult to listen to music out of key. In fact, he had explained that when he heard discordant sounds, he believed that it actually hurt his ears.

Mom and dad noted on the weekend that I had never really liked Christmas lights, and asked why. I couldn’t come up with much other than the cheeky response, “I don’t know. I suppose I’m a snob.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the spirit and excitement that surrounds the process of lighting up the entire block. It’s just that it’s generally so horribly unsightly, that my eyes just hurt. Perhaps this is just a North American tendency, but it seems that the question asked isn’t “How can we make this beautiful?”, but rather, “How big can we make it?”

But, that’s a tangent, and I seem to get carried away by those. Let me get to the point.

What do you buy for the software giant who has everything?

As most know by now, Adobe acquired Macromedia earlier this year. After years of reported legal battles over IP issues, they finally must have made up, as Adobe spent something like a gazillion dollars to become a bedfellow of their past rivals. Immediately, I felt a little frightened about this. The notion of one more Microsoft-like entity, with supreme control over all design tools, seemed to imply a more restrictive and expensive future for our little company.

That aside, I had to wonder what they would do about branding the new operation. You see, this is the sort of thing I think about on my walk to work, or in the shower. In my mind, it indicates a passion for my profession, but I have to suspect that it is directly related to the fact that I hardly dated anyone throughout my twenties.

Last week, I visited the Macromedia site, and found the strangest thing. Adobe had made a hybrid of the site, which merged Adobe’s visual standards, with the some of the iconography and naming systems which Macromedia had used for the past number of years. The direction seemed to indicate that Adobe would slowly introduce their standards, and make the Macromedia brand a thing of the past. (This was particularly evident where the Macromedia wordmark had been replaced by the Adobe logo, and subsequent text “formerly Macromedia”.)

Whatcho thinkin’ ’bout Dobe?

This leaves me rather perplexed by what appears to be a “brand blunder”. Make no mistake, I have no real understanding of what Adobe’s master plan is, and they clearly know an awful lot more about their brand than I do, but something in me feels unsure of the direction they appear to be taking.

Adobe is in what has to be the most enviable position a company can occupy. They have top of mind awareness as the graphic design application business. In fact, their name is so synonymous with the tools they provide, that I often find that people are confused by the difference between the brand, and their tools. On countless occasions, I have heard people refer to any Adobe application as “Adobe”. For example, “I sent it as Adobe”, which leaves me wondering if it’s a PDF, Photoshop document, or something else.

Macromedia clearly had an upper hand on Adobe, in the web department. They were well positioned and showed no signs of being pushed out of the market with better web tools on Adobe’s part. Where InDesign took advantage of Quark’s reluctance to innovate, GoLive was never a contender with Dreamweaver. Adobe was wise to absorb Macromedia, instead of trying to reinvent what were already powerful tools.

There’s no question that the acquisition of Macromedia’s technology has given Adobe leverage; however, Macromedia’s brand equity as the web publishing leader was as significant as the tools they offered. Adobe’s effort to co-opt that brand and apply their paternal stamp upon Macromedia screams of shortsightedness. It seems as though Adobe wanted so much to dominate that they lost sight of what winning would mean.

One brand plus one brand equals one brand?

On one hand it allows Adobe to become the “Microsoft” of design and publishing software: one company that dictates the course of an industry, and meanwhile, can bring ubiquity and interoperability to their complete offering. Part of this is good: a single, clear vision often brings the consumer better stuff. I don’t think that Apple could be nearly as effective if it didn’t really design everything it offered.

That being said, we are becoming weary of monopolies, and the limitations they impose on us. Even if their tools are better, if they remove the perception of choice, we might not be too happy about it. I love the fact that Outlook and Word talk to one another, but nothing pisses me off like the way that Microsoft forces its upgrades upon you. They have removed what I feel is my choice, which leaves me thinking about alternatives.

By leaving Macromedia as it was, Adobe could have worked to centralize both operations in order to find efficiencies, while leaving the external shell of each brand seemingly antonomous. This would have maximized the power of both brands, allowed them to share critical technologies, and leave the two major design application players in their respective positions.

Most everyone knows that Microsoft owns part of Apple. We don’t really care though, because Apple still feels like Apple. We all like to remain under the general impression that there’s an alternative to Microsoft’s empire–that’s brilliance. Those guys remain the leader, and own a part of their competition, but don’t have to stick it in our faces. Either way they are winning.

By merging Adobe and Macromedia’s identities, the two companies have become one in the minds of the public. There is rarely only one player in a category. By taking out the number two player, you are left with a vacuum. Someone will enter this vacuum, and gain significant presence, as there will be a challenger.

Who’s next?

A logical possibility is for Corel pull an “Apple”. Long forgotten, but once an innovator, if they play their cards right, they may very well become the new number two. Programs like Painter look smart, and represent a property Adobe has yet to develop. Although most don’t use it every day, those who do continue to remark on how effective it is. I’m really impressed with how nicely they have differentiated this product’s identity from competitors; plus, for a price tag of around $300, it’s not too hard on the pocketbook. (Apple’s Aperture is looking pretty interesting too.)

Of course, the direction I keep looking to hopefully is open source. Our studio is only a few steps away from flushing Microsoft Office in favor of OpenOffice. Although it’s far from being as strong as MS Office, or as ubiquitous, it’s hard to not look seriously when you consider the prohibitive cost that Microsoft puts on these products. I think there will be a certain joy in just knowing that we’re not getting beat-up on software costs. I can give up some ubiquity and polish for this sort of a reward.

Are we that far from an open source set of design tools that give Adobe a run for its money? I believe so, but can’t help but think that applications like Gimp represent the potential for a low-cost design suite, which may be worth considering at some point in the future.

Any way I look at it though, if I had anything to do with the Adobe/Macromedia merger, I’d keep the two brands occupying the two ranks individually for as long as possible. I just don’t understand how they are thinking.

They probably know better

Perhaps my lack of understanding is simply that of an uninformed outsider. If you would have told me ten years ago that Apple would be in the music business, I would have responded with little more than a guffaw. It could be that there’s a master plan in the works that’s simply beyond me.

I can see Adobe starting to package their tools more like they did a few years back, where specific software suites are made available, for example: Adobe Web Studio, Adobe Print Studio, Adobe Motion Studio, et cetera. Each could have a different name, to allow each family of software to be associated with both the parent company, as well as in their own respective category. By having acquired the “web” publishing company, they can really work to own all of these categories; nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder why they wouldn’t have done this with Macromedia as the web component of such an equation.

Seemingly bad brand decisions don’t offend me the way that bad design does, but it sure does puzzle me. It’s the sort of thing that can really hurt a good company, and I often contemplate the choices that companies make. It’s a curious situation, and I find it particularly interesting to see the results of certain decisions.

I’d encourage anyone to comment on my thoughts here. Please do correct me if I’m wrong about all of this.


And incidentally, If anyone from Adobe is reading this, I apologize if I sound rude. You folks make great products–I just wish I could understand exactly what you are doing. Oh, by the way… Could you look at Photoshop? The thing is still a RAM hog, and I’d love to see you skip a few features in the next version, in exchange for some added speed and stability.

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