Brand New

As I noted on Monday when it was released, the fourth public beta of Lightroom, Adobe’s new professional photo-library management app, has been rebranded “Photoshop Lightroom”.

It’s a little thing, that “Photoshop” prefix. I’m sure many people who’ve downloaded the Lightroom beta didn’t even notice. It certainly isn’t going to make or break the product.

But it rankles.

James Duncan Davidson wrote about it twice last week; first in his initial reaction to the new Lightroom beta:

All I can guess is that there’s been somebody on the Photoshop marketing team that feels seriously threatened by the potential of Lightroom and they managed to engineer an internal naming compromise that makes Photoshop an umbrella brand. It smells like an external impact of an internal turf issue. Especially since the new name isn’t actually anywhere in the product that I’ve found. Just on the website.

Davidson is right — this reeks of a marketing decision forged by people who just don’t get it. Photoshop is one thing. Lightroom is another. Yes, they’re both apps targeted at serious photographers, but if you spend even just a few minutes looking at Lightroom from the perspective of what it does, how it works, even what it looks like, you can see that it isn’t “part of” Photoshop. Yet that’s exactly what this “Photoshop Lightroom” branding implies.1

But I don’t think it’s the case that this was a decision made out of fear.

In his follow-up specifically regarding this branding shift, Davidson wrote:

The problem with conflating the two brands is that, well, we the users of the tools and the words aren’t really receptive to it at a gut level. By redefining what Photoshop means, we get the sense that that the people who own the term don’t understand the meaning it has to us. Photoshop means something very concrete to us. Lightroom does too. Adobe is progressively making both terms more abstract. Redefining it to suit their desires. That’s their right, but it’s not a wise one to exercise in my opinion.

The point is that good marketing rings true. Nothing feels true about this attempt to position “Photoshop” as a parent brand for Lightroom. Some marketing people, when given control over a powerful, popular, long-standing brand, see it as a weapon to be wielded — they want to slap that brand on everything they can. Other marketing people — the good ones — realize that even strong brands are fragile; that they’re valuable, precious commodities that need to be nurtured and protected.

So I don’t think the decision to re-position Lightroom as “Photoshop Lightroom” was made because some contingent at Adobe is worried that Lightroom will take attention away from Photoshop — I think they did it because they think they’re helping Lightroom. “We’ve got the best brand name in photography-related software — let’s use it.

The problem is that they’re wrong. This doesn’t help Lightroom; it hurts it. The implication is that Lightroom can’t stand on its own, that it isn’t significant enough to be considered a peer to Photoshop. A mere glance at the software shows this just isn’t so — it’s a very significant app. It’s like if InDesign had been named “Adobe Illustrator InDesign”.

And it hurts Photoshop’s brand, too, by diluting what “Photoshop” actually means. Specific brands are intense; umbrella brands are not. There’s value in both, but different kinds of value. Consider the differences in how you feel about, and what memories you associate with, say, “Nabisco” (umbrella) vs. “Oreo” (specific).

Adobe already owns a powerful umbrella brand for software targeted at design professionals: “Adobe”. Trying to extend “Photoshop” from just a product into both a product and an umbrella brand creates a completely unnecessary layer of brand hierarchy between “Adobe” and “Lightroom”.

Back in April 2005, a few days after Adobe’s Macromedia acquisition was announced, I wrote “The Fish Rots From the Head”, prompted by an interview in which Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen described himself, proudly, as a “sales guy”. I wrote:

But Chizen’s rise at Adobe tracks precisely with the company’s drift away from its roots as a great software company. When the company was run by graphics/technology enthusiasts, it was a great graphics/technology company. Now that it’s run by a sales guy, it has turned into a company that seems more interested in the sales and marketing of its products than in the products themselves.

Chizen sounds as though he’d be happy selling any sort of software, and it just happens that his company sells design and publishing apps. His passion isn’t for creating great products; it’s for convincing us that Adobe’s products are great.

Calling Lightroom “Photoshop Lightroom” is another sign of this: it’s marketing for the sake of marketing itself, as opposed to marketing that serves and respects the actual products. Any great company must be run by people who both understand and love the products the company creates; a car company needs to be run by car people; a movie studio by movie people; and a software company by software people. This is why so many great companies fade away after their founding generation retires: the companies are taken over by “sales and marketing” people.

I’m reminded of this story regarding KitKat sales in the U.K.: Nestle “expanded” the KitKat brand to include a slew of new flavors, and the result was that overall sales of all “KitKat”-branded candy fell by nearly 20 percent. You can’t make a good new candy bar just by borrowing the name of an existing one.


Like I said at the outset, even if Adobe sticks with this ill-considered “Photoshop Lightroom” branding decision, it isn’t going to sink Lightroom. But the worst part about this is how unfair it is to the team behind Lightroom. I’m in no position to issue any judgments in the Lightroom-Aperture race, but clearly it is a race, and a good one. Davidson penned an entire weblog entry comparing just the two apps’ metadata panels, and it’s clear that both Apple and Adobe are putting a ton of thought and work into the details of these applications.

Love it or hate it, Lightroom’s user interface does not resemble that of a “typical” Adobe application. It looks like exactly what it is: something innovative and new.

The same goes for its software engineering. Adobe seems to have built Lightroom using a new application framework that lets them use the Lua scripting language for big chunks of the app.

Adobe is one of the last of a dying breed of software houses — those that continue to develop large applications jointly for Mac and Windows. Even Microsoft doesn’t do this — the Mac Office suite is an entirely Mac-specific group of apps; different source code, different features, and different development teams. The Mac and Windows versions of the Adobe CS suite, on the other hand, are so similar that they share the same user manuals. I’m sure others exist, but a quick scan of my own Applications folders shows only a handful of apps other than Adobe’s with Windows counterparts: Firefox and VLC. Oh, and I use a media player called iTunes that apparently has a Windows version as well. What other company could do what Adobe is doing with Lightroom — take on Aperture head-to-head on the Mac and bring the same app to Windows?

Neither Microsoft nor Apple makes this easy for Adobe. Apple’s “let’s make things easier for our developers” framework is Cocoa; Microsoft’s is .Net. Neither framework is cross-platform.2 Adobe is pretty much on its own in terms of a cross-platform application framework. That big chunks of Lightroom are written in Lua shows that Adobe is still a leading-edge engineering shop — not only is it big news for a flagship big-ticket application to be written in a scripting language, but Lua? Lua may not qualify as “radical”, but it’s not exactly mainstream, either.

What it shows is that Lightroom’s engineering team isn’t afraid to try something new. Lightroom is different than all existing Adobe applications — and in some ways it’s different than all existing applications, period.

Lightroom’s marketing should reflect that.


  1. The only way “Photoshop Lightroom” even possibly makes sense is if Adobe plans to bundle them together — “buy or upgrade to Photoshop CS3, get Lightroom for free”. But even if that’s the case it isn’t necessary. 

  2. Yeah, yeah, there’s Mono, the open source clone of .Net, and there’s GNUStep, the open source clone of OpenStep, Cocoa’s Next-era precursor. Let me know when one of these is used to produce a kick-ass app for both Mac and Windows. 

Ads via The Deck Ads via The Deck