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How to create brand identity at the command line

I see a trend in the tech-o-sphere: the command-line is back in the game.

Today it’s a fairly common practice for a vendor to provide a command line interface (CLI) tool that works with its product or API. These CLI tools are used directly or in CI/CD scripts.

As strange as it might sound, the value of these CLI tools goes beyond its role as an executable to get work done. They can be an effective way for marketing departments to promote brand awareness and create brand identity.

The life, death, and resurrection of the command line

Back in the early days of personal computing, the command line was the only way a user could work with a computer. If you used MS-DOS, CP/M or Apple DOS — the most popular OS’s for the PC at the time — you typed text commands to get work done. There was no GUI and no mouse. It was all tap, tap, tap.

Eventually, things changed. GUI-based computing appeared in the mid-1980s. Apple released the Macintosh in 1984. Commodore released the Amiga in 1985, a machine some considered to be well ahead of its time. IBM released an enhanced GUI version of its OS/2 in 1988. Microsoft stumbled for a while but eventually the company came up with a viable graphical operating system in Windows 3.0, which it released in 1990.

By the mid-1990s, GUI-based operating systems became the norm for consumer users. Two releases – a graphical version of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and Microsoft Excel — sealed the deal for business computing. Even developers embraced the GUI with integrated development environments such as the Borland’s Turbo C release in 1987 and Microsoft’s Visual C++ in 1993. By the year 2000 if you used a computer, you interacted with a GUI. There was still activity at the command line, but most of it was done by system admins who had to keep the servers up and running.

Things have changed in recent years because “keeping servers up and running” is a big deal in mission-critical enterprise computing. For many businesses, it’s not a matter of keeping a few servers up and running it’s about keeping thousands of servers up and running! Thus, we see the rise of infrastructure as code.

The interesting thing about infrastructure has code is that as it becomes more prominent on the IT landscape, so too does the command line as the primary means to interact with the systems. In other words, the scripts that control the infrastructure become an emulation of command-line activity. For example, look at a snippet of code from a script I wrote for a recent Jenkins Pipeline job:

    stage("Delete the local images left behind"){
        sh 'docker rmi 192.168.86.33:5000/pinger:dev.0.${BUILD_NUMBER}'
        sh 'docker rmi pinger:latest'
    }

It’s really an emulation of Docker commands that I could have just as easily made at the command line. But now that CI/CD is the thing, it’s done in a script.

The command line is now back in fashion and there’s a compelling opportunity to use the command line to create brand identity and awareness. What better way to garner notoriety for your product than to have its name typed dozens of times on millions of sysadmin and developer keyboards of all over the planet?

Where are the marketing opportunities?

With CLI tools, the first set of characters you type at the command line is more than an executable, it’s actually a door you open to the executable’s world. For example:

vagrant up

When you type the code, it does more than just spin up a set of VMs with Vagrant. You actually enter Vagrant’s world to work with VMs.

The same thing is true for Docker as well:

docker ps -a

You enter Docker’s world to work with containers.

If you type an executable long enough it will eventually become the way you see the world. Sysadmins that type docker run 100 times a day will equate containers with Docker. But what if the admins typed lxc-start instead? In that case, Linux Containers is their container world. Repetition breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds loyalty.

Brand identity promotion through the command line is an intriguing marketing technique. It’s similar to building brand awareness by way of port numbers.

When you think of port 80, what comes to mind? HTTP websites, right? Or port 443 you think about secure websites under HTTPS. How about port 22? That one is SSH. Ports 80, 443 and 22 are conventional standards, but there are port numbers that represent for-profit brands.

For example, 27017 is the default port of MongoDB. The default port for MySQL is 3306 and SQL Server is 1443. If you own the port number, you own the brand awareness that goes along with it.

The same can be true of the command line. When you have a CLI tool that’s typed into the command line or script repeatedly, it goes a long way to create brand identity and awareness.

Keep it simple; Keep it memorable

The trick to create a CLI tool that promotes brand awareness is to come up with an executable name that’s both easy to type and remember. For example, testing service mabl named its command-line tool mabl. Google Cloud’s CLI tool is named gcloud. Both fit the bill.

On the other hand, the Jenkins CLI tool, java -jar jenkins-cli.jar makes it not only hard to type, but also hard to remember. Simplicity counts in brand awareness.

Brand identity creation at the command line might seem like a strange concept. But for forward-thinking companies that make enterprise software, it’s not a far-fetched idea to take advantage of the marketing opportunities provided by the command line.

As we’ve learned on the terrain, the key to create brand identity is to go where it’s used. In the world of enterprise software, that place is the command line.

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