In branding Mozilla’s new mobile operating system, Wolff Olins kept the iconic fox familiar–and gave it a bit more fire.

No matter where your allegiance in the browser wars lies, you have to admit that the House of Firefox flies the best banner. The browser’s logo–a vibrant orange fox curled up around a blue globe–is playful and peppy and instantly recognizable. It’s a mark with personality, certainly more so than Safari’s cartoony compass or Chrome’s colorful whatsit, and it’s probably the only icon on your desktop that could lend itself to a Halloween costume.

So when Wolff Olins was tapped by Mozilla to develop a brand for the company’s latest initiative–the recently debuted Firefox mobile operating system–the direction, in some ways, was clear: Let the fox stretch its legs a bit.

According to Mary Ellen Muckerman, head of strategy at Wolff Olins, the Firefox logo boasts nearly 90% awareness in markets worldwide. So the firm had to strike the delicate balance of creating something new, but not too new. “We were very mindful of being familiar yet disruptive and dynamic,” Muckerman says. “You’ll see that we evolved the Fox a little–rather than a lot.”

Still, an operating system and a browser are two very different products, and the brands for each need to do different things. Firefox has always been about freedom and flexibility, but in terms of web browsers, the stakes aren’t terribly high for your average user. Any browser will get you on the web. None of them censor any websites. And if you’re ever dissatisfied, you can always just download another one.

Choosing a smartphone is a far greater commitment. Regardless of whether you go Android or iPhone or whatever else, you’re increasingly locked into an ecosystem of apps and other complementary devices. For new users, it can be like agreeing to move in with someone before your first date. So first impressions are important, and a good one is exactly what a smart brand can provide.

The Firefox OS, which is initially being deployed in developing markets, where millions of people are migrating from feature phones to smartphones for the first time, aims to bring a little more flexibility to the table. The OS is built on HTML5, which makes it easier for developers to build and adapt applications, and apps you buy are yours forever, even if you switch to another platform in the future.

To reflect those ideals, Muckerman says her team tried to “inject a fluid, fiery, almost superhero-style feel” to the fox. Instead of the faceless little guy on the browser icon, sleepily watching over the world wide web at large, here the beast is awake and alert and ready to help the user craftily navigate the dense thicket of devices and carriers and payment plans. In essence, the new brand makes the fox an ally for users–a little less cuddly, maybe, but a lot more capable.

Read more about the new brand here.
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