SharePoint Intranet: How We Did It, Part 5: Branding Decisions

Is branding SharePoint raising challenges for you? Here's a look at the branding decisions Dan Holme made for the NBC Olympics intranet.

Aloha from Maui, Hawaii! This week I discuss SharePoint branding decisions I made for the NBC Olympics intranet in London (part 5 of a series about creating a SharePoint intranet for NBC Olympics at the London 2012 Olympics). 

But yes, I'm finally home—this time, for a whopping week-and-a-half--just enough time to resuscitate the garden, remind my friends and my dog who I am, replace dead appliances, and get some serious work done! Then I’m blowing off to the Windy City, to take part in a SharePoint 2013 event in the USA: SharePoint Fest in Chicago, September 25-27. I’ll be delivering my one-day SharePoint Governance MasterClass—the only opportunity to catch it this year in the Midwest—and several sessions and panels.

Last week, in Switzerland, I had the pleasure of speaking about SharePoint 2013 at the highest levels—business impact, portfolio, and strategy---with the Switzerland SharePoint Community in Sursee. I also had the chance to meet with a global organization that's feeling the same pain we're all feeling with what are now “legacy” versions of SharePoint, to discuss approaches to solving their SharePoint pain.

So it was a busy week, which concluded with a day in London to visit a friend and—an unexpected surprise—to catch several runs of the marathon at the 2012 Paralympic Games. As much as I love the Olympics, I must say that the Paralympics are where it’s at if you’re looking for mind-blowing combinations of elite sport and inspiration. I wish what I did could impact the world as much as the Olympics and Paralympic Games, but I’m fully happy knowing that once in a while, I say something that really hits home for people, and helps them solve a problem they’re facing.

Seems I did that with a comment I made last week in Switzerland about branding SharePoint. So this week, I’d like to share that thought with you, as part of a look at the branding decisions I made for the NBC Olympics intranet in London.

We all know the scenario: a company doesn’t like the out-of-box appearance of SharePoint and wants to “make it their own.” Change the look-and-feel, add elements of corporate identity, etc.

Hopefully you also know the problem: as soon as you’re finished branding the current version of SharePoint, something changes, and your branding makes it difficult, costly, or impossible to adjust to the change. The change can come in several forms.

First, you might adopt a custom solution—particularly a third-party commercial product—that just doesn’t “look right” or perhaps even work right with your branding. Second—and certainly guaranteed—the next version of SharePoint comes out, looks completely different, and you have to adjust your branding to accommodate the changes Microsoft has made. “Modern” design in SharePoint 2013, anyone?


At NBC Olympics, I did very minimal branding. I’ve discussed pieces of it in various articles in this series, so to summarize from a pure branding perspective, take a look at our intranet home page ( see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: NBC Olympics SharePoint Intranet Page (click image to see full size)

  •  I used out of box global navigation and Quick Launch controls, plus the header breadcrumb for navigation.
  • I replaced the Site Icon and—the only change to the master page, in fact—changed its URL so that rather than pointing to the root of a site collection, it always pointed to the intranet home page. The master page was deployed as part of site provisioning using PowerShell, not as a SharePoint solution (.wsp). That’s because I had so much other business logic that occurred during provisioning, I figured I might as well update the master page then. Plus, I wanted to prove how easily one can manage certain types of customization without cracking open Visual Studio.
  • I placed a logo prominently in the upper right corner of each site’s “home page.” Right-hand side, so that on a narrower screen it could simply scroll off right, leaving functional real estate on the screen.

In other words, virtually no branding. Now this is where working on an intranet with a lifespan of three months is a bit of a luxury. In a more significant effort, I certainly would do a bit more branding—perhaps some color changes, and probably some custom navigation controls.

But that’s all. I’m a big believer in not over-branding SharePoint. Now, that statement and what follows applies to everything except your public website. Obviously, there are a lot of very solid reasons for branding the heck out of your public website. Caveat stated. Now, back to everything else.

Branding SharePoint takes a lot of time, resources, and skills to do correctly and, honestly, very few people do it correctly. I count on one hand the number of people I personally turn to for SharePoint branding, and I have a few fingers left, still. They are magicians, and for a public web site project, they are indispensable.

Branding SharePoint also leads to problems later, as Microsoft changes things and as third party tools are introduced.

But then there’s the marketing and corporate communications departments, particularly at big companies, who “own” web properties in an enterprise and feel the need to justify their existence by branding everything. [Warning: if you haven’t figured it out, this column is going to be a bit snarkey about branding].

How to deal with that? Help your organization come to consensus around these points:

Point #1: There’s a lot of legacy culture in organizations that everything web must be branded.

Point #2: Until just recently, there was a raging debate: is SharePoint a platform or an application. SharePoint 2013 clearly answers that: it’s an application. Many of us will continue to use older versions of SharePoint, and even 2013, as a platform, but Microsoft has laid out its direction, now. That should help.

Point #3: The world is moving towards apps, and even more specifically towards HTML 5 apps.

So here’s what I ask a company who is struggling with overbranding syndrome:

I assume you have finished branding Microsoft Office, right? You’ve modified the color schemes in Word, moved the ribbon to the company-standard side of the screen, changed the name of “Inbox” in Outlook to your tag line, and added your logo to the title bar, right?

Obviously, I don’t really ask such a snarky question to clients. But in my presentation last week, I made that comment and more than a few people wrote it down and said it made a difference for them. SharePoint is an application. Team sites, My Sites, the Search Center… it’s all just functionality. Just because it happens to be rendered by an IIS server doesn’t make it any more right to brand it than Microsoft Excel, Google Maps, OpenTable, or any other app you’re using stand-alone or integrated into a solution.

JUST SAY NO.

And, again, this doesn't apply to your public web site, and—just perhaps—you could convince me that the intranet home page (and just the landing page) should be branded. But stop there. Or at least try to put on the decelerator or brakes.

Set your talented marketing and communications people on to creating real and correctly-functioning templates for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel—something that I see very few companies have figured out how to do since those programs’ release two decades ago. There are plenty of things in your company that could use better, prettier, and more functional branding. Not SharePoint.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Nov 29, 2012
I appreciate how you get to the point and put the user in the driver seat.
on Sep 12, 2012
Dan, there seems to be a confusion between branding and usability design in your article. When the stakeholders say they "don't like the out-of the box experience in SharePoint" they don't mean they don't like the colors or they want to see the company log - but they are saying that they are frustrated with the complex interface that requires many clicks to get the job done. This is further illustrated by countless research by the big firms (Forrester, Gartner) that further demonstrate the point. So when the users say they "don't like the out-of the box experience in SharePoint" instead of asking them which colors they would like and where you should put the logo, the question should be "what are the user's goals?" This is a typical problem when developers are forced/asked to do user experience design. What you need is Industrial Designers or User Experience specialist who can help in the process. As a company, this is the are we focus on: improving the user experience on SharePoint. Here is a link to demonstrate what I mean http://ateraprime.com/Events/Pages/pimp-my-sharepoint.aspx
on Sep 13, 2012
Hi Dan, Really enjoying this series. Our Marketing team aren't really on board with the whole SharePoint inranet yet so fortunately they haven't been trying to get it rebranded. Only real branding change was to use a joint company logo for the site icon - although to be honest this image is probably a bit too large so I may revisit that off the back of this. Your point about Word/Excel/PowerPoint templates is unfortuantely all too true for us. I cobbled together a Document Management System (DMS) at the tail end of last year and when I requested the templates from the various departments I was left bitterly disappointed with the offering. I took it upon myself to improve the situation and we now have a range of templates for Word, some then used on specific content types in our DMS, and all with fields that pull from the DMS such as Title, Release Department, etc. It was shocking to find how little they had done on that front, especially given they'd gone through a phrase of rebranding 18 months prior to this! Many thanks for all your articles, looking forward to the next one!
on Sep 13, 2012
You're right of course. You might want to post to the previous column, on Team Site, which focused on usability rather than branding, too :-)

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