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Do You Still Need to Brand Your Intranet?

July 16, 2020 Collaboration and Productivity
By Sam Marshall

Branding still matters for intranets, but many organizations are taking a "lightly branded" approach to the interface, arguing that features and agility matter more. Others still see value in the authority branding gives, as a way to engage frontline workers, and the ability to extend it to other parts of your digital workplace.

There was a time when designing the look of an intranet was a big part of the project, much as it would be for a website. Even though you may expect employees to be far more familiar with your brand, it was often seen as a way to make it more engaging. However, Microsoft guidelines largely discouraged branding for SharePoint intranets and it seems to be on the downturn. I’ve also been diving deep into the fast-growing employee apps space where branding is often very limited, and looking at independent intranet platforms where there's much more design freedom.

So how much branding power do you need? I consulted the webosphere to see if branding was still considered important.

Intranet Branding Lite

The dominant view is branding matters less than it used to. Most intranet managers seem to feel that logo, font and an appropriate color palette are enough. Going further, overexposure has likely blinded employees to much of your brand. Instead, more subtle uses of brand within the content really matters, such as tone of voice and choosing imagery that reflects your values in news and articles.

Keeping the branding simple offers some practical benefits too: hopefully the intranet platform you select has a well-tested user interface. The more you customize that interface, the more you risk degrading the user experience. I once built an intranet for a marketing team where they insisted on using their product’s color palette. The colors worked great on a bottle that needed to stand out on a shelf. They burned into your retina when used as bright orange text on a black intranet page.

Microsoft restricts where changes can be made in SharePoint for technical reasons too. Customization of older versions of SharePoint led to countless upgrade headaches when design changes by Microsoft "broke" customer’s intranets. One of the main reasons to consider an intranet in-a-box product is to get around this limitation, but even these vendors are tending to fall into line.

Related Article: The Corporate Intranet Is Key to the Digital Workplace. Really

The Case for No Logo

Some people responding to my question argued that branding should be almost entirely about the content. The argument usually takes the form of: “you don’t brand Outlook or Word, so why brand an intranet tool?” However, intranets are not just generic tools — the content in Outlook and Word are not necessarily "from" the company in the way that intranet content is.

A closer parallel would be to say “you don’t brand Chrome or Safari.” The interesting middle-ground is to think of Slack, Workplace from Facebook and Yammer, where the tool brand and company brands often co-exist.

A more practical point though is about training: most products come with good libraries of training materials for admins and users. The more you change the look, the harder it becomes to simply reuse that standard material.

Related Article: Don't Judge Modern Intranets by Their Predecessors

Where Branding Matters

Despite all the cost implications of branding, there are three compelling cases for branding extensively:

  1. A new company identity. Where a company has significantly changed, perhaps via a merger or acquisition, the intranet is one of the most powerful ways to communicate that new identity. One of my clients spent millions on a rebrand. On the day of launch the new brand went live across hundreds of intranet sites for each of their local markets, whereas replacing physical signage across their real estate took months to reflect the same change.
  2. Where employees are distanced from your brand. Contingent workers, franchisees and gig economy associates all represent your brand but may feel a looser affiliation with it. An intranet that reinforces your brand in both appearance and content is a good way to draw them in. We hear this particularly strongly in the employee app sector, where sometimes an app on a mobile device is the principle way in which workers engage with a company. The brand matters right down to the tile design on the smartphone screen, as it needs to stand out from everything else they may have installed.
  3. A brand can pull your digital workplace together. Debates about “what is an intranet?” rage on. Sometimes you want to sidestep that and refer to “Jeeves” or “The Source” or (if you must) “The Hub” and have it mean the intranet plus other systems. It is common for intranet teams to combine SharePoint and Yammer, for example, or position the intranet as a gateway to all employee services rather than referring to the underlying systems by name.

Related Article: What Employees Always Want From Their Intranet

Intranet Brand vs. Company Brand

If you brand your intranet, it should be consistent with company branding but not identical. Nielsen Norman Group note that a too-literal brand implementation will look just like your website, setting the wrong expectations and risking confusion.

A good middle-ground is to use the company logo alongside an intranet name, or to use elements of your company visual identity without the logo itself. After all, if your intranet is a vibrant reflection of what your company is doing, then the whole content (and especially the homepage) should feel like it is living your brand, and that is what engagement is really all about.

My thanks to the many on LinkedIn and Twitter who contributed their thoughts.

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 18 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and AkzoNobel.

He is the lead author of the annual SharePoint Intranets in-a-box review.

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