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Do We Really Brand SharePoint?

There are many things in the SharePoint culture that baffle me, and we should expect that any subculture is going to have its own particularities. There is one, however, that has caused me a good bit of consternation. That topic is the use of the term “branding” to refer to SharePoint user interface design.

To understand how this is used, here is an excerpt from chapter one of the newly released book SharePoint 2013 Branding and User Interface Design:

“The textbook definition of branding is the act of building a specific image or identity that people recognize in relation to your company or product. […] A company’s branding is applied in many different ways, one of which typically includes a website. On the web, conveying a corporate brand usually involves the colors, fonts, logos, and supporting graphics all pulled together with HTML and CSS to provide the branded look and feel for a site.”

We can gather from this definition that when someone says “SharePoint Branding,” what they really mean is “applying colors/logo/etc. to a SharePoint environment.” Before I pick this apart a little, let’s visit two good definitions of what your brand actually is:

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. […] A brand used to be something else. It used to be a logo or a design or a wrapper. Today, that’s a shadow of the brand, something that might mark the brand’s existence.” – Seth Godin (source)

“To me brand is an organisation’s personality. It is their character and it should influence every aspect of their behaviour, not just the way they represent themselves visually. Brand is what they stand for and against. It is how they communicate with their customers and the world at large. It is not just a set of colours and pretty logo.” – Paul Boag (source)

Both of these definitions are tremendous and go against the old and wrong thinking that apply “branding” to UI development.  It simply isn’t the core of what “branding” really is. Both of these definitions focus on customer experience and how an organization carries themselves. Now, I don’t want you to think that logos, colors, etc. have no part in a branding strategy, but it’s far, far down the primary focus and result of branding.

So let’s return to the idea of “branding SharePoint.” So the question is, who are the people that really “brand SharePoint?” Well, to be honest, SharePoint isn’t made to be branded because if we take the better definitions up there, software doesn’t get branded—it’s a catalyst to building a brand. For this reasons I believe the only people that truly “brand SharePoint” are Microsoft. The rest of us are left to “skin” and “theme” SharePoint in alignment with the visual aspects of our brand.

But this still points at the larger issue: when we talk about branding SharePoint in visual terms it is highly myopic and misleading. Unfortunately, it has become such a part of the SharePoint subculture language that it probably isn’t going anywhere.

My encouragement to the reader is to grab a much larger vision for what a “brand” truly is and stop making strong associations between a logo/colors/UI design to branding. When I look at a Nike website/logo I don’t think: “Wow, what a wonderful brand.” I think about all the experiences and emotions I have from Nike products as well as the personality of Nike, and that is the essence of a brand.

Published inSharePoint

8 Comments

  1. Leon

    I disagree with you. SharePoint is a collaboration platform and it is supposed to do what it says on the box. Microsoft calls it branding because themes in asp.net land, is a different concept. When you create your own features, templates and master page then you are change the entire UI. It is definitely branding!!!

    • Disagreeing is fine, but if you’re going to disagree please interact with the points I made.

  2. John Ross

    I’ll go ahead and weigh in here. I agree and disagree with some of the points here. In the book referenced in the post we talk about branding as a general marketing term — and we talk about how a company’s branding usually includes a website. Therefore if you were to take a corporate brand and apply it to a website you would be branding that website — if it is a SharePoint site you’d be branding the SharePoint site. If we go back to the origin of the term “branding” it comes from back in the day when ranchers used to mark their cattle so they could identify them. These brand markings became synonymous with quality and the idea eventually expanded beyond cattle. The act of applying a distinctive mark to a cow is called “branding” and so it’d seem reasonable that if I’m applying my corporate markings to a SharePoint site then I’d be “branding SharePoint.”

    Do we really brand SharePoint? Of course Microsoft has created a brand for their product. But in the context of this discussion we’re talking about SharePoint as an application — much in the same way we’d say “branding WordPress” or “branding “DotNetNuke.” Yes, we definitely brand SharePoint.

    Where I agree is that I think branding really refers to the most basic level of web design. In our presentations Randy Drisgill and I speak about UI/UX development as probably being a more accurate term to refer to the full scope of everything that’s required to create a custom look and feel in SharePoint. This is the reason why our book is entitled “SharePoint 2013 Branding and User Interface Design.” It includes sections talking about the basics of branding and the more complicated parts about User Interface Design.

    Is the term branding incorrectly used as it relates to SharePoint? At times it is used as a catch all. But I still feel that fundamentally we definitely do brand SharePoint. If the act of applying an organization’s brand to a SharePoint isn’t referred to as “branding SharePoint” in the most basic sense, I’m not sure what a better term would be. Because we aren’t always “designing” or creating a “user interface.” You could use the terms “theming ” or “skimming” but I tend to think that’s exactly the same thing as branding.

    I think the complete context of the content in the referenced book is accurate to everything posted here. If there’s anything that isn’t correct please let me know. We’re always interested in feedback and how we can present things even more clearly.

    -John Ross

    • Thanks John. I appreciate your comments, and I do look forward to reading your book. Just so everyone else who comes along knows, I didn’t choose your book to call you out. I only chose it as a representative sample of how the term is used.

      I understand how you support the use of “branding,” but my problem is that that way of thinking about “branding” is rather old. As Godin says, it’s the “shadow of the brand” not what a real brand is. In the book, correct me if I’m wrong, but you take that definition and extrapolate it to focus on visual identity.

      Part of the problem I think is also how many people don’t think in terms of customer experiences when talking about branding. Good or bad customer experiences really define a brand. So at the end of the day my beef is with using a term that is much fuller than visual identity and applying it in that way. Remember, most people don’t have a discussion this nuanced as we are, and it is more the collective shared understanding that is a concern for me not yours.

    • I was thinking about this yesterday particularly about how you chose to title the book. I think I see now why you say Branding AND UI Design. If the “AND” is to designate the bigger distinction between the two and not make branding = user interface design then I would have no big issue.

  3. John Ross

    I don’t disagree with anything Godin says — but he says “that’s a shadow of the brand” he’s making a statement more along the lines of the greater marketing term of what a brand really is. The most succinct definition of what a brand is that I’ve ever read comes from “The Brand Gap” written by Marty Neumeier: “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.”

    If we take what Godin and Neumeier are saying, an organization creates a brand. But later that brand is then applied to their various things — including their SharePoint site. You mentioned in your post that Microsoft has branded SharePoint which is absolutely true. If an organization wants to have its employees feel more connected to its company’s SharePoint site then by simply applying their corporate branding to SharePoint is good enough for many companies. Nothing complicated — just add the company’s colors and logos. No complex UI redesign or anything.

    The act of applying those colors, logos, etc is branding. Although branding a website is not creating a brand in the marketing sense (it should already exist) and it isn’t UI/UX design (that’s more complex).

    I disagree with something you said above though. “Good or bad customer experiences really define a brand.” That’s inaccurate. Branding isn’t just about customers. It is about the experience that ANYONE has with a company. You also mention that “my beef is with using a term that is much fuller than visual identity and applying it in that way.” I’d probably restate that to say “it isn’t always about visual identity — but sometimes it is only about visual identity. That is pretty much my point. Yes, a company’s brand includes a lot of things. But to apply the term ‘branding’ to SharePoint we don’t always have to assume that we’re throwing the whole corporate brand arsenal at something.

    I definitely think the term often gets misused. But in the context of SharePoint I absolutely think there are plenty of times where it is appropriate. Obviously this is all my opinion on the matter and I think there’s plenty of room for other views on the subject. A software architect that Randy and I worked with didn’t like the term “design” either since it was too close to software or database design. He wanted to refer to Randy as a “stylist” which never stuck — although I’m still a fan :-)

    -John Ross

    • Just so you know “customer experience” doesn’t mean “customer” in a wooden sense. It means anyone that has interaction with a company. Not sure if there was a definition disconnect there.

      I find it interesting your succinct definition has no visual component to it and everything about emotions and sentiments.

  4. John Ross

    I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that because the succinct definition doesn’t have a visual component then it is suggesting the visual aspect isn’t important? The title of the book (The Brand Gap) where the definition was take from refers to the fact that brands are defined by left brained strategists and marketers and right brained designers and creative people. When the left and right brains don’t know what the other is doing, there’s a gap. Anyway, they definitely reference visual as being a part of what makes a brand — but it is just one of many factors.

    -John Ross

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