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What Does Your Intranet Brand Say?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (02-Jun-2009)

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When that famous Swoosh logo flashes across a television screen with an assertive "just do it" command, no one is going to mistake what they're seeing for a laxative ad. Or when that jingle professes "I'm lovin' it" to multiple images of golden arches, no one is going to mistake that for the Gateway Arch in a tourism commercial for St. Louis. No, when you see these images and hear these slogans, you instantly connect them with their owners.

Every enterprise, small- and medium-sized business, and not-for-profit organization has a brand identity. Even individuals can create hugely successful professional brands. Just say "Martha" or "Oprah" and most people will know whom you're referring to before you even specify a surname.

But branding doesn't only apply to those people, places, and things that project an image to the world at large. A brand identity is equally important for internal resources that only affect members of an organization. Although you're marketing your intranet to an internal user community, an effective intranet brand can affect and direct users' perception of the system.


Reasons for branding

An intranet brand identity is more than just an eye-catching image or zippy slogan. It also harnesses and projects the collective (hopefully positive) experiences of its users. When done properly, an effective intranet brand identity will:

Another very important reason for developing an intranet brand is to reduce users' perceived level of effort. Intranets often involve several departments that provide different types of applications and content to users. Without the consolidation and standardization of all department sub-sites into a unified system and easily identifiable brand, users might feel (justified or not) as though they're forced to use multiple systems to accomplish a single task. This will give off the impression that more work is involved than there really is.


A brand is more than an image

Coming up with an effective intranet brand identity isn't like coming up with a name for your dog. It needs to be carefully developed and communicated. This can't, and should never, be done overnight. If you haphazardly conjure up with some tacky or cheesy system brand and then decide change it shortly afterwards, you might never recover from your blunder. This little branding misadventure will follow the system regardless of what brand is finally decided on—even if it's a fantastic idea. Why would users place their faith on a system that's clearly having some sort of identity crisis?

Before developing an intranet brand, you have to clearly define and understand three things:

  1. your audience;
  2. the purpose of the system;
  3. and the organization's culture.

An effective brand identity is highly subjective. What works for one organization and system might not work for another. Developing a clever and highly creative system brand won't do you any good if your audience leans toward the conservative and gets excited every time they hear tired buzzwords such as "synergy".

Even if you come up with a very unique and original brand, you can't force it down the throats of an unreceptive user community. For instance, a cutesy brand in a conservative environment will make your intranet appear to be less-than-serious. And a very corporate and formal brand in a highly creative environment will make your intranet appear stiff and boring. Sometimes a poorly thought out brand is more dangerous than no brand at all.


The unpredictable side of branding

Although an intranet brand can be carefully planned, developed, and communicated, there's only so much you can control. You can't neglect an intangible, and often unpredictable, aspect of branding: user perception. Despite all efforts to put your system's best face forward, that's not necessarily how users are going to perceive it.

Your system brand can be influenced and affected by things that are somewhat beyond your immediate control such as past system failures, how the system performs and meets users' needs, and how users are treated by those who developed and manage the intranet. Microsoft's business practices and Windows's poor security and stability track record, for example, are among the biggest contributing factors to the company and operating system's overall brand. No amount of glitzy marketing and PR sleight of hand will improve users' perception of these two related brands.


Closing thoughts

It's a big mistake to throw an intranet brand identity together while waiting for a redeye flight. An intranet's brand, and the effort required to properly develop and communicate it, is relative to the size and scope of the system and its users. You might be able to get away with a less-than-formal branding process for small intranets with only a handful of users, but larger systems with thousands of users require a more formal and coordinated effort.

Your primary branding goal is to associate a positive "face" with the system. That face should encompass not only the tool itself, but also the collective experiences and satisfaction of the user community. Your intranet brand must connect with the user community. It must project confidence and trust, so that users gravitate to the system out of a desire to use it rather than by default because there's nowhere else to go. If your intranet brand fails to do this, it will be like trying to sell steak to a vegetarian.


Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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