The History of Product Branding at SAP

By Esther Blankenship, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – February 21, 2003 • Original article (Edition 6)

Branding is about identification and trust. Every company strives to build brand trust with its customers (and, not insignificantly, with its employees too). Most of us tend to associate branding with tangible products we encounter daily, such as soft drinks, handbags, and automobiles. Admittedly, software branding has a shorter history than that of traditional consumer products. However, in addition to the usual marketing channels, the visual branding of the software that people use to interact with retailers and service providers as well as with their employers is an increasingly important tool in the endeavor to promote the relationship between companies and individuals. SAP has been a pioneer in software branding and continues to make branding and visual design a focal point of its software. This article traces the history of SAP's product design and branding strategy, beginning with the early days of business software and concluding with a glimpse at the newest generation of SAP software.


SAP Software Before the Branding Era

SAP's approach to product branding has undergone an evolution over the years since the founding of the company in 1972. In the prehistoric software days of the 1970's and 80's and until as recently as the mid 1990's, visual design and branding were for SAP, as was the case with many first movers in the industry, not an issue of much importance. SAP merely followed the look and feel of dominant operating systems, such as OSF/Motif and then later the Microsoft Windows graphical user interface (GUI).

Comparison of R/2 and R/3 screens

Figure 1: In the background, a screenshot of the SAP R/2 user interface. This was the face of SAP products until the beginning of the 1990's. The bright text on a black background simulated terminal screen design. In the foreground, a screenshot of the SAP R/3 user interface, the visualization of which was based on the Windows GUI. This design was used during most of the 1990's and is still offered as a personalization alternative in R/3 to users who wish to use it.


Enjoy – SAP Enters the Branding Arena

The major turning point for product branding at SAP occurred in 1998 when the company broke new ground in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) sector by boldly moving away from the standard Microsoft look and redesigning its software to reflect its own, new, distinctive branding language. Usage of standard software across a more diverse user audience and accessibility to higher quality color monitors made the time ripe for aesthetic innovations to software interfaces. SAP's new design, referred to as "Enjoy" and developed together with the design team at Frogdesign, imbued the interface with color and incorporated universal motifs from nature (water, stones, leaves, etc.) to give a visual "breath of fresh air" to weary office workers. Rich in color, texture and dimensionality, the Enjoy branding made SAP software instantly recognizable and, at a glance, distinguishable from other software products.

Coparison of R/3 screens in Windows look and in Enjoy look

Figure 2: In the background, an image of SAP's ERP software in the standard Windows look and feel. In the foreground, the same application in the Enjoy design.

The revolutionary Enjoy design was well received by the market and users alike. The quality of the new design in terms of attractiveness and usability combined with the mere act of expressing its own branding at the GUI level made SAP a leader in visual design for business software.


The Web and Its Impact on SAP's Product Branding

In the late 1990's, SAP began focusing intensively on its Web-enabled product line. The look and feel of SAP's software, whether intended for the browser or for a Windows/Java environment, was unified under the Enjoy design. The focal point of SAP's new generation of business software was the role-based Workplace, the forerunner of our current mySAP Enterprise Portals solution.

Interestingly, SAP's software boasted an award-winning visual design, developed together with a world-class design firm, but what our customers really wanted for their Web interfaces was their own branding and their own design. It seems logical now, but at that time enabling standard business applications with a flexible visual design was a novelty and no one in the software industry was making any significant attempts at doing it. The Internet revolution changed a lot of things, and customer expectations in this regard was one of them.


SAP Branding – Take Two

In the year 2000, SAP began rethinking its whole approach to branding and to product design. The change was catalyzed largely by the rising popularity of SAP's new suite of Internet products. First we began streamlining the visual design of our products that run in the browser. Instead of the rich design of Enjoy, the direction for our Internet products was toward a flatter and more vibrant look. This new design direction was also necessary since we had opened up our interface to allow our customers to rebrand the product with their own images and colors.

Comparison screens of Workplace and SAP Enterprise Portal 5.0

Figure 3: On the left, an image of the Workplace, branded in the Enjoy design. The Workplace was forerunner of the current mySAP Enterprise Portals solution. Pictured on the right is the Portal 5.0. The visual design represents SAP's first steps in the direction of a sleeker design for Internet products.

A more minimalistic design was also easier, faster and less expensive for customers to change. We realized that our customers increasingly wish to incorporate their own branding in the software they buy from us. (Not only that, but SAP also needs design flexibility to align our product design with the brand evolution that is necessary at every company.) These customizable branding possibilities must go beyond predefined color themes in order to be truly flexible and useful for customers. The mySAP Enterprise Portals solution was a concerted effort in this direction. The Portal was engineered to enable customers to redesign the look of our software to meet their branding needs by using the Theme Editor, a tool which can be accessed by administrators directly from the Portal itself.

This past year has been a busy one for product design at SAP. In 2002, we again worked in partnership with a top notch team from Frogdesign to redefine the look and feel of our products. The classic R/3 GUI running in the Windows and Java environments has been given a make over to reflect our new product branding. The new design is sophisticated while at the same time modern and user-friendly. A visual bridge between the Enjoy GUI and the new "streamline" GUI has been achieved by retaining some of the branding elements such as the 45 angle and shades of blue with splashes of yellow. A similar, but not identical, design is currently being implemented for our products which run in the browser. (Both redesigned product groups can be seen in the image below.)

Comparison of SAP Enterprise Protal 6.0 and next generation R/3 GUI screens

Figure 4: In the background the mySAP Enterprise Portal 6.0 and in the foreground the R/3 GUI, both in the next generation of SAP product branding


The Fruits of Flexible Software Branding

A few months ago at a design conference, I happened to meet a product manager from a well-known company to which I knew we had sold our mySAP Enterprise Portal 5.0 solution. I took the opportunity to introduce myself and informally get his opinion of the visual design of the Enterprise Portal. He thought for a moment and then shook his head. He told me that his company hadn't implemented the SAP standard solution, but had instead built a custom interface. I persisted and asked him to describe the design of the interface they were using and was delighted that his description matched what I know as our standard Portals solution. It seemed to me from his description that the company had adapted the visual design of the standard solution just as we had intended. By changing the whole color scheme and replacing the imagery and logo, his company was able to rebrand the Portal convincingly enough to make it seem as if the solution were no longer a standard SAP product.

SAP CRM screen before and after branding

Figure 5: Example of a screen from the newly released SAP People-Centric CRM 3.1 before (on the left) and after (on the right) customer rebranding

Allowing branding flexibility in business software is a tall order to fill. SAP's goal is to provide design flexibility without compromising system performance. On top of that, making our design system transparent to those who seek to rebrand our products makes our work even more challenging. As is always the case, there is room for improvement, but our direction and commitment are clear: SAP wants to unify all its products under one consistent branding message, while enabling our customers to modify our standard software to fit their branding needs. In this way, SAP can fulfill its goal of aligning its own products under one cohesive visual brand, while at the same time allowing our customers to do the same with our products for their customers.


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