Company Branding for Office 365 Apps

In the last two posts, I’ve explained and demonstrated the process for configuring customized branding for your Office 365 and Azure Active Directory login experience to give users a company branded experience when accessing Office 365 applications and extending that experience for international non-English users. Once the user is logged in, we want to ensure that, that company consistent branding identity resumes so in this post, I will be covering just that in how to brand your Office 365 Tenant Portal and Apps and just to reiterate, this is free for all Office 365 Tenants and you don’t need to be on a particular plan or SKU to access this.

To start, we need to login to the Office 365 Admin Center as a Global Administrator. You can access the Admin Center at If you haven’t ever applied any branding to your Office 365 Tenant, then it will probably look something like the following image.

Office 365 Admin Center Home

The default branding uses a blue accent colour which is used for the clickable App shortcut button in the top-left corner and is used to colour the page body text. The default header colour is black. To change the branding, click the Company Profile link in the left navigation bar in the portal. This will take you to the page where you configure your company name and address etc. Once on this page, there is a link in the left navigation for Custom Theming which you want to click.

Office 365 Admin Center Custom Theming

On the Custom Theming page, you can see there are several options for applying your branding to the portals and apps in Office 365. Custom Logo does what you would expect by allowing you to add your company logo to the pages. URL for Clickable Logo allows you to add a hyperlink to the company logo perhaps to direct people to your SharePoint Online intranet site or to your public website.

Background Image allows you to apply an image to the background of the header. If you use a gradient effect header or a patterned image on your public website,  you could apply this here to give a consistent look and feel across your internal and external facing portals.

To the right, we have options for Accent Colour, Nav Bar Background Colour, Text and Icons and App Menu Icon colours.

Accent colour is the colour used for the app shortcut icon in the upper left corner of the Office 365 sites and apps and is also used to colour hyperlinks and buttons on the pages. Nav Bar Background Colour applies to the Nav Bar if you have not applied a background image and applies to the whole bar except for the shortcut icon in the left corner. The Text and Icons colour applies to the title shown in the navigation bar along with the buttons in the upper right corner of the portal next to the user profile picture. Lastly, App Menu Icon applies to the tile like icon used in the upper left shortcut. If you use a light accent colour then you many want use the black option for this icon, otherwise the other option is white.

Office 365 Admin Center Custom Theming Applied

One you have applied your colour and icon selections, click the Save button to apply the changes. The changes will be visible in the Admin Center straight away but they will take a little time to appear in other Office 365 sites and apps. I had to wait about 15 minutes for my Tenant sites and apps to reflect the changes.

One observation I made is the placement of the company logo in the navigation bar appears to be dead centre. To me this looks very odd and in other blogs and instructions I have seen online showing this process, their logos appear in the left corner. Suspecting it to be IE in Windows 10 Technical Preview at fault, I tried a Windows 8.1 machine using IE and Chrome with the same results. I’m not sure when this changed or why but needless to say, it looks odd to me so I’ve opted to remove the logo from my final implementation for my tenant but your results will vary.

One you have given it some time for the changes to be applied across Office 365, here is how is looks in some of the user facing sites.

Office 365 Calendar Themed  Office 365 OneDrive Business Themed

Language Support for Office 365 and AAD Login

In my previous post, Company Branding for Office 365 and AAD Login, I showed you the steps to implement a company branded and customized login experience for Office 365 and Azure Active Directory. This post centred around using the default branding settings which for most organisations will probably be just fine but if you have employees in non-English speaking or English as a second language countries, you may want to provide them with a more regionalised experience using another language.

Luckily, Azure Active Directory allows us to do this with ease. Firstly, you need to configure the default settings so if you haven’t already, follow the steps in my previous post Company Branding for Office 365 and AAD Login to get that setup and working. Once you have it working and tested, you can head back to the Azure management portal at and login as a Global Administrator role user.

Once logged in, go to the Active Directory section from the left navigation pane and select the same directory that you customized previously. Once you are viewing the directory, click the Configure tab in from the top of the page and once again, select the green Customize Branding button.

Last time, you were taken immediately into the Customize Default Branding settings however on this second occasion, you will be shown an option first.

AAD Customize Branding Specific Language

The portal prompts you if you want to Edit Existing Branding Settings or Add Branding for a Specific Language. In this example, I want to add branding for my French users so I select the Add Branding Settings for a Specific Language option and select France from the drop-down language selection. Once you have selected your language, you are prompted to provide the same logos and text as previous for the default branding.

This is especially useful if you have provided the Sign In Page Text as you will likely want to provide this text in a non-English language. It could also be useful if your company trades under a different name or uses a different logo in another region to identify your brand better for those customers.

You can repeat this process as many times as you like for as many languages as you need however it’s worth noting that because each language uses different images and text, if you ever need to update the logos and text, you will need to update them for each language you have specified and configured. You can use this same options page to come back and edit your customizations at a later time also by select the Edit Existing Branding Settings option which is where you can also delete any customizations to return them to the Azure Active Directory defaults if you decide you no longer want to customize a specific language or the defaults at all.

Company Branding Office 365 and AAD Login

Last week, Microsoft announced via a blog post on the Office Blogs site at that they were moving the ability to add company branding to the Azure Active Directory and Office 365 login pages from the Azure Active Directory Basic and Premium tiers down into the Free tier making this feature available to everyone.

This great news as for a lot of customers, Azure Active Directory Free provides all the service they are looking for and being able to have this fit into your corporate identity and branding makes users more comfortable that they are signing into a company authorised login portal.

In order to brand your corporate Azure Active Directory instance and your Office 365 login pages, login to the Azure Management Portal as a user with the Global Administrator role. For now, this needs to be managed via the legacy Azure portal at Once you are logged into the portal, you need to head to the Active Directory node from the left navigation area.

Azure Portal

Once on the Active Directory page, select your Azure Active Directory instance. If you have more than one instance, select the instance which is responsible for the domains that you want to be branded with your corporate identity for Azure Active Directory and Office 365 sign-in.

Azure Portal AAD

On the properties for your Azure Active Directory instance, you will notice the green button Customize Branding which you would not have seen in the portal previously if you are an Azure Active Directory Free customer. Click the button to open the properties for branding and customization. Assuming this is the first time that your settings have been customized, you will be taken to the Customize Default Branding properties.

AAD Customize Default Branding

The Banner Logo image is used on all of the various sign-in pages for Azure Active Directory and Office 365 and should contain your company logo. The Tile Logo is to provide a square Modern UI version of your logo. I have yet to actually find anywhere that this Tile Logo is used so if you come across it, do let me know. In either case, the logos can be provided in .png or .jpeg format. I would highly recommend using an image minifier such as TinyPNG to compress your images without distortion with the view to help improve load times of these pages.

Sign In Page Text is displayed on all login pages and is used as a legal disclaimer or login help message. You can use this to display a message to provide help information to end-users such as a service desk phone number or you could use it to show a legal message matching your on-premise Windows server and client logon banner. This is entered as plain text and does not support HTML or other formatting such as hyperlinks.

Sign In Page Illustration allows you to provide a large image that is used prominently on the login pages for Azure Active Directory and Office 365 and it works in partnership with the Sign In Page Background Colour setting. The illustration takes either a .png or a .jpeg file to provide a rich client experience. The background colour is applied to the same container on the login page as the illustration and is used when the user is on a low bandwidth device.

Once you have entered all of the logos and text, click the tick button to save the changes. Once saved, give it a couple of minutes before testing to allow time for the Azure Active Directory instance to replicate throughout Azure and all of the login pages to be updated.

If you visit  you will see the generic login page, however once you enter your email address, the page will update to show your new branding.

AAD Default Login  AAD Branded Full Login

In the two images above, we can see the default login on the left and once I enter my email address, the image on the right shows my branding. The default highway image has been replaced by my Seattle skyline image along with the Office 365 logo replaced by my corporate identity. If I was on a low bandwidth device then instead of the Seattle image, I would be shown this portion of the screen as a solid block of colour using the hexadecimal value I provided on the branding page. The banner message I provided is shown at the bottom of the page in the right third.

If you direct clients to the Office 365 or Azure Active Directory login page from internal sites or a link on your public website then you may be interested in updating those hyperlinks to use the Realm URL. The Realm URL is a query string added to the end of the default URL pre-warning the portal which domain you are going to log in to and as such, the portal is pre-branded meaning that your users will never see the default Office 365 branded page.

To use the Realm URL, you need to update your hyperlinks to replacing the domain name after the ?whr= query string with your own domain name.

AAD Branded Realm URL

As you see on the image above, I have navigated to the Microsoft Online login page using my Ream URL and without entering my email address to provide it with the domain identity for branding, the site is pre-branded for my company.

AAD Branded Compact Login  AAD Branded Mobile Login

In the two images above, you can see how the customized login page scales with the screen real estate. The left image shows a compressed width page on a client with a 4:3 standard aspect ratio. The right portion of the screen remains unchanged but the illustration image on the left is cropped. The crop to the image is applied to the right edge, so when choosing your illustration image, make sure any important parts of the image are on the left as this is the portion which will always be visible regardless of screen size.

The second of the images above shows a mobile device viewing the page. In this view port, the illustration is completely hidden and we see just the login boxes, the corporate banner logo and the message text.

I trust that you will all enjoy seeing a customized login page for your company and enjoy it even more knowing that it’s not freely available for all Azure Active Directory and Office 365 users.

Understanding Office 365 and AAD Federated Identity Types

Recently, I’ve undertaken a number of customer chalk and talk sessions on Office 365 to discuss with them some of the benifits they can expect to see from moving from on-premise services to Office 365 hybrid and cloud services. Amongst the myriad of topics that get covered in these sessions, one of the biggest areas for discussion and contention is identify federation from the on-premise environment to Office 365 which uses Azure Active Directory (AAD) as it’s identity management system.

I thought I would take this oppourtunity to cover off some of the high-level points of the trade-offs and differences between the ways of achieving identity federation with Office 365 and Azure Active Directory. Please remember that this isn’t an exhaustive list of things to consider but a good taster.

In some future posts, I will be covering deployment scenarios for the two methods of identity federation and also the software we need to configure and deploy in order to make it work.

What is Identity Federation

Simply put, identity federation is the means of allowing your users to logon to both on-premise services and Office 365 and Azure Active Directory authentication based services with a single identity, the identity they know and love that resides currently in your on-premise Active Directory and to most people is simply the username and password that they use to logon to your internal PCs and other systems.

Without identity federation, we have a scenario where users have split personas resulting in them having one logon for your on-premise services and another for their cloud services with Office 365 and Azure Active Directory. If you work in a highly secure, militry level environment, perhaps this is actually what you want and you don’t want to potentially expose your internal identies to the cloud but for 99% of people looking at Office 365, you want the simplified experience for your end-users of having just one credential to rule them all.

Single Sign-On vs. Same Sign-On

Single Sign-On and Same Sign-On are the same yet different. Single Sign-On refers to the ability to logon once such as to a domain joined Windows desktop PC and then not have to re-enter credentials for any of the services you consume during that session and this is the holy grail of integration scenarios where the user experience is totally seamless and the user doesn’t need to think about anything other than which app or product they want to work with next.

Same Sign-On refers to using a single identity, provided by our identity federation solution however instead of the user seamlessly being logged into these systems, the user may be prompted at various stages to re-enter their credentials in order to authenticate to a web service or an application such as with the Lync Client or a SharePoint team site.

Both of these scenarios are achievable with Office 365 and Azure Active Directory however in order to achieve one over the other increases the amount of work and effort required upfront in order to achieve success. I will explain in more detail further on the technical differences but for now, know that Same Sign-On is the easiest to implement and requires nothing more than one server to run the syncrohisation software. Single Sign-On requires more servers to be deployed and it requires some firewall reconfiguration in order to allow the services to be properly accessible.

Deciding Which Identity Type is Right for You

In this section, I will talk about some of the determining factors for deciding betwween same and single sign-on.

User Experience

The end-user experience is obviously high on the agenda when it comes to deciding between the two identity federation modes. Same sign-on means users can login to services with the same username and password whilst single sign-on allows users to seamlessly move between applications and services without the need to re-authenticate.

The winner here is clearly single sign-on however this comes with a caveat that Outlook does not behave in a truely singluar fashion like the other applications do.

Due to the way that Office 365 uses the RPC over HTTPS protocol with Basic Authentication, Outlook users will still be prompted to enter their credentials even when single sign-on is deployed and properly configured. This is a common misconception and people see it as a problem with their single sign-on configuration or deployment but sadly it is just the way that Outlook behaves. The workaround to this issue is for users to select the Remember My Credentials option and their password will be cached in the Windows Credential Manager until such a time that the user changes their password.

Password Security

Password security is in my opinion, the number one reason that people consider the single sign-on deployment over same sign-on.

With a same sign-on deployment, the authentication to Office 365 and Azure Active Directory service is performed within AAD. The syncronisation software that is run within your organisation syncs both the users and their passwords to the cloud AAD directory. When a user requests access to a service, the password entered by the user is sent to AAD for verification and authorization. All this means that there are copies of your passwords stored in AAD.

With single sign-on, your passwords are not stored in the cloud AAD directory but instead, only the usernames and a few other attributes of the users. When a user requests a login to a service, the authentication request is forwarded to servers within your organisation known as proxies which then forward the request to your internal Active Directory domain controllers. Once authorized, a token is sent back to Office 365 and Azure Active Directory to approve the login. In a nutshell, the passwords never leave your environment, only tokens approving or denying the connection.

The winner for password security is likely to be single sign-on. The idea of having passwords stored in the cloud is too much for some organisations whereas for others, the idea of the authentication tokens flying back and forth is equally bad coupled with the exposure a single sign-on solution potentially adds to your internal directory environment.

Password Changes

Users need to be able to change their passwords in accordance with your organisations security policy. Typically, in order for a user to make that change, they need to be either on-premise or connected to the on-premise environment via a VPN or such if they are working remotely. Windows Server DirectAccess helps with password changes amongst many other scenarios where the users need to be connected to the corporate network.

If you opt for a same sign-on implementation then by enabling the Password Write-Back feature in the sync application, we can enable users to change their passwords without requiring a connection back to the corporate environment. This password change can be performed via one of the Office 365 application websites such as Outlook Web App. Once the password is changed by the user, it is written to the cloud Azure Active Directory and is synchronised back to the corporate directory when the nextx synchronisation occurs.

If you deploy a single sign-on model then you do not have the flexibility of enabling users to perform password changes via the portals because there is no cloud storage of the password and the cloud environment is not aware of the users password but only that they were authenticated from your environment.

If you are looking for ways to reduce the user reliance on VPN technologies and enable them to do more of their work remotely using cloud based applications then same sign-on could provide an added benifit here. Companies which use single sign-on will need to maintain these VPN technologies even if simply to allow users to change their passwords as required. As I have mentioned previously, DirectAccess if not already deployed could be a real answer here as it provides always-on connectivity back to the corporate environment and does not require the user to interact with a VPN client improving the user experience.

Access Revokation

In a scenario where you need to revoke somebodies access very quickly either due to a confidentiality issue or an employee has gone rogue, single sign-on is the clear winner. Same sign-on works by syncronising the stage of user objects periodically based on a scheduled job from on-premise to the Azure Active Directory. If a user account is disabled on-premise then it could take sometime for that change to make it’s way to the AAD directory and further damage could be done in the scenario as a result.

If you are using single sign-on, when a user account is disabled, that user account will no longer be able to authenticate to Office 365 and AAD federated applications as soon as the account is disabled because those services will no longer be able to authorize that user based on the fact that, that authentication request is sent directly into your environment.

Availability and Reliability

This point is closely linked to the password security requirement, as is configuration complexity. In order for users to be able to sign-in to Office 365 and AAD linked services, there needs to be an authentication service available to process the request. For same sign-on where the passwords are stored in the cloud directory, the availability and reliability is provided by Microsoft Azure.

As we understand from the Microsoft Azure SLA page at Azure Active Directory Free provides no guarantee of uptime or SLA although through my personal experience and use of it, I have never seen a problem with it being available and working. Azure Active Directory Basic and Premium both offer a 99.9% enterprise SLA along with a slew of other features but at a cost.

For deployments using single sign-on, because the authentication requests are redireted to servers which are maintained by you as the customer, the availability and reliability of the authentication service is dependant on you and is born of a number of factors: we have authentication proxies, authentication servers and domain controllers all of which need to be available for the solution to work and not to mention any firewalls, load balancers, networks and internet connections, service providers, power sources, you name it, all of which are consumed by these servers.

I’ll be covering some deployment scenarios for both same and single sign-on in a future post however for now, we’ll assume all of this resides in your on-premise datacenters. If you have reliable on-premise servers and infrastructure services and you can provide a highly available solution for single sign-on then you will have no problems however if any of the components in the single sign-on server chain fail, users will be unable to authenticate to Office 365 or AAD federated applications which will cause a user experience and an IT support issue for you.

Configuration Complexity

Taking what we learn from the reliability and availability information above, it is fairly apparent that there are more moving parts and complexities to the single sign-on implementation. If you as an organisation are looking to reduce your configuration complexity because you want to unlock time from your internal IT resources or you are looking to improve your uptimes to provide a higher level of user satisfaction then you should consider whether the complexity of a single sign-on implemention is right for you? In theory, once the solution is deployed it should be no hassle at all but all know that servers go bad from time to time and even when things are working right there is still things to contend with like software updates, security patching, backups and so forth.

The same sign-on implemention requires only one server to implement, requires no firewall changes to allow inbound traffic to your network (all communication is based on an outbound connection from the server) and if you wanted to, you could even omit the backups because the installation of the software is very simple and can be recovered from scratch is little time at all.

Same sign-on is definately the winner in the complexity category so if you have a small or over-worked IT department then this could be an assist in the war against time spent on support issues however single sign-on clearly provides a richer user experience so it needs to be a balanced debate about the benifits of avoiding the configuration complexity.

Software Implementation

In this section I am going to quickly cover off the software we use for these scenarios but I am not going to go into configuration of them or the deployment scenarios as I want to save that for another post at the risk of this post dragging on too long. The other reason I want to cover these here is that throughout this post I have talked of same sign-on and single sign-on but I want to translate that into a software term for later reference.

Same Sign-On using DirSync, AADSync or FIM

Same sign-on is implemented using the Directory Synchronisation (DirSync), the Azure Active Directory Sync (AADSync) tools or using Forefront Identity Manager with the Azure AD Connector.

The DirSync tool has been around for quite some time now and has been improved with new features from one iteration to the next. For example, initial versions of DirSync didn’t support Password Sync to the cloud environment which meant users had different passwords for on-premise and cloud which was a reason a lot of early Office 365 adopters didn’t adopt DirSync. With more recent additions to DirSync to support Password Sync and Write Back from the AAD cloud environment, DirSync has become a lot more popular and I find that the majority of customers seeking a fast track adoption of Office 365 going for DirSync. DirSync has a limitation of only working for environments with a single Active Directory forest which made it a non-starter for customers with more complex internal environments.

Forefront Identity Manager (FIM) with the Azure AD Connector is DirSync on steroids or rather, DirSync is a watered down version of FIM. DirSync is a pre-packaged and pre-configured version of FIM. Using the full FIM application instead of DirSync enables support for multi-forest environments and also for environments where identity sources include non-Active Directory environmnets such as LDAP or SQL based authentication sources. For customers wanting a same sign-on experience but with a complex identity solution internally, FIM was the only option. If you have FIM deployed in your environment already then you may want to take this route in order to help you sweat the asset.

AADSync is a relatively new tool and only came out of beta in September 2014. The AADSync tool is designed to replace DirSync as it provides additional features and functionality over DirSync for example, AADSync has support for multi-forest environments (although still only Active Directory based) making it much more viable for larger, complex customer environments. It also allows customers to control which attributes and user properties are synchronised to the cloud environment making it better for the more security concious amongst us.

Single Sign-On using ADFS

Single sign-on is implemented using Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS). ADFS is deployed in many different configurations according to the requirements of the organisation but in it’s simplest form, it requires an ADFS Proxy which is a server residing in your DMZ responsible for accepting the incoming request for authorization from Office 365 and AAD to your environment. This is passed to an ADFS Server which resides on the internal network and communicates with the Active Directory environment to perform the actual authorization.

There is an additional component in the mix and that is the requirement for either a DirSync or an AADSync server however this is deployed to push the user objects into AAD however there is no password sync or write back of attributes occuring here, this server is there just to allow AAD to know what users you have so that AAD knows whether a valid username has been entered in order to pass it down to your environment for authorization.

Because of the public nature of ADFS, it requires you to have public IP addresses available, certificates for the URLs used by ADFS and also requires you to have a DMZ segment exposed to the internet.

Deployment Scenarios

In a future post which I hope won’t take me too long to make available, I will talk about some of the deployment scenarios and options for deploying both same sign-on and also single sign-on. I will also cover how the release of AADSync effects existing deployments of DirSync or FIM.