Deconstructing the Harvard Brand

A Harvard brand that reflects the student experience

The Harvard Brand
Nathalie R. Miraval and Li S. Zhou

In Feb. 2011, the Office of Public Affairs and Communications was confronted with a challenge—to communicate a modern image of Harvard in anticipation of the University’s 375th birthday. In collaboration with Alumni Affairs and Development, it launched a project to represent the University, starting with 100 video clips. Of the voices captured, these are three:

Peter A. Boyce II ’13 helps nurture fledgling Silicon Valley moguls on campus. As a founder of HackHarvard, which gives students in Computer Science 50 the opportunity to turn their final projects into real-life websites or apps, Boyce organizes weekly HackNights and coordinates mentorships. He comes alive on camera describing his experience building the organization while pursuing a concentration in applied math. Boyce is a far cry from the scrawny, socially fumbling Harvard computer scientist portrayed in “The Social Network.” Wearing dark-framed glasses, he sports an Afro and an irrepressible grin. He’s charismatic, his energy infectious, as he tells his story.

The first person in his family to go to college, Kevin Jennings ’85 had never heard of the Ivy League before he set foot on campus. He moved around a lot as a child and was bullied for being gay. Jennings exudes a quiet confidence in the video as he talks about his time on campus, saying, “It was the first time in my life for someone like me to be happy and successful. I hadnever seen that in the world where I grew up. Here Icame to Harvard where being smart was applauded and being gay was not such a big deal.” Jennings was voted the chief marshall of his class and, after graduating,founded the first Gay-Straight Alliance which isnow a nationwide organization.

Teresita Alvarez-Bjelland ’76 needed a winter coat. During her freshman year, the “coat fund” was limited to male students, so she took a job washing dishes inCurrier dining hall. She laughs on film and recalls thinking this would be a good lesson to tell her children someday. Alvarez-Bjelland went on to become president of the Harvard Alumni Association, placinga focus on public service during her term.

Their stories illustrate the changing Harvard brand. Boyce, Jennings, and Alvarez-Bjelland’s clips are three of the more than 100 anecdotal videos that are part of the Harvard Stories Project called “Veritas Verbatim,” which features students, alumni, faculty,and staff discussing their personal connections with Harvard. This project is one branch of a greater movement by the University to ensure that the image Harvard presents to the world is representative of the Harvard experience.


Deconstructing the Brand

Deconstructing the Brand

Christine M. Heenan, Harvard’s vice president of public affairs, notes that “Veritas Verbatim” allows the people who experience the Harvard brand to personify it.

“Your brand is your essential promise,” she says, “and your reputation is how you deliver against that promise.”

Wearing a dark blazer and sunny yellow shirt, Heenan sits on a chair in her neat, open office on the second floor of Massachusetts Hall. She says these stories are key to dispelling false perceptions of Harvard and to establishing an image that is an accurate depiction of the school as it is today. Says Heenan of Jennings’ story: “I think for people of certain generations, that is a different face of Harvard, and a different take on Harvard.”

“Telling the story of Harvard’s amazing diversity, telling the story of Harvard’s emerging internationalism and globalist focus, telling the story of a culture of belonging at Harvard that includes students of all stripes in a way that was less true, frankly, in different generations and different centuries, is a really important part of our work,” Heenan says.

Heenan believes the Harvard brand is currently viewed as a blend of “enduring,” “legacy,” and “emerging” attributes, reflecting some qualities which are at odds with what the University experience has become for many students. Through strategies like the Harvard Stories Project, the University aims to update the brand so that the perception is consistent with the reality.


Harvard’s “enduring attributes”—the qualities many people associate with the school due to its achievements and heritage—form the core of the brand. “I think of excellence, leadership, and tradition. I feel like these are self-perpetuating. Every crop of incredible students perpetuates the promise of that brand,” says Heenan. “Every amazing faculty member, every alumnus who goes on to serve in leadership capacities in government, nonprofit, business, go on to reinforce that element of what makes Harvard Harvard.”

In this sense, all people affiliated with the University become brand ambassadors in the way they represent Harvard and interact with the world.

Dan H. Schawbel, an authority on personal branding and author of global bestseller “Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success,” cites the faculty at Harvard as an example of this “self-perpetuating” phenomenon. “The professors are famous; they’re so successful and so well-known,” Schawbel says. “Whenever they speak, whatever they do, the interactions they have with CEOs—it keeps on marketing the Harvard brand, saying, ‘We’re really great; they’re really great’—it’s a mutually beneficial thing.”

He compares the mechanism of the Harvard brand to the way news spreads online—a source breaks the information and then everyone else links back to it. “Everyone in the physical world is re-linking back to Harvard.”