Deconstructing the Harvard Brand

The Harvard brand can be 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.

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.

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.”

From books written by faculty to case studies distributed by the Business School to articles published by newspapers that quote prominent Harvard figures, content establishes and reestablishes the brand. “Reputational success is based on substantive success,” says Harvard Business School Chapman Professor of Marketing and Communications Stephen A. Greyser ’56, “Substance is much more important than communications.”

In conveying the “substance” present, the role of the Office of Public Affairs at Harvard is “trying to help shape a positive image around the facts,” Greyser says. “Our job is not to in any way influence what happens in the classroom, what happens in the Houses, what happens in extracurricular activities or on the athletic fields,” Heenan says.

“Our job is to tell that story. In some ways, the delivery of that promise of the experience sits in the hands of faculty, of House Masters, of fellow students.”


On one hand, the “substance” of these enduring attributes—the work and the people and the history that make up the brand—speak for themselves. “I think it’s a self-sustaining brand, if anything, because it has a long history, a long tradition, so it has that advantage,” says Alisha D. Ramos ’12, president of the Harvard Advertising and Marketing Club.

Yet there are traits with which Harvard is associated that send a negative message. In addition to refuting an old image, the University must forge a new one.

“When I think about the ‘legacy’ attributes—things like Harvard being conservative, being fusty, being exclusionary, being elitist—I think it’s our job to bat against those brand myths, things that are no longer true of Harvard, that were only true at one time,” says Heenan.

Though these attributes still describe Harvard in part, the general observation by students and alumni alike is that they are gradually disappearing, beginning with the experience and following with the image.

Natalie C. Padilla ’12, a writer for the Harvard College Student Admissions blog, participates in changing this image by chronicling her experiences on campus. Her perception of the school prior to matriculation differs from her experience here. “I thought it could be hard to fit in,” she recalls. “There might be pretensions—wasn’t sure what to expect coming from a public school in California.”

In her blog, Padilla, who is also a Crimson arts columnist, sheds light on how she found her place on campus, writing about the opportunities and activities that have defined her time here—posting about everything from Leverett’s renowned monkey bread at Masters’ Teas to an early morning adventure at FedEx the night before the due date of her government thesis.

Improvements in student engagement in campus life are apparent to alumni such as Steven H. Ohler ’74, an executive creative director at advertising agency McCann Erickson Worldwide whose daughter is now a freshman. “I think the experience in general is a lot more involving, engaging. There’s more stuff to do. There are more social opportunities now,” Ohler says. “I think Harvard does a really good job overcoming the perception it is an all-work-and-no-play place and that it’s stuffy and full of wonky people.”

Ramos has observed inconsistency between Harvard’s perception and its reality. After Harvard’s loss in the NCAA playoffs, she remembers reading a Wall Street Journal liveblog that highlighted some of the “legacy” attributes Heenan describes: “It said something like, ‘You can go back to your stuffy yacht clubs, your 401ks,’ something ridiculous like that. I think people perceive Harvard people as very elitist, and I don’t think that is an accurate depiction at all of Harvard, of Harvard students.”

Heenan offers a rationale for this perception. “I think that, in general, it’s easy in popular culture. Harvard is an easy reference point for a series of attributes,” she says. “When I wince is when we’re depicted as typifying those legacy aspects that are no longer true. You know, the caricature from ‘Legally Blonde’ of the tweeded admissions officer peeking over his horn-rimmed glasses.”

While overcoming these preexisting perceptions is an important component of Harvard branding, perhaps even more vital is providing access to information about the school for audiences who have not considered it as an option or opportunity.

One of the primary purposes of Harvard branding, says David A. Shore, who teaches a course on brand and reputation at the Extension School, is to break that initial barrier and become part of the  list of schools that potential students think of as viable possibilities—the “consideration set,” as he calls it.

Greyser remembers a conversation he once had with a colleague in admissions who represented Mississippi, a state from which, on average, three students have matriculated to the College annually in the past six years. He recalls that she said Harvard considered every student that matriculated from the state as a victory, because the real goal is to convince guidance departments to help students decide they should give Harvard a try.

Given the number of students matriculating to the College—one, five, four, six, three, and two in past six years, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 comments, “It shows that when the students are there, they certainly get in.”

The launch of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative in 2004, which strives to make Harvard more accessible to students from low and middle-income families, enables any applicant whose family makes $60,000 or less to attend without required parental contribution. In the fall of 2012, this number will increase to $65,000. Establishing its presence is part of the university’s main goals of branding.

Heenan, says “Our work is much more about reaching students who may not know their families can afford Harvard, may not know they’re academically qualified to go to Harvard and telling the broader world stories about Harvard as it continues to adapt and evolve in the 21st century.”


In addition to sloughing off increasingly inaccurate stigmas, Heenan sees the University adopting an exciting set of “emerging” brand attributes that comprise a new dimension of Harvard’s personality.

“Harvard as a hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovation is a relatively new and young emerging aspect of the brand, but one that is really taking hold. Through the i-Lab, for example, there is a growing notion that Harvard is a place where innovation happens, where entrepreneurship happens,” says Heenan.

Boyce is an active participant in the proliferation of entrepreneurship on campus. He names United States in the World 36: “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: American Experience in Comparative Perspective”, a fall 2011 class cross-registered with Harvard Business School, as one of his favorite courses thus far. In this course, students learned from real start-up leaders.

Harvard is more than innovative—it’s cool. Heenan lists Lady Gaga’s visit, a nationally ranked basketball team, and the extensive coverage of Linsanity as events that have contributed to this fresh perspective on the University. “These different dimensions are enhancements, and in no way threatening of the enduring attributes, but a different lens for which people to look at and experience the school,” says Heenan enthusiastically. “It’s not your father’s Harvard.”

Ohler noticed these changes while accompanying his daughter to Visitas 2011. “There were parties in the Yard and we never saw that before. It’s a conscious decision on their part to make the experience more social,” he says. “I think this is great marketing by the make Harvard feel like it’s not only a studious place but a fun place too.”


“Objectively, Harvard as a brand has a personality, but it has a value for its students,” says Ramos. “In terms of looking for jobs, having Harvard on your resume—it gets your foot in the door.”

Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career, Research, and International Opportunities, says that potential employers have an understanding of the students they will encounter when they recruit at Harvard.

As Ramos and Mount suggest, Harvard’s image translates into concrete value for the University and many of its key stakeholders, including students, faculty, alumni and donors.

In part, the impact is monetary: When the brand takes a hit, so too does the University bank account. For example, controversy surrounding the 2010 Allston construction project compelled some alumni to retract their donations, Greyser notes, and dips in the endowment in past years created negative waves about the University’s status.

Conversely, Greyser points out, relaying positive news about the University, its leadership and faculty, keeps alumni and donors abreast of advances that may inspire them to give.

Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67 and Katherine A. O’Donnell most recently donated $30 million to the University, a gift that Joseph said he was confident in providing given his belief in university President Drew G. Faust’s leadership. In a Crimson news article, he said, “If the school weren’t the proper steward for all that money, I’d feel differently. If it had different leadership, I’d feel differently.” Says Greyser, “The leader of Harvard is a symbol.”

A strong financial foundation supports a strong brand, which in turn attracts top-notch faculty and students. “It serves us well that among well-endowed universities we are the most well-endowed,” Shore says, “therefore our ability to attract talent and what we can theoretically offer is always attractive. That’s what strong organizations do: Attract human capital into the structural capital of organizations.”

In 2011, Harvard received $639.15 million in fiscal year donations and almost 35,000 applications for undergraduate admission. It also reached over 1 million Facebook fans and was featured in apparel lines for brands such as Forever 21, New Balance, and Vineyard Vines.

The commercial side of branding is simple: Harvard sells. “We receive dozens of license applications each year, and we approve as many as possible,” writes Rick Calixto, director of the Harvard Trademark Program in an email about the licensing process. Royalties from all Harvard-licensed items go to help funding financial aid. Around $500,000 is contributed annually by merchandise sales.

Elizabeth D. Hodgson, public relations and marketing manager at Vineyard Vines, says that Harvard has led the charge in sales of her company’s college collection, which launched in 2011 and includes merchandise from more than two dozen schools.

Calixto notes that the Harvard Trademark Program works through third parties who obtain licensing to produce Harvard apparel, rather than working directly with stores like Vineyard Vines. “We license companies to produce appropriate Harvard-licensed insignia items and they then sell these items to stores like Forever 21, the Coop, Target, etc. We try to offer Harvard items at a range of price points so that licensees are able to sell to different types of stores.”

When evaluating prospective merchandise licensees, the Harvard Trademark Program looks for “the appropriateness and quality of the proposed licensed products; how the Harvard trademarks will be used; the marketability of the products; and a potential licensee’s history of compliance with business and licensing standards,” according to its website. These standards offer guidelines but do not highlight explicit characteristics a company must possess in terms of what traits its image stands for.

This opens up the potential for brands to carry Harvard goods that promote legacy attributes or distort enduring attributes. The licensing of the phrase “Harvard Yard” for a preppy menswear clothing line by Wearwolf Group in 2009 struck some students as conflicting with the Harvard image. In a 2009 Crimson news story, Nicholas J. Navarro ’10 said, “As a student on financial aid, I care about expanding the financial aid system at Harvard, but at the same time, as a Latino, I came into Harvard my freshman year with preconceptions about Harvard being a culture of wealthy Caucasians, and the product line comes at the cost of reinforcing those stereotypes.”


The commercial associations of branding and the use of the Harvard name to sell merchandise might seem at odds with the idea of Harvard as an institution of higher learning.

“This whole notion of brand management is somewhat distasteful, because universities are not retail stores; they’re not sports teams. We’re not trying to sell  a product after all. Somehow it seems slightly dissonant with the higher purposes of education, to think of it as a brand,” says professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

Lewis is not alone in his hesitation to embrace branding for the college. After all, though assembly lines package trademarked hoodies that fit neatly onto the shelves of the COOP, one would not like to think that Harvard likewise churns out students who have been branded with a crimson seal of approval.

Fortuitously, branding need not emphasize the Harvard name over the education it represents. Shore says “Everything has a brand. All that branding is about is having a reputation. The question is what you want to have a reputation for. Harvard is a brand just like every other university. Do you just let that happen on its own? As Harvard has concluded, you don’t let it just pop out of the ether.”

Discomfort with the idea of branding potentially lies more with how these efforts are implemented rather than the actual efforts themselves. “I want Harvard to be the one everyone recognizes as the best, but not because we have a booth at SXSW,” remarks Lewis. “I want the Harvard brand to emerge naturally, because we have the best professors, the best students, who emerge to become leaders in society.”

Heenan stresses that the image Harvard communicates to its stakeholders and the public is derived organically from the people and the work within the University. “Unlike a product brand manager, we don’t have any role—nor should we—in influencing the delivery of education, the experience students have. But the ability to capture it and depict it and share it with more people does influence how the brand is experienced.”

Much of this outreach is done through the technological resources that have become increasingly present in people’s lives—from offering “Justice” lectures on iTunes U to posting a daily story on the Harvard Facebook page, which now has 1.6 million fans and counting.

“To the extent that there is that mythology, the more you can say, ‘That professor is really interesting;’ ‘that student is someone like me and funny and interesting, or is from my state or from my country, someone I can relate to, ‘maybe I could find a place at that institution;’ ‘Maybe I belong there as well’...I think is so powerful,” says Heenan. “These stories can close those gaps between perception and reality.”