What Harvard Teaches – About Branding

Harvard University

Harvard University Shield

Having spent the majority of my professional life working in the field of marketing – specifically branding – I can say this without hesitation…the terms “brand” and “branding” are consistently misused, overused or completely misunderstood. This fact is one of the driving factors for my weekly Friday’s Fearless Brand series. My hope is to help people understand the true meaning of branding and the powerful results that powerful brands enjoy.

To begin with, every business, product, service, institution, group and individual is a brand. A brand is simply a value proposition – a promise to the public. It’s the value the public expects to receive from any given brand. Logos, names, websites, packaging, and other tangibles are the messaging elements of a brand.

A fearless brand is built on a platform of authenticity. It is a brand that has discovered its purpose – a combination of passion and ability – and understands how it’s relevant, and to whom. Some find it simpler to think of a fearless brand as a formula…

(passion + talent) x relevance = a fearless brand

For me, it’s stories and real-world brands that help me to best understand branding – which is the second reason I write about a fearless brand each week. Evaluating brands – what I call a brand audit – helps clarify the true value a brand offers. Doing so also more clearly identifies the powerful results fearless brands produce.

I was recently asked “Can an institution – say Harvard University – be a fearless brand?” The answer, of course, is yes! It was that question that led to my selecting Harvard University – one of the world’s most renownedacademic institutions – as this Friday’s Fearless Brand.

Harvard is the oldest institute of higher learning in what is now the United States. It was founded in 1636 by a vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The college, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, originally consisted of a one-acre tract of land – which has come to be somewhat famously known as Harvard Yard. 

The college’s first benefactor, and its namesake, was a young minister by the name of John Harvard, who willed his full library of 400 books and his property to the school. Harvard was founded by Puritans, its primary purpose being to train young ministers. In 1692, Harvard adopted the school motto of “Truth (Veritas) for Christ (Christo) and the Church (Ecclesiae).” Over time, Harvard transformed into a secular university – the current motto is simply “Veritas” (truth). 

While it’s virtually impossible to definitively declare any one university ‘the best in the world”, Harvard consistently resides in the top three on every list which ranks schools. The metrics change, the results rarely do. Consistency is an element common to fearless brands.

Harvard University embodies every element which makes a fearless brand. Purpose. Talent. Relevance.

Harvard’s purpose comes directly from their website – “Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally.” Not only is their purpose – their ‘why’ – clear and concise, it’s been consistent since the university’s inception.

There is no shortage of talent in Harvard’s faculty. They are a group of enthusiastic, curious, world-class scholars with a passion to pass on their knowledge while simultaneously continuing their own research and learning. Harvard’s student body is equally gifted, both in intellect and inquisitiveness.

The final element of a fearless brand is to be relevant. Harvard has an enrollment of over 20,000 students, twelve degree-granting schools, and over 360,000 living alumni across the globe. Other universities are often referred to as the “Harvard of the South”, “Harvard of the West” or “Harvard of wherever we’re located”. Such monikers are not meant in any way to be a slight to those universities – quite the opposite. Other schools strive to match Harvard’s standards and results. Yes, Harvard University certainly has relevance.

The history and heritage of Harvard University is both broad and deep. It would literally take a book to list every element which together define Harvard’s brand. Fortunately, that level of detail isn’t necessary to make the point – Harvard University is a fearless brand.

I’m not an alum of Harvard – nor am I connected to Harvard in any direct way. I am, however, passionate about the power of branding – the results of branding. It’s for that reason that I hope the next time you think of a brand, or branding, you take a moment to think of Harvard. Remember that it’s the essence of the school – it’s value – that defines Harvard as a brand. It’s important to understand that premise, and then focus on elevating your own purpose, talent and relevance so that you too can create a fearless brand – so that you too are branding for results. 

Company Branding Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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