Branding Harvard

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2014
33 Pages, Grade: 1.15



Nick Birch 2014

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There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States and almost all of these institutions have continued to attract enough students to remain operational year after year, according to Author and Marketing guru Roger Dooley (2013).

That’s about to change, and one of the key differences in who survives won’t be the academic output of the faculty or the amenities available to students. It will be a factor seemingly unrelated to the schools’ mission: branding.

(Dooley, 2013)

Nurko (2010) says that ‘branding is a vital tool for Universities to consider as they not only seek to attract the brightest students, but they also seek to attract and retain top academic faculty talent, become centres for research grants as well as attract investment funding and endowments to subsidize future growth’.

The days when Universities were simply hallowed halls of academia around the world are gone. Today, Universities are not only academic institutes but they are commercial organisations and engines of economic growth for their communities and shareholders. Universities compete for talent at both the student level, but also for faculty personnel and investment funding. Both private and public Universities are more accountable for their balance sheets, as well as for their level of academic rigour and reputation. In a world in which academia, commerce and government overlap, the role higher education plays has never been more critical – yet, at the same time more controversial. For this reason, Universities are deploying marketing and branding strategies and tactical executions which seek to help them differentiate while also compete for potential student attention, financial investment and ultimately reputation accolades.

(Nurko, 2010)

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts has been named the university with the best reputation worldwide, according to many sources. ‘The most famous university in the world’ (Gomstyn, 2009) came in first in 2013 and 2014 according to World Reputation Rankings, a subsidiary of the Times Higher Education world university rankings, based on the results of the Academic Reputation Survey carried out by Ipsos MediaCT for Thomson Reuters (Sedghi, 2014).


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Students mortgaging their future

Dooley (2013) believes that ‘change is coming to this market’; the two most significant issues being affordability and declining benefits. ‘In addition to the ever-rising cost of a college education, the benefits of that education have become somewhat more elusive... Simply earning a degree no longer means a high probability of landing a reasonable job. Many newly minted grads have been forced to move back to their parents’ home or accept low-paying jobs that didn’t utilize their education’ (Dooley, 2013).

Historically, college brands have taken decades, or even centuries, to develop – it’s no accident that many of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. can trace their origins to the eighteenth century. A college or university that wants to build its brand today can’t afford to take the organic approach that worked for Harvard.

(Dooley, 2013)

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Harvard beats Yale in the most famous football game in Ivy League history - Nov. 23, 1968.

However, another branding imperative is ‘to begin building an identity that transcends the physical campus. As more courses are delivered electronically, some of the branding factors that set the school apart won’t work. The gorgeous campus, the mild climate, the hip urban environment a few steps away, etc. won’t matter a bit to the student thousands of miles away’ (Dooley, 2013).

To begin this branding portfolio, the Harvard shield or crest will be examined alongside its graduate schools shields, but not the house shields for the sake of brevity; although it may be assumed that any approach taken with the design should be equally applicable. Because Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States (Harvard University, N/A), it is imperative that its branding remains absolutely faithful to its history.


Established in 1636, Harvard was founded with the intention of establishing a school to train Christian ministers (The Social Transformation Conference, 2011), and so the original branding reflected this.

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The original Harvard seal

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The 1692 Motto and Shield of Harvard College blazes the Latin “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” which means

“Truth For Christ and the Church”. This phrase ‘can be found on many buildings around campus including the Widener library, Memorial Church, and various dorms in Harvard Yard’ (Overman, 2012).

The Seal of Harvard College as inscribed on the top of the Entrance into the Main Campus of Harvard College.

These were the three essential books (Overman, 2012) required for authentic education: the Bible, creation, and enlightened reason; or ‘Scripture, nature, and reason’ (Scott, N/A).

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Memorial Hall at Harvard University

Interestingly, at the university’s Memorial Hall, ‘the top two books on the shield are face up while the bottom book is face down. This symbolizes the limits of reason, and the need for God's revelation’ (Overman, 2012).

So history has arguably already been rewritten, or “deconstructed” as Brumbelow (2013) complains - ‘Note also that the facedown book has been turned over [in the newer shield]: no limits of human reason or science to fear now!’ In his dissertation,A Vision of Veritas: What Christian Scholarship Can Learn from the Puritan's "Technology" of Integrating Truth, Dr David Scott details at great length the many methods, movements, scholars and developments that led to the removal of Christ and the Church from the emblem, arguing ‘[t]here is no identifiable body of thought which articulates in an intellectual and practical way the Christian view of the integrality of all of knowledge, all of learning and all of life’ (Scott, N/A).

Careful thought must be invested in how it can be pedagogically integrated into the classroom. The contemporary challenge of education, however, goes beyond the school walls. Because of the dynamics of today's information age, mobilizing the communication channels to the general public is even more crucial. While the Christian mind needs to be scholarly, its sphere of influence will be limited if it is never translated and disseminated beyond the esoteric circles of the academy. This larger potential audience of popular culture means that a Christian life view needs to be more rhetorically savvy than ever.

(Scott, N/A)

Dooley (2013) reminds us that ‘the school’s brand must attract the necessary quantity and quality of students while still operating in the traditional college/university style’. Despite the misgivings surrounding the omission of detail within the crest, this kind of acquiescence heralds further simplification.


Before a university can understand their target students, teachers and faculty, they need to target what it is that makes them unique. Like corporate brands, universities need to find what truly sets them apart from other institutions and ‘focus relentlessly on communicating that difference’ (Dooley, 2013):

Sadly, all too many schools have branding messages that are interchangeable with hundreds of other schools. Happy students. Engaged profs. An emphasis on innovation. Taglines like “Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders.” As the market becomes more competitive, these messages won’t set a school apart.

(Dooley, 2013)

Harvard’s rival Yale, whose motto also contains the Latin word for “truth”, is the only other Ivy League school to do so. On a wider scale and ‘in an effort to examine the language institutions of higher education use to describe themselves’, Bailey (2012) created “Higher Ed Taglines”, a comprehensive collection of higher education taglines from across the United States. According to Bailey (2012), a total of 22 higher education institutions use the word “truth” in their tagline.

It may be argued that Harvard need not concern itself with what comprises other institution’s mottos as it was the first to coin the term. It has recently broadened its scope, however – possibly in an effort to modernise its branding. In 2009, Harvard applied for trademark rights on phrases "Managing yourself" and "The world's thinking" (Gomstyn, 2009). ‘The university, as reported by the Boston Globe, already has registered trademarks for the phrases "Ask what you can do" - from President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address - and "lessons learned" with the U.S. Patent Office’ (Gomstyn, 2009). Dooley (2009) disagrees that ‘[o]ne could argue that Harvard’s brand is so well recognized (and revered) worldwide that they are hardly in need of sloganeering’ because ‘[e]ven exceptionally well known brands need to sculpt the way their brand is perceived, and taglines are one way of doing that’.

I particularly like the “Ask what you can do” slogan because it works on multiple levels. It implies limitless possibilities but also suggests service to others. And, best of all, it evokes memories of John Kennedy, a famous Harvard grad who was elected President. In one phrase, Harvard can appeal to prestige seekers, altruists, and those who simply want to maximize their potential. All in all, this is brilliant branding – “Ask what you can do” is one of my all-time favourite college taglines, and it wouldn’t work as well anywhere else.

(Dooley, 2009)


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Branding Harvard
Central Queensland University
Brand Image Design
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Grade has been converted from Australian (38/40) to German (1.15)
branding, harvard
Quote paper
Nick Birch (Author), 2014, Branding Harvard, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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