On June 22, 2023, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about “the H-bomb,” which I learned refers to mentioning that you are a student at or an alumnus of Harvard University. Harvard College’s dean, in a Crimson (the campus newspaper) article where he was asked to give a word of advice to seniors, decided that the best use of this opportunity was to say “Don’t gratuitously drop the H-bomb.”
There’s much more valuable and less self-centered guidance that Harvard can offer to people going out into the world from their undergraduate careers than recommendations that essentially are about where they’ve been rather than about where they are going and what they can do with their futures. But that’s tangential to the topic I want to explore—which hinges on what I hinted at in the prior sentence: when the Dean talks, it’s not simply his words—it’s the institution’s. He is serving as a voice for the brand.
“Don’t gratuitously drop the H-bomb” is a statement of a brand with authenticity problems. I know that authenticity is an overused word, so let’s get back to the basics of what that really means: being genuine.
The WSJ article goes on to say that, with the very public issues Harvard is facing—legal challenges on its admission process, a Massachusetts bill that would tax its endowment to the tune of $100 million annually—“it’s no surprise that Harvard officials are grappling with the challenges of marketing their brand.” How is that justification for promoting a brand that recommends a pretense of shame about the Harvard credential—a pretense that by definition references the cachet of the credential? As the WSJ article cites, in a podcast episode last year titled “Confronting the H-Bomb,” Harvard Business School’s chief marketing and communication officer said: “Because the Harvard brand, although it’s well known and well respected in most circles, it’s also viewed negatively—people think about it as an elitist brand.”
So, is the answer to succumb to that negativity and promote behavior among brand ambassadors—students and alumnae—that sends a mixed message and tells them to radiate an aura of embarrassment rather than own the responsibility to validate the respect that the brand has earned? This sounds confusing to me, so imagine how it must feel to them. And, in turn, to anyone they may influence. No, that’s not the answer.
Harvard may think so, because it feels intentional. In a world where many outside voices participate in defining our brand, we want it to be as intentional as possible by having the largest say in how our brand is defined among our target audiences. So Harvard is overtly “owning” both the respect and the embarrassment of its brand. But deliberate confusion doesn’t count as intentional. That confusion is born of succumbing to brand challenges from various and often difficult influences, and succumbing is not true intention. On its website’s Mission and Culture page, we read that “Harvard’s mission is to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge.” How can anyone connect that to hiding one’s association with the institution? I could go on, but I think the argument for brand confusion is pretty clear.
In 2018, I did pro bono work for my alma mater, Cornell University, to help them develop the brand architecture, voice, and messaging platform for what was then its fledgling Master of Public Health (MPH) program. As I read about Harvard’s brand confusion, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast: the leadership of Cornell’s MPH was intent on defining a brand that was honest, that they could live up to, that genuinely reflected how they aspired to meet the needs of students and the public health community, that leveraged the respect and value unique to Cornell.
Does Cornell also face difficult hurdles and challenges? Of course; any institution of that size and influence does. But the MPH leadership understands that those challenges represent opportunities to further live up to all its brand can and should promise, not an invitation to morph into a murky brand that embraces self-doubt. Being rooted in an intentional, differentiated, and unambiguous brand positioning helped the program to grow its matriculating student population by about 65% in the four years from 2018 to 2022. It has more than doubled its faculty and is able to plan for the future of its curriculum in support of its purpose: building public health leaders who are inspired and trained to ensure the health of people, animals, and the world in which we live.
Your brand tells all your stakeholders—external and internal—who you are and where you are going. When challenges arise to that, your brand promise helps to illuminate what you need to do to get back on course. If, instead, you embrace doubt in your brand definition, there is a good chance you’ll begin to confuse your identity and lose your way.