Harvard Gets College Branding


Just days after I wrote about using taglines in college branding, Harvard University’s effort to trademark several slogans is raising eyebrows and getting them called “the Nike of higher education”:

The most famous university in the world, meanwhile, is applying for trademark rights on phrases in which the tie-ins to Harvard are also less than obvious: “Managing yourself” and “The world’s thinking.” 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. [From ABC News – Protecting Harvard: Words to Sue By? by Alice Gomstyn.]

One could argue that Harvard’s brand is so well recognized (and revered) worldwide that they are hardly in need of sloganeering. I disagree. Even 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 favorite college taglines, and it wouldn’t work as well anywhere else.

Managing yourself” and “Lessons learned” aren’t nearly as evocative or powerful, though perhaps they’ll work in some context that Harvard has planned. “The world’s thinking” is much better, as, like the “Ask” slogan, it works at several levels. It implies that students will be exposed to ideas and thought leaders from around the globe, but I also see an interpretation that the school itself is a source of global thought leaders.

Harvard’s use of business branding techniques will do doubt strike some other university adminstrators as unseemly, but, as is often the case, Harvard is ahead of the curve.

Thanks to Dave Berry for leading me to the ABC story.

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