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Cheapening the Harvard Brand – Can Anybody Say “Moo?”

Saw an ad on the train promoting something called "Harvard Distance Education" through "Harvard University Extension School." It's not the first such ad I've seen or even inquired into, as we see schools like Stanford and MIT getting into the distance learning business, with modules that are either paid or free. Jack Welch has an MBA program. On iTunes you can find a lot of this stuff, either in the form of podcasts or "iTunes University."

In the free format, providing Ivy League syllabi is a great idea. Not only does it promote brand awareness, it shows transparency, shows goodwill to the customer who can't afford the brand, and facilitates an environment where the ideas and names associated with the school have greater influence. And the fact that it's free shows that the school is not exploitive or desperate, but rather knows that there is a time and place to make money and a time to step aside and facilitate learning in its own right.

Yet Harvard's "Extension" program seems not to understand the difference between providing a glimpse of the Ivy League, and hosting a fire sale. By selling the brand in volume and on the cheap, they are betraying their strategy of exclusivity and premium pricing, not to mention associating themselves with "diploma mills" - a position most schools struggle to avoid. Maybe they need money, but by doing this they are jeopardizing their long-term brand equity, which is the basis for their price premium.

For the brand that literally defines the "gold standard" of education – against which all other schools are compared – there really is no substitute for geographically limited, face-to-face interaction between brilliant students and brilliant teachers in an enclosed environment that celebrates brilliance.

Does that mean that the Harvard experience can only take place in Boston? Hell, no. I can envision many opportunities to replicate the experience in a "bubbled" environment through offsite classes, conferences and retreats, and exclusive, high-tech virtual roundtables where the professor and the students are working together virtually but in such a "live" way that it is almost like being there.

But this is not what Harvard is doing with its current approach. Here are the cues from the ad that indicate the school is milking its brand as a cash cow and cheapening its value in the long term:

1. "Competitive tuition" – exclusive brands never compete on the basis of money

2. "Extension school" – brings to mind a trailer next to the beautiful brick building covered in ivy

3. Logo - looks cheap, inferior, and like a bad version of the real thing

I can only conclude that the Harvard push into distance education, in this way, is an outstanding example of a brand screwing up because of blind greed while telling itself that it is "doing the right thing" by "expanding the brand promise" to "make a Harvard education accessible to those who couldn't otherwise have it."

Oh, please.

Without addressing the issue of goodwill, from a business perspective people who are interested in the Harvard name are EXCLUSIVE by nature. They actually want to pay MORE for the class, not less, and the money should never even be mentioned.

With this strategy they are lowering themselves to the Jos. A. Bank level, where $500men's suits are sold in the mid $100 range with ridiculous "Buy 1 get 5" or "Buy 5 get 5" or God knows whatever commercials they run all the time that make this actually very nice brand look completely cheap. (If you walk into a store, the suits are not crappy at all, but they really seem that way from the way they are portrayed on TV.)

Back to Harvard: They should never put the word "extension" in the same sentence as their name. Rather, they need an entirely new brand, with a focus on technology and/or accessibility. If they are going to keep the Harvard name, call it "Harvard Without Walls" and show how the virtual experience will be premium-ized to be similar to the live one.

This is something that the Jack Welch MBA actually does very well. I've inquired with them, interacted with them, and reviewed their materials, and they have created a very classy and compelling brand offering. (Not an endorsement.)

Again, back to Harvard: They live and die by that logo. It should never be cheapened or even look cheap.

Bottom line: Harvard's "Extension" school is a case of a great brand shooting itself in the foot. When you are an exclusive luxury brand and you need to extend outward, do so in a way where you can ask more people for the same premium cost per item - never where you're giving the product away just to boost volume.

Decision Filters: A Brand Strategy for You and Your Organization

In his book Brand Simple, Landor brand strategist Allen Adamson points out one of the key benefits of a brand, both for manufacturers and consumers: They make our lives simpler.

This may seem simple, obvious and unimportant. But it is 100% true. And exciting or not, it is a truth that is extraordinarily profitable. Because people, being survival-oriented, need to save time and energy for the critical things in life – like hunting for food and preparing for war. In addition, they will tend to avoid risk, because doing risky things can put your life and livelihood in danger. For example:

* When you’re in a place you don’t recognize, you’ll eat at McDonald’s or Subway or Taco Bell rather than a no-name diner because you know basically what to expect, how it will taste, what will be in it, and the quality is guaranteed.

* When your resume is submitted for a job opportunity, if it is stamped with the name of an Ivy League school, the recruiter will be more likely to put yours in the “interview” pile.

* When you have to buy a piece of software for your company, you will go with a name that’s “known” rather than a no-name, because “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

No wonder, then, that everyone wants to be or own a great brand. You want to be the one that busy people turn to - one less of life's million daily decisions.

But another benefit of branding has to do with your personal ability to make decisions. Not necessarily the right decisions. But simply the ability to make them, when you're not sure what to do or when you're confronted with many choices.

If you think of yourself as a brand, you can then decide how you want to be perceived. If you know how you want to be perceived, you then know how to act. Thinking in brand terms helps you to focus where you may be confused by the different and seemingly equally important choices you have.

Once you know your priorities and what order they’re in, you then have a filter to tell you what to do when confronted with various situations. There is less questioning whether you did the right or the wrong thing, and more calm. Eventually, as you get feedback on your priorities (some of your choices will be right for you, and others wrong), you can shift them around until you get them on track.

This is similar to coming up with your personal mission statement, something we’re often told to do but which can be difficult to actually do, or live up to.

The way I think of it is that your priorities don’t come from what’s in your head. They come from what you’re already doing. Look to that, and simply put that on paper.

As an example, here are mine:

1. Conscience
2. Family
3. Work
4. Writing
5. Fun

Both personal and organizational branding can give you the focus you need to say "no" in a world where it is easy to get distracted by the myriad opportunities and attention-wasters, that tend to consume our time, fritter away our energy, and distract us from our primary goals.

Remember: At the end of the day, it is not your effort but the results that matter. If you follow your personal brand, you may not have the most money in the world, but at least you will have a measure of control over your life satisfaction, because you will have truly focused on the things that are important to you.

Brand Break: 15+ Stress-Busters That May Save Your Life

This week a study came out showing that women experiencing high job strain (high demand, low creativity, insecurity) have an 88% increased risk of heart attack.

This led me to think about the techniques I use to lower stress in my own life. Hope these are helpful to you, no matter what line of work you happen to be in.

Notice that I haven't numbered them. Numbering is stressful!


Spirituality - thinking about higher things. Striving for serenity. I like the worldview of the Dalai Lama. New Agey thinking in general. (Also Jewish mysticism - the inner meaning of things. Emphasis on making the world right and whole again, ending injustice and suffering, through personal growth and development.)

Taking care of my family. Achieving something concrete.

Doing my job the best I can. Focusing on my efforts, not worrying about outcomes I can't control.


Observing advertising and popular culture.

Observing photography and art.

Diet: No sugar - high protein - nutritional supplements. Avoid chemicals.

Walking in nature.

Bookstores and libraries.




The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. Also The New York Times and (sometimes) The Wall Street Journal.

Taking the time to listen to others, be empathetic, try to help if I can.

Giving charity.

Avoiding the mall, though individual stores are OK.

Starbucks, Panera, illy.

Getting organized.

Take an hour a day for yourself. You will be happier and healthier, and everything in your life will benefit as a result.

Branding, Social Media and How to Avoid a Communication Crisis

Many people have asked me what branding and social media have to do
with each other.

This is an incredibly important question – actually THE most important
question communication experts must deal with today.

If you understand the importance and connection between these two
things, you will be equipped with "risk insurance" for your
organization in the case of a communication disaster. You will be able

• Predict a crisis that will come way before it ever starts
• Perceive the signs of a crisis before it starts to affect the value
of your organization
• Minimize the damage of a crisis in its early stages
• Help the organization recover from a crisis once it's blown up

The fact of the matter is that communication crises, like fires, are
normally completely avoidable. It is only our own sense of
invincibility and denial of reality that causes them to fester.

But let's start at the beginning – let's talk about branding for a minute.

Brands are a fact of life today. Every organization has a brand, every
product is a brand, every service is a brand, and every person is a

Brand is really synonymous with image. It's a kind of shorthand that
people use to interpret their worlds and make decisions.

Brands come about through the actions of the individual or
organization together with the social, economic, political, and other
realities of the larger environment.

For example, if you run a luxury fur coat company today, you are by
definition up against a cultural definition of your brand as
unethical: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has 2
million supporters.

At the same time, there are still those who drive gas-guzzling
Lamborghinis and routinely spend $12 for a cup of gourmet coffee.

It's up to you to develop an action strategy to effectively manage the
conflicting values represented by these opposing realities.

Now let's go to social media – a social force equally strong as
branding, that is the very opposite of this discipline.

Social media is essentially what happens when people speak up without
restriction. There is no "trying to create an image," only authentic

It is extraordinarily difficult for companies to build a brand in an
environment such as exists today, there self-expression by way of
social media has literally exploded to the point where you cannot shut
people up anymore.

Companies themselves are expected to participate in social media,
leaving them in the odd position of creating and managing an image,
and yet having to be completely authentic at the same time.

Of course, this is impossible. You can't be wearing makeup and going
without makeup all at once. Either you're plastic or you're not,

Well, not necessarily. Which brings me to the solution.

The way to handle branding and social media is to actually be your
true self at all times.

This goes for companies and this goes for people.

In this way, you do develop an image, and the image is the same as
your true self.

More importantly, what people say about you is going to be basically
the same thing as what you say and do, because there is nothing to
hide there.

In short, branding in 2010 and going forward is about transparency.

The art of it is in doing two things, and here is where we get to
communication crises:

1. You focus your brand on one thing. Not everything.
2. As long as it is legal, of course, your brand can be morally "good"
or "bad," objectionable or unobjectionable – the point is that you
don't have to be Pollyanna to have a brand. You simply are focusing on
one area. (Most consumer products can be objected to on one level or
3. Wherever you have focused your brand, this is where you are
especially and absolutely transparent. You do not promise to be
completely transparent in all respects of your operations (though you
do have to be ethical) – only here.

When you have aligned your brand, you are then in a position to spot,
avert, manage, and even eliminate the communication crises that
threaten all organizations constantly.

Remember: A communication crisis is really a fancy way of describing a
broken promise. It happens when you do something so much in contrast
to your promise, that it completely undermines your credibility among
your audience.

In the age of social media, what you say about yourself is only the
starting point. What really matters is what people say about you. So:

• Take the time to decide who you are as an organization – it may not
match the fantasy.
• Focus in on one thing that you can do better than anyone else.
• Deliver on that promise. Communicate your delivery.
• And monitor what people are saying about you.

When you see that a gap is developing between the promise and the
reality, do something to bridge it and repair the damage - before the
shaking ground beneath your feet becomes a devastating earthquake.

A $500 million movie idea - based on a brand lesson from RED vs. Unstoppable

Unstoppable is a pretty good movie. From a branding perspective, it proves the "law" that successful brands are about delivering consistent value. I didn't even have to know the plot to know that if Denzel Washington was in it, it was going to be worth watching - and not just on DVD, but in a theater. Read: nearly $10 ticket price, per person, when all of you can see the same thing on Redbox for $1. Wow.

Yet RED was even better. Let me tell you why.

The culture of branding today has shifted away from celebrating the individual. The truth is, individuals are only of limited interest, because people today are so distractible, so distracted, so used to multitasking, as well as so demanding that every moment of their time be maximized, that they want to focus their attention on many things at once. The synthesis is more important than the one.

In RED, it's not all about Bruce Willis the hero (as Unstoppable is about Denzel Washington), but it is about celebrating the entourage - amazing, great legendary actors John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and Brian Cox. Even the "weakest link," Mary Louise Parker, added something important to the mix that would not have been possible without her presence.

If your goal is to get 50 million people to pay $10 each for your movie, lean toward casting a great entourage rather than a single star.