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.