Claude SingerClaude Singer

There’s a fundamental principle of branding: “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.” The clearer and more aspirational the promise, the harsher the blowback if you fail to deliver on that promise.

Wells Fargo Bank postured for years as a reliable provider of customer services. But if you promise to protect people’s money and then sign them up for bogus accounts and credit cards behind their backs, your brand will suffer.

Harvard University—for generations—has proclaimed its devotion to truth through its motto: Veritas. Truth in research, truth in guiding principles, truth in criteria applied to hiring, grading and pedagogy. It’s a noble goal, and it committed the institution to academic esteem. Is Harvard arguably our country’s best university? This, in summary, was their answer: Veritas!

President Claudine Gay has been forced out of the Presidency of Harvard. Why did this happen?

Let’s set aside matters of race and gender and accept the well-intended elevation of non-traditional candidates to high levels in academia. This is a branding issue. Simply look up the University’s motto and you will know that Claudine Gay’s presidency was unsustainable.

Once the allegations of her extensive plagiarism emerged, President Gay’s tenure as President was doomed. Some have called it intellectual theft, others have called it dishonesty. But in the end, at bottom, her published work was not authentic, was not true in its purported provenance—and thus, was incompatible with the Harvard brand.

Principle number one was violated. For the brand to maintain its inherited value, correction in light of these revelations was absolutely mandated. Even in an era notorious for hypocrisy, people expect brand promises to be kept.


Claude Singer is Managing Partner of Brandsinger.