Tweaking the Brand


This view of the main floor of the Harvard Coop is a suitable icon for our stay in Cambridge, which concluded last night with the grueling JetBlue flight to Denver. We flopped into bed at about 2 a.m. Not enough hours later, I am working at a Starbucks in Boulder, reconnecting with Colorado life. I know I’m not in Harvard Square, because there is more than six inches between the little round tables, and the guy closest to me is wearing a plaid flannel shirt. Plus I’m enjoying brilliant morning sunlight, a delight not seen during the last week in New England.

Thus may begin a new era of living in two worlds. My mother is going to clear out a closet in the third-floor apartment of their house where we can keep a dog cage and other supplies, making travel to and fro a little easier. I like the idea of seeing more of my family and maintaining our base in Denver. Which is not to say I didn’t feel surprising sadness sitting in my parents’ kitchen last night after my mother had brought in my favorite meal, spaghetti bolognaise. I wished we were walking across the street to go home instead of getting ready to haul luggage and dog and books 2,000 miles and two time zones away. So my vision of an eventual Boston move has not entirely surrendered to the unfair advantage of sensible options.

I love the Harvard Coop. In my days at Harvard, it was a general-merchandise store heavy on stuff with Veritas on it. Now it’s mainly books. As you walk in the front door, there is a whole section of books written by Harvard faculty and alumni. The sensibility of the store is infused wtih Harvard’s presence across the street. Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker piece deconstructed Harvard’s branding strategy with great wit and insight. What I took from it was that Harvard, in an often creepy way, has consciously created and maintained an image of itself as the premier institution of higher education in America. And I guess I’ll dare say that for me, it works. I feel smarter browsing the books at the Harvard Coop than I do in a run-of-the-mall Barnes & Noble superstore, even though I know the Coop is now managed by B&N. Everyone in the Coop seems more aware, more nuanced in their thinking, more likely to be advising the White House or the French government on matters of importance. This is a silly fantasy which does not withstand any kind of logical comparison of universities. But as I get older I am enjoying the pleasure of savoring my fantasies, of moving into them and taking off my shoes.

Denver’s savvy new mayor, John Hickenlooper, has set out to take full advantage of the “Mile-High Denver” brand’s suggestion of healthy living, vibrant arts and culture, ease with diversity, and top-notch urban education. I shamelessly move from one brand to another in my life, from Starbucks to Harvard to Denver to AA to WESTAF. A potent brand is an empowering myth. In the end, we each create our own brand and maintain it with subtle positioning decisions. The latest update of the LE brand is thus a hybrid of Mile-High and Harvard. Brought to you by JetBlue.

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