This is a transcript for an episode of Branding Love Letters, which is available wherever you listen to podcasts.

Find your platform by clicking the love letter:

"Harvard: Inside The Prestigious Brand" — Tosin Odugbemi, Visual Brand Strategist

Tosin Odugbemi (00:00): Hello, I'm Tosin Odugbemi, an academic and design practitioner, and this is my love letter to Harvard University.

Sam Thorogood (00:23): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Tosin Odugbemi (01:04): My introduction to Harvard University was very blurry, as it probably is for most people. It's kind of one of those brands that you just know, and it's unclear when you first really got introduced to them. But some of my first memories of the brand and of the school have been through like fictitious media, like things like Legally Blonde, the movie, or like Gilmore Girls, the show. And I remember that in those examples, Harvard has always been represented as a tool for self-affirmation and kind of for like justification of intelligence.

Sam Thorogood (01:43): And in those depictions, did you, in your mind, was that a positive depiction? Did it seem like an interesting place, a place that intrigued you?

Tosin Odugbemi (01:52): Yeah, it felt very positive. And before I had rubbed up as closely as I have now against the brand, I always thought of it as like, wow, this amazing institution that felt almost untouchable and that anybody who might go there or might be associated to it in any way must be some type of like great superhuman. So I'd say it had an extremely positive association in my brain.

Sam Thorogood (02:17): And how did you start to personally interact with this brand?

Tosin Odugbemi (02:21): A lot like everyone else, I felt like it was really prestigious. And so I applied. And I think that that was due to my personal ambition and audacity. Like maybe I probably have a bigger ego than the average person. Yeah. And so I see things like Harvard or just like things that, you know, lots of people would think, oh, maybe I'm not the right person for this. Maybe this is too difficult for me to achieve. For me, those are the perfect challenges. I'm like, I wonder if I could do this. And so I usually shoot my shot with a lot of different things and it doesn't always work out. And I just kind of move on. But then sometimes it does, like with this brand in particular.

Sam Thorogood (03:02): And so did you apply specifically for the master's programme that you're doing right now?

Tosin Odugbemi (03:08): Yes, I did. So I was already really set in on becoming an architect. And so I applied to all the best schools. And so it wasn't just Harvard. It was Harvard, Yale, Columbia, all of those. And I was really blessed to be accepted into all of them. And so I ended up choosing Harvard probably because of that prestige. And, you know, there are some other reasons, too, like I just love the city and things like that. And so I had my sight first set on the degree programme that I wanted to. And then I just applied to the best schools for that.

Sam Thorogood (03:39): And so talk to me about the experience of being at Harvard, studying at the Graduate School of Design, completing this degree in architecture. What, you know, day to day, what is it like? Because like you say, I think for many of us, Harvard holds this kind of mysterious allure of being this slightly untouchable university. What are you finding are the surprises of actually living there and studying there?

Tosin Odugbemi (04:05): Yeah, well, I think that many Harvard students will say the same thing, where a lot of that mysterious allure kind of starts to dissolve once you really get into the institution and, you know, you're walking around every day and you're, you know, meeting the professors and all the other students and things like that. And there's nothing that can take that away faster than meeting somebody who maybe you personally don't think is very intelligent or very likeable or something. And they still have the label of Harvard student or Harvard affiliate in some type of way. And so there's a lot of unglamorous parts of it. And there is a lot of glamorous parts as well. But, you know, like everything else in life, that glamour kind of loses its sparkle because you are so embedded in it. Right. So all the resources and all the cool things that come with it, your entire social circle is experiencing that as well. So it kind of becomes normalised. And so usually I notice things about it most when I'm talking to my friends and family and just people who do not go to the school. And I'm like, wow, this is pretty special, this cool thing that I get to experience all the time and kind of, you know, brush off as normal.

Sam Thorogood (05:09): What emotions does Harvard evoke for you?

Tosin Odugbemi (05:12): Yeah, I would say pride and anxiety. There's this like, yeah, there's this large pressure for the brand and my alignment with it to start to fuel my own social mobility in such a powerful way that it would overcome things like sexism and racism. And so, like, I always have thought of it. And that's part of why I applied to such prestigious institutions as I did was because I was like, OK, I'm a black woman. And, you know, the world is set up in such a way where I probably won't be able to achieve that much, just like left to my own devices, just by my own skill alone. And so I'm going to need these helping hands like a really fancy degree. And this very fancy brand alignment to start to overcome those things. But with that comes like this intense sense of pressure, right, where it's just like, OK, like this degree has to in order for it to be worth all the anxiety, worth all the stress, worth the financial commitment. It has to completely change my life in order for it to have lived up to these huge expectations that I set for myself.

Sam Thorogood (06:15): And where is that pressure coming from? Is that is that coming externally? Is that coming from you yourself? Can you can you diagnose it or is it is it more just in the air at Harvard?

Tosin Odugbemi (06:25): Oh, I would say that it is in the air, but I would be remiss if I said that it was external, because I think that like mostly every Harvard student feels it and we all kind of blame it. And this will come through in like my letter a little bit. Sometimes we all kind of blame it on the institution or blame it on external factors like family or friends or even like professors and things like that. But when it really comes down to it, that's something I've been learning over my past three years of attending the school is that like a lot of the stuff is internal and nobody can force you to feel any type of way. And so a lot of this does come from that big ego that I was talking about before and that pridefulness that I have inside of myself that's just kind of embedded in my personality and having to learn how to like hone that and, you know, keep the parts of it that make me ambitious and make me confident. But letting go of the parts of it that actually end up causing all this anxiety and insecurity, because when it really comes down to it, I am not a special person. I'm a human, just like everyone else. And so putting superhuman pressure on myself causes all of these negative emotions. So I think that it's all internal. And I think that this school ends up attracting a lot of personalities that tend towards the direction that mine does, where it's just like, you know, where these people who think that we're so awesome and that the world was like we were born into this world to make this big difference and things like that. And then we end up putting so much pressure on ourselves and then blaming it on everyone else, if that makes sense.

Sam Thorogood (07:55): It's fascinating. I mean, you're you're a very talented designer yourself. So to talk to me about the brand's visual identity. I mean, they obviously have this very iconic crimson and gold coat of arms. Talk to me about the way that they're presenting themselves visually in all the different touchpoints that you're seeing as a student. At Harvard.

Tosin Odugbemi (08:14): Yeah, well, thank you so much for the compliment. But I would say that the visual identity feels like intentionally dated to me. They have access to so many resources and so many design agencies. You know, they could hire a Pentagram if they wanted to, but they've chosen to stay with this like same crest that they've been going with since like the 1600s. And, you know, that's very intentional. As we know, brands are more than just something beautiful, but it's that association and that reputation, which for a brand like Harvard is absolutely essential. Harvard is only Harvard because of that reputation. And so long as they keep on attracting the most brilliant and ambitious minds, then, you know, they get to keep their reputation because those people then go on and do great things and then people attribute it to Harvard and not necessarily the individuals they're attracting. And so it's the cyclical relationship. And I think that the visual identity really reinforces that and helps perpetuate that.

(09:09): And so a fun story about the crimson red is that it actually came from this sports team. I'm not a very big sports person, so I don't even know which one, but they were using these red handkerchiefs to wipe their sweat. And then throughout the games, those red handkerchiefs that were like a brighter red started turning more to the like crimson colour that we recognise now. And so then that became like the Harvard crimson red and it became official. And now, as we know, that's like such a big part of the brand, the newspaper that the school puts out is called like the Harvard Crimson and everyone just knows it so well. And so I always think of it as like literally blood, sweat and tears is the colour of the school. And I don't think that they say it like that, but that's kind of my association. And being somebody who's like so in it, I know that like that is so true to the brand and just like being in alignment with it as being a student or faculty here or any type of associate with the school is that like it takes so much sacrifice to stay in this role. But then you kind of get addicted to it because the Harvard brand like it returns back to you and it takes you really far. And so you kind of have to keep on pouring out those blood, sweat and tears to be able to reap the benefits of the brand. And so, yes, that's all. That's all my spiel about that intentionally dated branding and that crimson red and the serif fonts and everything like that.

Sam Thorogood (10:33): Can you envisage a world where they would ever do a rebrand and take, say, the crimson, but turn it into a very modern looking logo? Or do you think for as long as Harvard exists, it will stick with this coat of arms, this this very kind of dated historic artifact almost?

Tosin Odugbemi (10:51): Yeah, I honestly doubt that they would ever change it. I think that this is true of pretty much any gigantic brand as well known and that has been able to become like a household name like Harvard. The more that I have myself gotten into the branding world and understood, like just the politics of a rebrand, the more I realise that like once a brand reaches a certain level, it's unlikely that they're ever going to make any big change. They might shift it a little bit. They might modernise it and just like make the edges a little bit smoother. But I I would be so shocked if they ever let go of like the main core of that shield. And I think that they're going to keep it. And they've gone through so many different scandals and things like that that might have justified a rebrand and they stuck with the same branding. And so I really don't see what could ever like cause a big change. I think it'll be the same.

Sam Thorogood (11:40): What has Harvard done that has surprised you over the years?

Tosin Odugbemi (11:43): This is going to be funny because my answer to the last question, and I would say it has changed, it's shifted. Like they really like to like stick to their guns. And there's a lot of bureaucracy in the school and any type of little shift or change has to go through like a million and one levels of approvals. And so usually things don't get passed through. But there has been like some different scandals and there's been some different things that has caused the school to have to shift their ideology or change the way that they do things. And every single time it's like, oh, wow, they're actually changing something. So that has always been shocking for me. You know, there's like a whole history of slavery at Harvard and things like that. And like I was so surprised because this is the type of school that you would think, you know, they have the resources and they could just cover the whole thing up. You know, and so I was thinking that they were going to go that route where they're just going to like pay to bury all the media and like let it go. But they actually like kind of leaned into it in a way. And then they did this entire thing where it was like the history of slavery at Harvard. And like, you know, they they like revealed and uncovered the whole thing. They use some of their very own researchers to actually like uncover even more of it. And then they essentially like apologised for it. And so that to me was like a really shocking change and like shift. And then, you know, they changed some policy things and stuff like that as well to align with the messaging of that.

Sam Thorogood (13:03): And how did they present that? Was that was that an exhibition? Was that stuff that they put out online? How did they they share this research?

Tosin Odugbemi (13:10): It was all of the above. And so, yeah, there was like exhibitions. There's, you know, like like activations that they put in museums and stuff like that. It was online. It was on social media. It was kind of everywhere. And it still is a little bit.

Sam Thorogood (13:22): Have there been any times where it's been really? I mean, you've talked a little bit about some times when it's maybe been harder to love the brand. Have there been any specific anecdotes or moments where you just think this is I really struggle to love this brand?

Tosin Odugbemi (13:37): Yeah. Yeah. I would say that, you know, there was a time and kind of like the climax of my degree, I was right in the middle of it. And now looking back, I know that like for everyone, that's the most difficult part. But I didn't know. No one really warned me I was coming up. And that was probably the closest time that I was to dropping out. I was like, I can't do this anymore. I was becoming like very disillusioned to the whole facade. And I was like, OK, you know, I was watching the number of my student loan borrowings tick up. And I was like, OK, like doing the math and realising that I was going to graduate with like this much student loan debt. And I thought it would all be worth it because I thought that, you know, I'd be able to just like wave this Harvard flag and everybody would just let me in to any opportunity that I wanted. But I realised that like it's not that simple. It definitely does open some doors for you. But it's not like just the Harvard thing alone is going to let you have anything that you ever wanted in the world. And so I was like, what if I can't get a great job after this? And this degree is so difficult. And I was feeling like I was experiencing a lot of weird things because like I'm Canadian. And so, you know, of course, like I've experienced racism before, but like really just nothing compares to what you experience in the United States. And so I had just moved here and I was like, I feel like everyone hates me here and everything stacked up against me. And like I hate this.

(14:53): And so I remember at that time I was so resentful. And if anyone asked me, because I get a lot of messages and a lot of people from like my alma mater or just like people who might follow me on social media and stuff, like asking me if they could touch base with me about like coming to this school or coming to peer schools and things like that. And at that time, I was like telling everyone, I was like, I don't think it's worth it. Like, sure, apply if you want to. But like this is not something that I would do again if I was given the opportunity. And so at that time, I was finding the brand to be very, very hard to love. But I think it was just this awkward moment where it's like I had. It's almost like when you start taking a medication and the side effects kick in before the benefits. And I feel like I was in that cusp where it was like I was just getting all the negative parts of it, but I hadn't started to actually experience the benefits yet, which now entering my final year when I'm like actually applying for jobs. And I've been at the school so long that sometimes the school asked me to do things and it's giving me like more and more accolades for like going here. I was just like, this is just this whole thing is not worth it. So very hard to love then.

Sam Thorogood (15:53): And are you in a different place now?

Tosin Odugbemi (15:55): Yes, I'm in a different place now. I definitely have my days. And I think that I have a little bit more of like a balanced view of the brand where I'm like, you know, it's not all just cookies and rainbows and excellence here, but it's also not all bad. And I think that that will continue to clarify and it probably will become more and more positive, I'm guessing, over time because I imagine in 20 years from now, I'm probably going to forget all the suffering I went through and then only remember the benefit that I got. But right now, I think I'm in one of the most honest phases where I have not forgotten the suffering because it was pretty recent. But I also have started to catch the benefits. I have a very balanced view, I would say, of the brand.

Sam Thorogood (16:34): As we said, Harvard exists kind of in the public consciousness as this this institution that's always been there. Just imagine for a second that someone's never heard of Harvard. How would you describe it to them?

Tosin Odugbemi (16:47): So I thought hard about this question, and the only answer that I could come up with is that I wouldn't, because I think that if somebody has not heard of Harvard before, they probably don't need to. I was trying to think of the case study of the type of person who would have never heard of this. And I'm thinking, like, it doesn't matter what country you go to, what field you're in. You probably would have heard of this before, unless maybe your society or your community just like did not at all value education or like, you know, think of it in the way that we do. And, you know, those types of communities, I'm just like, I would not even waste time because I think I'd be so enamored with the type of people and the type of lifestyle that they're living and how different it is from, you know, the super capitalist world that I'm living in, that I'd be like, I don't want to taint this. Like, let them do them. And like, I don't want to tell them about this like institution that's out there. And it's like it's all just a very weird concept when you think about it.

Sam Thorogood (17:42): It's a really interesting answer. How would you summarise your journey with Harvard over the years if we go way back to seeing it depicted in those in those films that you were talking about right up to now, this moment where you're months away from completing this this programme? How would you summarise your journey with with Harvard?

Tosin Odugbemi (18:03): I would say it's like undulating and emotional. It feels like a really close relationship, like a dating relationship or something that was maybe a little bit toxic. That's how it feels like. I don't know. Like to me, it feels really comparable to any type of dating relationship that I've had where it's like, you know, it starts out with like a crush where it's like, oh, like this person looks so interesting. Like this brand looks so cool. Like everything looks beautiful from the outside. Like, look at all the bricks. Look at all the ivy. Like, wow, that's beautiful. And then, you know, then it goes through this slow process of like you get closer and closer and closer and you get to know them more and more and more. And then some of the flaws start popping up. And at first it's like, oh, that's not that bad because they're so awesome. Right. Like and it's just like these little things. We're all human. But then you reach this point where it's like so much deep conflict and you're like, OK, I don't know if this is worth it anymore. And now this person seems like super whack to me. And that and that's and that's that phase that I kind of talked about earlier. And then, you know, it depends. Either the relationship breaks up at that point or you power through and you have a little bit more of like a nuanced view and like a deeper love where you completely understand them and all their complexity and all their flaws and also all their great attributes. And you accept that and you love that and you move forward and you figure out a way to like make it work for both you and them. And I feel like that's the phase I'm in now with Harvard.

Sam Thorogood (19:26): It's beautiful. It's beautiful. Thank you. So, Tosin, tell me more about you and where people can connect in with what you're doing online.

Tosin Odugbemi (19:35): Yeah, so I am a brand strategist myself. And so that's why I probably see Harvard as a brand and not necessarily just a school or an institution. And all of my stuff could be found at my website, which is And from there, you can find all my social media and things like that.

Sam Thorogood (19:57): Brilliant. Well, finally, I would love to hear your love letter that you've written to Harvard.

Tosin Odugbemi (20:02): OK, perfect. OK, so, dear Harvard, your acceptance of me has wedged itself into my sense of self, threatening to become my identity, ego and peace. You steal interest, becoming the most interesting thing about me. But as soon as you're brought up, I start to resent your prestige because it overshines my personal accomplishments. I'm full of gratitude for your prestige, however, because it is one of my greatest accomplishments. Everything we've had together seems so surreal. Joy consumed me when I first stepped into your great gates onto the cobblestone roads. I thought I made it. And as I looked at the burgundy brick, the ivy and smelled the thick smell of intelligence in the air, I thought being a part of you has been both a beautiful dream, but it's also an adversarial reality. Because of you, I've stayed up at night in tears, working, striving to live up to your impossible standard. Because of you, doors have swung wide open that would have surely been bolted shut to someone like me. My journey with you has been one of self-discovery. Healing came when I realised that you're not the main character in my story. We help each other. I represent you and you give me resources. At a time, all my feelings belong to you. And whether others saw me as worthy of you or not, became my focus. But when it was time, my feelings came back to me. So thank you for showing me what I can do. Knowing and interacting with you has required a strength that I didn't know I possessed. Thank you for making me stronger. XO, Tosin.

Sam Thorogood (21:45): Well, Tosin, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Tosin Odugbemi (21:49): Thank you.

Sam Thorogood (21:54): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design