Brand Lessons from the Nobel Prize

20131011153017!Nobel_PrizeI always look forward to the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners each year. The awards are front page news. But why is that. According to a recent posting in the HBS Working Knowledge blog, two renowned branding professors, Stephen Greyser (who as a professor of mine at HBS) and Mats Urde, recently completed a study on what makes everyone cover the prize in the first place. Here’s the article.

“In a real sense, everybody knows what the Nobel Prize is and what it does, but practically nobody knows how it does it,” write Mats Urde and Stephen Greyser in the paper The Nobel Prize: A ‘Heritage-based Brand-oriented Network. “Everybody knows it is prestigious but very few know how it acquired its elevated position.”

In addition to offering insights into the award’s unique brand success, the paper offers advice for protecting and fostering the heritage of any reputable brand. “When heritage is relevant, one should identify it, try to activate it, and then leverage it,” says Greyser, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus at Harvard Business School. “All brands have a history, many brands have a heritage, but only a few brands use their heritage as the heart of the value proposition that they put forth.”

The study involved historical research and hours of conversations with recent laureates and members of the organizations involved with the Nobel Prize. It draws from previous work by Urde (an associate professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management in Lund, Sweden), John Balmer (a marketing professor at Brunel University in London) and Greyser. In 2007, the three published the paper “Corporate Brands with a Heritage,” defining brand heritage as “a dimension of a brand’s identity found in its track record, longevity, core values, use of symbols and particularly in an organizational belief that history is important.”


These five elements make up a brand’s “heritage quotient.” The Nobel Prize, while not a traditional corporate brand, has a very high HQ.

In their paper, Urde and Greyser explain the factors that make it so:

History important to identity: The Nobel prizes are the legacy of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), who stipulated them in his will, specifying that they be given to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

“The heart of the brand, the essence of the brand, resides in the will of Alfred Nobel,” says Greyser. He continued, “people associated with the Prize routinely refer to ‘The Will’, with a capital W.”

The Will specifically mentioned prizes in the categories of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. A prize in Economic Sciences was added in 1968. However, it did not water down the brand, Greyser says, because the new prize still focused on the original mandate to honor achievements for the benefit of mankind.

Longevity: The prizes have been awarded since 1901. Urde and Greyser note that the international prizes made a big impression from the beginning because they were established during a time of prevailing nationalism. “The Italian political Risorgimento was strong, the Germans had come together, and the French were very nationalistic because they had recently lost the Franco-Prussian war,” Greyser says. “And along comes the will of Alfred Nobel, making it clear that these prizes are for achievements for the benefit of mankind anywhere. The prizes should be awarded to the most worthy without consideration of nationality. They are not restricted to Sweden; they are not restricted to Scandinavia; they are not restricted to Europe.”

Use of symbols: The Nobel Prizes involve many symbols, both tangible and intangible. There’s the medal itself; the ceremony in which a Scandinavian monarch presents the medal; and the traditional flowers flown in from San Remo, Italy, where Alfred Nobel spent the last years of his life. But, well before all that there’s the traditional early morning phone call alerting each winner of the good news. “You only need to mention ‘a phone call from Sweden,’ and people know you’re referring to the Nobel Prize,” Greyser says.

Track record: Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes have been awarded to almost 900 people and organizations. “Each new set of laureates validates and helps to grow the heart of what the Nobel prizes stand for, and what they are,” Urde and Greyser say. “As one laureate said to us, ‘This is the prize that was awarded to Albert Einstein.’ Enough said.”

Core values: “The core values are in The Will,” Greyser says. “The essence of the brand is ‘achievements for the benefit of mankind’. In all our conversations, we routinely heard that phrase played back to us. It is in the center of the Nobel Prize identity.”


The researchers also discuss the idea that a brand’s identity and heritage sometimes rely on other associated brands in a networked situation. As a corporate-world example, Greyser cites the early days of Airbus, which began as a consortium of independent European aviation firms, to build planes together using the Airbus brand as a hub—and to compete with Boeing, Lockheed, and the like.

“Airbus was a hub with independent collaborating entities,” Greyser says.

“The Nobel Prize is the hub in a network of independent organizations that choose laureates,” Urde and Greyser explain. The Swedish Academy chooses literature laureates. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry, as well as the Prize in Economic Sciences. Karolinska Institutet awards the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. And the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Peace Prize. All of the organizations serve as stewards of the overall Nobel brand.

“Three of the institutions are older than the Nobel Prize, and each is independent,” Greyser says. “The key thing is that while each has its own independent identity and strategy, they all come together to make the Nobel Prizes happen. They all share allegiance to the core identity of what they all want to do: honor achievements that benefit mankind.”

Other reputation stakeholders include the laureates themselves, the scientific communities that covet the Prizes, the general public, and, finally, the media.

“With the exception of awardees of the Peace Prize, who often are statesmen or celebrities who have their own renown, there is not a single Nobel laureate, who when he or she dies, doesn’t have in the first sentence of the obit, “BLANK, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in BLANK….” Greyser says. “I’ve been watching the obits of laureates ever since we started this work. And to a person, that is in the first sentence.”

The Nobel Prize, they say, “is probably one of the most captivating ideas of all time.”


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