I’m a Penn Stater. I graduated in 1999 and have so much PSU gear and great memories.  During my senior year of high school I remember looking at different colleges, thinking I might like the smaller school atmosphere, but then I made my first visit to Penn State.  On the drive there you start seeing signs with Nittany Lions about two hours away and then when you get to State College, it’s so evident the entire town and surrounding area is filled with so much pride. It just makes you want to be a part of it.   I’m sure the college life at Penn State is a whole different experience for every student, but the pride is a shared feeling among students and alum and when you have that one shared connection with someone, it’s like you already know them.

According to Presido Marketing Blog, “Founded in 1855 with a mission grounded in teaching, research and public service, this institution has evolved from a small agricultural college to a community that includes over 90,000 students spread across 24 different campuses. The university currently administers an endowment of more than $1.5 billion, but more on that later. The university also boasts one of the storied programs in all of college sports with its football program previously lead by the winningest coach in Division I college football history.”

The Penn State brand is powerful.  So how will the recent scandal, the cover-up, and the loss of Joe Paterno affect the Penn State brand?  Will the school still be able to attract top athletes?  How will it affect alumni giving?  Will the brand survive?

Important aspects of maintaining a strong brand:

  • Brand Promise – Identify the promise (or benefits) and then fulfill the promise.  For Penn State one of the brand promises was an elite football program, hardest hit by the scandal.
  • User Experience – Each customer interaction should be a positive one.  For Penn State, I believe this is an opportunity to recover, to rebuild its promise to students, to alumni, to fans.
  • Transparency – No longer can a brand hide behind glossy brochures and public relations.  Eventually the customer comes in contact with the “real deal”—the people behind the façade.  Hiding behind a façade can be the downfall of a brand.

However, in watching the Penn State-Nebraska game, the first played after the Sandusky scandal, I got a different impression.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It was difficult to watch, yet difficult to not watch. But, what I came away with was inspiration – from the showing of sincere solidarity and dignity as the team came on to the field hand-in-hand and the Nebraska coach led them in prayer.  It was a whole other perspective—sometimes, a brand is a collection of smaller things, it comes down to the people representing the organization.  In this case, that day it was the football team.  Sure, they didn’t win that day, but that’s not the main thing I remember about it.

Whether it’s withstanding a scandal or an economic crisis it’s important to remember the people on the inside who make up the brand.  For Penn State, it is more than the Nittany Lion or Joe Paterno, or the board of trustees who make up the brand.  The day of the Penn State-Nebraska game, the brand was the players who showed their best in the face of adversity.

For professional service firms, it’s important to remember your brand is more than your logo, or your Web site.  It’s your also your staff, your clients.  It’s the long-term relationships, the trust and the client service, and everyday client touches that back up your marketing efforts. These are equally important in building a brand.

I keep in my thoughts and prayers the victims of the actions of others in this case and I think Penn State will recover and the brand will survive.  There are so many examples of these Penn State students and athletes stepping up to help others – whether it is for THON, Uplifting Athletes, as volunteers for the Special Olympics, visiting to veterans hospitals and more.   I don’t think a Penn State brand recovery will necessarily be due to PR on crisis-mode, but rather the recovery of brand loyalty through user experience, delivering on promises and a level of transparency to rebuild the trust.