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Rescuing the Penn State Brand

Once the truth of what happened in the Jerry Sandusky case emerges and justice is done, Penn State University administrators will focus even more heavily on restoring the reputation of this proud institution. Lehigh University marketing expert Ravi Chitturi and Lehigh MBA students* discussed the difficulties of brand management in the wake of such a crisis, and offered the following points.

Rescuing a brand from nightmares such as the one that continues to unfold at Penn State is extremely difficult. Brand management is about nurturing and sustaining unique, intangible brand assets and this can take decades.

Think of how long it took Whole Foods to link itself to corporate social responsibility, for Nordstrom to cultivate unwavering  customer care, for 3M to mean innovation, for IBM to create their nurturing work culture, and for Apple to signify sleek design. Enduring brands build these assets and reputations slowly. However, as we can see unfolding in the case of Penn State, they can be destroyed in a matter of days.

What should the university do to reverse the damage to their brand, in perhaps the most serious crisis faced since its inception?

First and foremost, Penn State must avoid the national perception that they are trying to cover up or drag their feet with respect to identifying and prosecuting the people involved. Penn State may be doing its best to deal with the crisis. But when your football program earned $72.7 million last season and television stations are broadcasting footage of students rioting in support of the coach, it is perception you are dealing with.

With such a brand nightmare, it is not sufficient to just clean the university. It must be sanitized. And, it must be done as soon as possible with a clear demonstration of contrition. This must be done with as much transparency as the legal system allows and must be done ASAP.  The nature of the issue makes this imperative.

In the case of Penn State, we suggest the following steps to stop and reverse the damage:

The new president must call a press conference and tender a public apology with a clear demonstration of contrition.

  • All personnel who had anything to do with the football program during that period must be asked to leave as a first step in the process of sanitization.
  • Until proven otherwise, the university must minimize interaction and association with former head coach Joe Paterno. This is difficult, but must be done to build a perception of sanitization.
  • Develop an integrated plan of communication with alumni and prospective students to ensure one is not compromised for the other. Penn State needs both constituencies, i.e., football fans as well as high quality freshmen every year.
  • Hire a new football coach like Urban Meyer, the former University of Florida and Utah coach, who has the intangibles to neutralize the current negatives of immoral behavior. His success on the field, paired with his conservative approach and lack of scandal, could help re-energize the football fans in a positive way.
  • Invest in 100-200 full ride scholarships to attract the best minds in the country as freshman students to Penn State. This will hopefully mitigate the expected drop in applications and attract some of the best high school students from around the world.

Brand building is difficult, but brand rescue is even more difficult. It is important for Penn State to not just clean but sanitize their sports program, and do so unambiguously with contrition.

*MBA students who collaborated on this essay are Heather Adams, Eric Cosnoski, Rikhi Kaushal, Thomas Mainzer and Grant Sheatsley.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Friday, November 18, 2011

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