Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State: another brand irrevocably changed.

Naturally, regarding the alleged child abuse events that took place on Penn State's campus more than a decade ago, the lifelong effects on the reported victims are far and away the most important to consider. No one disputes that.

But this is a branding blog, and I'd be substantially remiss to ignore the casualties piling up in a town ironically named Happy Valley. With the rapid cascade of events this week, we've seen how just three 24-hour news cycles is all it takes to undo six decades of generosity, selflessness, and brand stewardship — of not only the Nittany Lions Football program, but the whole of Penn State University, which was known only as a quiet agricultural school before Joseph Vincent Paterno showed up on campus 62 years ago.

Rightfully regarded as one of the gold standards of ethics and honesty in college athletics, Penn State is now the target of national scrutiny for covering up crimes too disturbing to repeat, and perhaps even more stinging to its faithful millions, a punchline to social network tragicomedy (where the prevailing nickname for the vaunted institution has become "State Penn").

We have no idea what exactly was conveyed (or how) by then-grad assistant Mike McQueary to JoePa after eyewitnessing the Lasch Hall shower incident. Was it expressed to the legendary coach in dismay or alarm, with certainty or doubt? I don't think we'll ever know these details. But in those fleeting seconds, somewhere within the nonverbals and furtive glances of shock or embarrassment or pain or even acknowledgement, the fate of multiple immense brands weighed in the balance. JoePa, Nittany Lions Football, Penn State University, Penn State Athletics, Happy Valley, and indeed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are all thoroughly damaged brands today. And at least one of them, it seems, irreparably.

There's a lesson here about brand extensions. Penn State is an institution of higher learning. It is a school which enjoys the many financial and brand exposure benefits of a successful football program. And because there are no TV networks devoted 24 hours a day to academics, it's safe to assume that society at large feels the more compelling story about Penn State for the past 40 years has been its athletics. So Penn State Football, the sub-brand, is fed and nurtured and protected and, before you know it, it's so well fostered that it outgrows its parent. In fact, the brand extension can often be found feeding and protecting its parent from harm. However, when the sub-brand is severely tarnished, the parent brand — which is in an altogether different business from its child — is so interdependent that it is nearly killed alongside the entity to which it gave birth.

It is, in both a real and a Shakespearean sense, a tragedy.

Two personal thoughts regarding this case that are peripheral to the brand discussion above:
  • One of the many facets ignored by the press in this story is JoePa's age at the time of the McQueary conversation. Can a 76 year-old man really even comprehend that a longtime coaching partner of his, himself in his sixties, was even capable of performing such an inhuman act, in a public place, in full view of passersby? I think a person of that generation — JoePa was born in 1926, six years before the Southeastern Conference started, for heaven's sake — who went to the administration with the report the next morning, did what he felt he should do; and with such a sensitive legal and social issue, decided to leave it to those who run the school, not the football program, to dispense its protocol. Maybe after ESPN's done sensationalizing everything for every drop of ratings it can squeeze out of this unfortunate scenario, they'll dig a little deeper and discuss the details too.
  • What happens if, somehow, Sandusky is found not guilty? From all accounts close to the situation, it's not likely; but legally, it's possible.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Congratulations OSU,

you've officially dropped to #120 in the Best Brands in College Football.

Starting in just a few weeks you'll begin the long, arduous process of brand recovery. It will be extremely difficult. Ugly. Painful. Rife with embarrassing allusions in the press and mocking punnery on homemade signs in the GameDay crowd. And the country will be rooting even harder against you than ever before (which I previously considered unimaginable).

But rest assured that true brand loyals like myself will be there with you, though it may rarely seem evident for a while.

When those we love most in life falter, well, that's when loved ones are needed most.

As I wrote in the original post last fall, when disaster strikes great brands, they are bowed but unbroken.

Let's see just how great you are.