Sunday, February 5, 2012

Held hostage

Holman Jenkins had a recent column in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) describing the symbiotic relationship between junk-food brands like Pepsi and McDonald's, and the activists that protest those brands' products and marketing. It includes this gem of a line: "To build a brand is to create a hostage."

In context, Jenkins refers to the fact that activists who protest a brand rely on the brand's value to help them promote their cause. But I find the line a useful reminder that as organizations, we do not truly own our brands. We build them, we cultivate them, we are their caretakers; but our brands actually belong to the constituents we serve, whether they are customers, donors, members, etc. The corollary to this is something that my boss has said time and again: Your brand is not what you think it is. It is what the public thinks it is.

This helps to explain, in marketing and PR terms, the reaction of Penn State alumni to the firing and recent death of legendary coach Joe Paterno, who lost his job in the wake of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Whatever you think of Penn State's decision to Paterno (unfortunate but necessary) or the manner in which its board went about it (graceless and unprofessional) there is something startling -- and troubling -- to those of us outside the Penn State bubble in the rabid manner in which the loyalists have defended Paterno to the very last.

And it's not just surprising to me. I think it caught the current administration, including the board, off guard as well. It's become clear to me that, despite the great education that Penn State appears to provide, alumni of all stripes clearly believe that Penn State's brand was Joe Paterno. Not just football, which was what the institution was clearly trying to protect in its failure to address the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, but JoePa himself. When the board quickly and bloodlessly fired Paterno, they trashed the brand in the eyes of the faithful.

Pennsylvania State University, in other words, did not own Paterno, so to speak, nor did they own the football program he led for so long. Paterno belonged to everyone who considered themselves a Penn Stater. When they say, with such tremendous pride, "We Are Penn State" they mean it quite literally, in ways that the people now charged with leading the institution seem scarcely able to comprehend.

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