As Nike sticks by a tarnished Penn St., others flee
The last 10 days have obviously tarnished the Penn State brand, and left advertisers, sponsors, and others closely associated with the university and its football program with some tough questions. Boiled down, it amounts to this: How far should you go to distance yourself from the crisis?
Fallout has already been heavy, so much so that Penn State has hired Ketchum to help the university navigate through the mess. Yet this may be one of those cases — and there are many — when the big PR firm is brought in too late.
“Penn St. has been incredibly tarnished, it’s a huge hit to that brand,” says Paul Pierson, a partner at branding and design firm Carbone Smolan Agency. “Some of the most damaging things to the brand have already done, like the outpouring of support from the Penn State students for Paterno after the firing,” he adds. “That made it look as though the school cared more about football than ethics.”
Now the university is apparently considering removing its stadium’s statue of Paterno, who was head coach of the Nittany Lions football team from 1966-2011. (A columnist for CBSSports.com, @greggdoyelcbs, Tweeted that Penn St. professors have told students that the statue will come down over Thanksgiving). Paterno’s name has already been removed from the Big Ten’s championship trophy. And all traces of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — the subject of the child abuse accusations — are hurriedly being erased. (The picture at left shows artist Michael Pilato painted over the portion of his mural that showed Sandusky).
Keep in mind Paterno and the football team were once the university’s best marketing tool. Just ask Nike, which has continued to stand by the university and its former coach. It has long been Penn State’s footwear and uniform supplier.
How closely is Nike sticking with the school and its former coach? To the amazement of many, Nike hasn’t indicated any plans to change the name of its Joe Paterno Child Development Center, a daycare facility on its Beaverton, Oregon campus. In a statement, Nike said, “Our relationship with Penn State remains unchanged. We are deeply disturbed by the claims brought forth in the indictments. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. We have no current plans to change the name of our child care center.”
Forbes writer Clare O’Connor ran all this past Prevent Child Abuse America’s CEO James Hmurovich, who said the following: “What allegedly happened at Penn State should outrage our nation, and to find that a national brand will not distance itself from Penn State and Joe Paterno in this situation is equally disturbing.”
Nike is well-known for standing with its athletes, including Kobe Bryant when he was accused of sexual assault (charges that were later dropped), and Tiger Woods when his tawdry personal life made headlines.
This case, say branding and advertising experts, may call for a different strategy. After all, it’s dealing with issues of child abuse and questions about a cover up. (It should be noted that the Wall Street Journal reported that some advertisers have begun pulling advertisements from future ESPN broadcasts of Penn State games. ESPN declined to comment).
“You have to distance yourself in a time of crisis,” says Pierson. “From Nike’s point of view, the value of the Penn State brand has been lost, they have to realize that. They are sponsoring a tarnished brand with a tarnished history. It’s not the time to be wearing a Penn St. sweatshirt.”
(Reuters photo: State College artist Michael Pilato paints over the portion of his mural that shows former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, November 9, 2011)