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Why Penn State Needs to Change Its Name...Now!

With legendary former football coach Joe Paterno’s grand jury admission on December 16 that he knew of Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate” behavior with a minor as far back as 2002, it is clear that the rot goes deep at Penn State. 

Radical measures are needed to restore this once great institution. They must be taken now.

Bottom line? Penn State needs to change its name.

There is precedent. Plenty of great universities have. Princeton used to be the College of New Jersey. The University of Pennsylvania used to be the College of Pennsylvania.

Penn State already has a pretty good option: PSU.

But it’s not good enough. First, PSU is already being invoked in headlines of this scandal, so in this sense even this alternative is already being tarnished.

Second, there are a number of schools with the PSU moniker (Portland, Pacific, Plymouth, Plattsburgh and even Pittsburgh States).

So let’s rule PSU out.

A better approach is what happened, under much kinder circumstances, to Glassboro State College in 1992.

That was the year that Henry Rowan what was, at that time, the largest gift ever made to a public college. His $100 million led to the school changing its name to Rowan University.

For Glassboro, the name wasn’t just a superficial change, it reflected deep evolutionary growth as the institution was able to expand from a more narrowly concentrated school into a full-fledged university.

The lesson here is that name changes aren’t about donning a disguise. Nor is genuine marketing strategy ever about fooling anyone. No, marketing must be fundamental and true to the underlying brand.

A name change for Penn State must serve as a signal to faculty, students, alumni and the general public that the university is moving into the future with a determination to retain what’s good but also transform itself into something better.
A name change will mark the beginning of a new era in the school’s history – an era in which the school commits to a new way of doing business that will prevent the kinds of wrongs that have occurred from happening again.

A name change is also rooted in the science of the brain. We know this from tests like those done at the human neuro-imaging lab at Baylor University. In the lab’s Coke-Pepsi tests, subjects were given both drinks, but those who saw the Coke logo while drinking Coke declared a preference for Coke over Pepsi (three out of four) and their brains showed a complex set of reactions that went well beyond the actual taste of what they were drinking, especially stimulating the memory areas of the brain.

What this shows is that people’s reactions to a brand name are tied to complex responses related to the brand and themselves. As a result, at certain point “Penn State” will have -- if it hasn’t already—become toxic, meaning that people will automatically, and involuntarily, experience a negative reaction whenever they encounter it.

That’s the science. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate how this plays out in the real world. Last week, a colleague of mine related how he had seen someone at Rockefeller Center wearing a Penn State jacket. The name made him angry –angry enough to seriously consider approaching the man and giving him a piece of his mind about the school.

Yes, the name has to go, along with the “We are Penn State” cheer heard at every game, the jackets, banners, logos and other references to this damaged identifier.

What will be used in its place? I don’t know.

This is where marketing once again comes into play. Research must be done into the options for the best name and how to incorporate that name into a larger brand rejuvenation strategy that will assure all audiences that the institution is not merely being cynical but is truly committed to positive change. Alumni should be tapped for suggestions. Ideally, the whole community will be involved in healing Penn State through this radical action.

In other words, the name change will mark a point where there is a distinct before and after for school. It will represent deep cultural change, not just image adjustment.

Such a move will help the school community embrace its future together. It won’t provide a clean slate, but it will at least give the university a slate on which to write its next chapter.

And remember, it's always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion and is author of the book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion and is author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."