Many alumni were reeling in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal as they returned to Penn State for homecoming weekend 2013 — the first since the sentencing of the former football coach one year earlier.
They discovered it was still the same campus they loved, with the exception of large blue-and-white banners dominating the facade of some academic buildings, along with similar signs along major walkways.
Splashed with four large words — “Penn State Lives Here” — the signs were part of a new university marketing effort and were soon met with confusion and criticism.
Besides complaints that the slogan was unoriginal and wasn’t worth the $800,000 cost, some Penn Staters argued it was unsuccessful in boosting morale in the university community at a time it needed it.
In about 18 months, the banners and signs were gone.
“Penn State Lives Here” has since become a puzzling — and misunderstood — memory that survives on the occasional magnet or T-shirt.
“They just quietly phased it out,” said David Buckholtz, a former university marketing intern who graduated in 2015. “I doubt it really changed the environment.”
Steve Manuel, a senior lecturer of advertising and public relations in Penn State’s College of Communications, said jokingly that Penn State should demand a refund.
“‘Penn State Lives Here’ doesn’t focus on anything,” Manuel said. “It doesn’t mean anything, and most people didn’t understand it.”
Penn State’s Office of Strategic Communications declined multiple requests to discuss why “Penn State Lives Here” was phased out and didn’t want to talk about any current campaigns in the same article.
“It has been covered in the past, but we do not have any further context to provide at this time,” News and Media Relations Manager Heather Hottle Robbins said via email.
Yet the short life of “Penn State Lives Here” doesn’t surprise Jeff Hunt, partner and co-founder of PulsePoint Group, a management and digital consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. He said Penn State hired his firm to reboot its integrated marketing communications after the Sandusky scandal.
Hunt said “Penn State Lives Here” was, in fact, designed to be a brief “creative execution” for a strategy that’s still in use today.
It debuted during the homecoming football game in 2013, Hunt said, to reach the largest possible audience that “needed to find healing.”
PulsePoint’s focus was repositioning Penn State as a community of “inspired doers” who wake up every morning wanting to improve the lives of others, Hunt said. The “inspired doer” emphasis can be found on the Penn State brand site, for example.
“It was head meets heart, meaning Penn State people really have this extraordinary ability to be very smart, connected and also the whole idea of being very philanthropic,” Hunt said.
He said that by industry standards, it was a “relatively low-cost proposition” for Penn State to pay at least $811,719 — an amount previously reported by the Centre Daily Times — for the entire repositioning and creative expression.
In Hunt’s marketing career spanning more than 25 years, he said, the “inspired doer” is one of his proudest projects.
“We nailed the positioning of the university,” Hunt said. “We know what it means to be a Penn Stater.”
The strategy was built off “robust” research, with more than 200 people participating in focus groups and interviews, Hunt said.
Almost 11,000 students at the time — faculty and staff, alumni and prospective students — completed online surveys to gauge “the value of a Penn State education,” among other factors.
Buckholtz said he was surprised to see the first creative expression produced just four words.
“It wasn’t strong enough, honestly,” Buckholtz said. “It wasn’t something that students really gravitated toward.”
An editorial published in The Daily Collegian on Oct. 16, 2013, urged the administration to move in a different direction.
“Of course Penn State lives here,” the editorial read. “This is Penn State University; where else would it live?”
Hunt said that even though students at the time were too literal in their interpretation of the slogan, the creative execution was “very effective across most constituents.”
As for criticism that the “lives here” phrase was a cliche, Hunt contended that “We Are” is also used by many other organizations.
PulsePoint worked with the university for about 18 months until the appointment of President Eric Barron. Around that time, “Penn State Lives Here” came to an end in a “logical coincidence,” said Hunt, who by then was no longer in contact with the university.
But as public relations instructor Manuel saw it, it wasn’t phased out gradually — it was “amputated.”
“If something doesn’t work, you don’t continue the pain,” he said.
Alison Kuznitz is a Penn State journalism student.