Staff Q&A: Sharlene Sones

STAFF Q&A/The woman in charge of selling the Penn brand to the world didn’t realize she had a familiar face—until…

“We all have the ability to reaffirm and strengthen Penn’s position.”

When she’s not flying planes or hitting tennis balls, Sharlene Sones is busy providing the tools the 70 campus restaurants, hotels and stores need to make their businesses grow. As Sones describes it, she works to drive customers to their doors and focuses on marketing Penn as a “place to be” for culture and nightlife.

“I think people hear the word branding and they automatically think logos, and it’s so much more than that,” she said. “Everything that we do reflects on the Penn brand. We all have the ability to reaffirm and strengthen Penn’s position and, ultimately, we all benefit from that.”

Sones’ experience before Penn is as varied as the stores that mark the campus perimeter: she has done marketing for the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association, Benetton Sports and a small music label in Nashville, Tenn.

Q. What is your focus in Business Services?
We’re creating a marketing effort to establish Penn as a destination. That’s sort of the long-term vision. But first our focus is on developing University Square and communicating its offerings to its internal audiences—the 60,000 people that are right here at Penn every day—the students, staff, faculty, local business employees.

We’re also starting to focus on marketing arts and culture. We’re looking at how we can leverage the strength of Penn arts and culture to attract regional visitors.

Q. What retail area is your focus?
We’re really focused on creating programs that drive traffic out to Spruce Street, the Left Bank. We’re working with a larger group of people to start to address how we can assist the businesses on 40th Street, but our primary focus is University Square, which is 34th to 38th, Chestnut to Walnut.

Q. What do you think has made University Square so successful?
I think that there’s a strong mix of retail operations that answer the needs of people who are here. On any given day, Cosí is packed. The Bookstore acts as a great hub for the businesses. You go upstairs to the café, you see students are there all day long. It’s a place to be. I think when you combine strong retail establishments with some fun programming and a creative atmosphere, that’s a winning mix.

Every Thursday night, we present musicians on the corner of the plaza at 36th and Walnut, and when you walk out there on a Thursday night, there’s an energy that exists. It’s fun to just walk around and people-watch.

Q. Are you planning to make Penn merchandise available beyond the Bookstore?
The Penn community is very fashion conscious, and we’re looking for new products that would be attractive to them, as well as ways to communicate out.

Another source for us is a web site,, that is operated by one of our licensees—Club Colors—and they create customized products that are shipped out in a day. We’re working to provide their service on a wholesale basis for departments and internal constituents.

We also are working to educate people on campus about the manufacturer’s code of conduct that provides guidelines for all of our licensed apparel vendors regarding fair labor.

Q. You used to work at the LPGA. What are some of the differences between marketing at Penn and the LPGA?
There is a truth to the fact that branding tactics are branding tactics no matter what your product. I bristle to call the University a product, but it’s all about what’s unique about where you’re at, and then how do you leverage that and communicate that out to people.

Q. What was it like at the LPGA?
It was a really exciting time to work for the LPGA. The momentum that the association has, but also, the incredible year that Annika Sorenson has had. We have a lot of dynamic young players. It’s exciting. I really enjoyed my work there.

Q. Do you play golf?
I’m a long-suffering golfer and people I worked with at the LPGA were nationally ranked players or on the tour, so the word “play” is the key word to define here—I have fun playing recreationally. I’m a tennis player.

Also, I’m a private pilot. I learned to fly when I was with the LPGA—they’re headquartered in Daytona Beach and they have a very large center for pilot training there. I felt that while I was there, it would be a good opportunity to take advantage of it. I had a lot of very white-knuckled days.

I fly Cessnas. It’s basically a lawnmower with wings! I fly out at Chester County. I just have been trying to get to know the area. It’s a lot different—I don’t have the ocean as a reference point.

Q. I have to ask about your resemblance to Penn’s new President, Amy Gutmann. Did you realize it or did someone point it out to you?
I didn’t realize it, but I have heard from a number of people that I do bear a resemblance, which is flattering. What I’ve discovered is since she arrived, when I stroll around campus, it is a really friendly place to me now! (laughs)

Sharlene Sones