Communicating With Impact: Debra L. Lee, BET Networks Chairman & CEO

On rainy Wednesday morning the Executives’ Club of Chicago opened its season with the first presentation in the Diversity Leadership series – a Women’s Leadership Breakfast featuring BET Networks chairman and CEO Debra L. Lee as guest speaker.

The presentation-following Q&A session was held at the Imperial Ballroom of the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park and was moderated by Tonise Paul, president and CEO of Energy BBDO. The room was crowded with a plethora of slightly-drenched, but excited men and women.

Lee opened her presentation, entitled “Communicating with Impact: Creating Content That Entertains & Empowers,” by outlining the importance of defining a brand’s vision and how this sets the framework all future decisions are measured against.

No brand exists in a vacuum, and outside pressure – audience, advertisers, investors – will constantly test the courage of a brand’s vision. Community challenges combine with these factors  making it increasingly difficult to stay true to brand values, if a vision is not clearly defined at the outset.

“A brand without vision is a commodity,” Lee said. The most important piece of creating a solid brand is defining a brand vision to be used as a foundation that informs all future business decisions.

“Brand vision answers two questions: Who are we? And who do we want to be?”

The first answer is derived from an honest reflection of the state of a business – who the target audience is, how it is defined both internally and externally and how the brand can best serve this audience.

The second answer needs to be grounded in realistic actions, working toward achievable goals that may take time. Sometimes these goals take years to achieve, as Lee explained in her own experience at BET Networks. The network is now in the process of expanding into larger international markets as an ambassador for African American culture.

“I like creating experiences where the audience can touch the brand and touch the sponsors to make them feel more a part of it,” she said.

She pointed to the brand vision that has guided her mission since the start of her tenure at BET Networks, and has seen record increases in ratings and revenue. “To respect, reflect and elevate their audience.”

This serves as the filter for all decisions that are made about the brand. It was not simply enough to entertain anymore. The expectation and responsibility with growing a global brand is to filter a culture through a reflective lens while entertaining the audience at the same time. This is true for any brand charged with presenting content for a niche audience.

Additionally, staying true to brand values is direly important, especially in the face of challenges that affect the community that a brand serves.

Once a vision is set, the next step is building a leadership organization that will champion these values across the entire business. Lee stressed the importance of diversity in all facets of a business, in order to create an environment where all persons and the business can succeed.

This is not to say that there will not be problems. She explained that diversity in a boardroom can cause friction. However, friction causes sparks and helps assure that creative ideas rise to the top and are used to combat complex problems.

It is important now more than ever for the brand to be used as a voice for her audience, and a voice to address these complex problems. Lee explained how the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was necessarily an issue her audience, the African American community, was concerned about. “Your brand can be a catalyst and you must constantly share to learn,” she said.

Lee left the audience with three challenges for their own business to take on: Use brand vision to build a company that knows its purpose, embrace diversity to reach its fullest potential and use that voice to empower audiences, consumers and communities to make them stronger.

The vision to which a brand attaches itself will define the relationship it has with its audience and how the world remembers it in history.