The rebirth of a brand


At the recent PromaxBDA Africa conference in Joahannesburg writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis talked about questions around rebranding an established brand and creating an emotional connection to a nation of individuals. She related her involvement in the successful rebirth of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the US.

“I’m not your typical Promax speaker,’ said Michaela Angela Davis. “I’m not a creative director or a producer, I consider myself an image activist – I work to expand and promote the images of people of colour.’

She explained how she got involved in the “intense and furious’ two-year rebranding journey at the largest media brand for African Americans, Black Entertainment Television (BET), which recently achieved historic ratings to become one of the top 20 US cable networks.


“When I started to look at BET it was a 25-year-old network with 98 million viewers, yet many white people had never heard of it.’

She said that, while BET was a window into the internal lives and imagination of black people, many outside their culture weren’t interested. “Invisibility is a particular type of pain,’ she noted.

According to Davis, BET started with a relatively balanced line-up of movies, gospel, news, sitcoms and talk shows. However, free music videos became the dominant programming.

She believes that the image of people of colour projected through these music videos was degrading – it portrayed the men as violent and the women as materialistic.

“These images were squeezing out culture, the repeating of marginalised and undignified images, like invisibility, is another kind of prickly pain.’

Viewers started rebelling against the network and some even protested outside the CEO’s house saying: “BET is not for me!’

New mandate

Davis explained that BET had a choice to either evolve or die. She got involved at BET as part of an elite brain trust tasked with re-imagining the image of the network with a new mandate: respect, reflect and elevate. They started by looking at the channel branding, promos and the tentpole shows.

“Just like the negative images through music videos were repetitious, we now have to repeat new, positive images,’ explained Davis.

They worked closely with the design house tasked with coming up with new channel idents. “We challenged them to capture this thing called soul. What does soul look like in a typeface?’

In the promos for their tentpole shows — series Rip the Runway and the BET Awards — they wanted to use innovative graphics, but the human element had to be there as well. “We never promote a show with only graphics,’ she noted. “For the BET Awards that year we worked with US actor / comedian / singer Jamie Foxx. We want our viewers to feel pride,’ said Davis. Their BET Awards campaign “Recognise’ won at Promax North America.


The focus group also spent time getting to know the BET audience.

“What we learned is that our viewers want things now. They want to be entertained, informed and educated now. So the challenge was how to create an authentic, emotional and sustainable connection to our audience. It wasn’t only a branding message, it was critical for the survival of the network.’

Davis explained that they came to the conclusion that “we are our stories’.

“We wanted to tell stories, but we wanted to tell the truth about how we love, how we lie; our fears, our triumphs and our intimacies. We want to be visible, and the way to do that is to tell stories.’

The stories are told through a number of reality shows, including Monica: Still Standing, The Michael Vick Project and Born to Dance: Laurieann Gibson.

“The new way they curate reality shows is real stories of real people, not real housewives,’ noted Davis. “It wasn’t about tearing people down. We’re in a really powerful business, and stories matter. As African Americans we’ve always had excellence in music, but telling our own stories and creating our own identities, and not living out someone else’s fantasy, is a new space for us — and it’s an exciting space.’

However, what really raised the bar for the network was original programming.

“It says to the audience that you matter, that we are invested enough in you to create original programming.’

The programming includes The Mo’Nique Show, Let’s Stay Together, Reed Between the Lines and The Game.

We are family

BET also commissioned research on African Americans, which revealed that more than 80% listed family as their highest core value.

They created five “brand pillars’ which form the foundation of all their programming and communications with their audience: “We Are Family’ (family-oriented, parent-friendly); “Fresher Than That’ (trend-setting, music-focused); “Shine a Light’ (politically aware); “Backing Black Dreams’ (aspirational, career-focused); and “Not on Our Watch’ (socially conscious, cause-minded).

According to Davis they shaped their branding in such a way to send the message that BET and their viewers are family. “We are not like family, we are family. And families are about love. Therefore we started to create public service announcements (PSAs) as love letters to our audience.’

These included emotional PSAs on black music month, black history month and PSAs paying tribute to US civil rights activists and women involved in the civil rights movement.

“Through our channel branding we send messages to our viewers including: We see you, we inform you, we support you, we honour you, we feel you, we got you, we connect you, we inspire you, we are you.’

“Saying “we are you’ is part of exploring the core value of family. We are saying we acknowledge that people are different, but Nicki Minaj and Mary Mary are both part of the BET family. We are acknowledging that no-one is perfect, but we are still family, so give us some room to grow.’

She noted that BET is part of the Viacom family that includes MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon channels. “Our ratings are better than some of the other channels, but our budgets are still smaller,’ said Davis. “So we’re still renegade but we try to bring excellence to every show because we’re so invested in healing our family and want to inspire them. People left cushy jobs at HBO and Lifetime to work with us and try and make the channel better. We have black DOPs working for free because they want to see BET succeed.’

Davis ended with a message for the South African industry representatives gathered at Promax to embrace the country’s history in their promos and branding: “You do have an incredible history, don’t be afraid of it. Your history is your jewel, your gem. Ugly and messy is where humanity lies. When you stop hiding from your past you see your own humanity and you grow.’

By Linda Loubser


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