LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- It's barely fourth quarter, and BET Networks is already having its best year ever. The Viacom cable network has seen record ratings growth for the last 18 months and a bigger, wider audience tuning in than ever before on the strength of shows such as "The Mo'Nique Show," "Sunday Best," "Tiny & Toya," "106 & Park" and its signature BET Awards, 2009's highest-rated non-sports cable telecast and one of 2010's most-watched events of the summer.
But getting to that point has not been easy for the network for Exec VP-Chief Marketing Officer Janet Rollé. As recently as 2007, BET's ratings were at a standstill and the network was viewed as a risky environment for major marketers like State Farm and Home Depot, who pulled their ads from a reality show called "Hot Ghetto Mess." Not to mention Procter & Gamble Co., which was urged by watchdog groups to pull its ads from controversial shows (it ultimately resisted).
But 2009 called for a refreshed, more culturally relevant BET Networks, which meant it had to get back to its roots: its audience. Ms. Rollé teamed up with BET's research team to better understand what the BET brand meant to black consumers in a post-Obama America. After polling more than 70,000 African-Americans, Ms. Rollé was able to identify five key consumer segments, or "brand pillars," of BET's 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.) These would be the five key tenets on which everything at BET was measured against, from programming to marketing messages to talent.
"The pillars were created to help guide us to not do certain things. If it didn't respect, reflect or elevate our audience, we had to ask ourselves, why are we doing this?" Ms. Rollé said.
The pillars also coincided with BET's robust, risk-taking new programming slate that saw the network expanding outside its core audience of young, music-leaning consumers to become a more general-entertainment network for African-Americans and beyond. Reality series "Tiny & Toya" and "Frankie & Neffe," a spinoff of BET's top-rated "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," both meet the "Fresher Than That" criteria and became buzz-worthy hits last year. "The Family Crews," a series profiling football player-turned-actor Terry Crews, embodies the "We Are Family" pillar and also drew strong Sunday numbers for the network.
That approach has also made BET more marketer-friendly, with P&G teaming up with the network in 2009 for a co-branded makeover series, "My Black Is Beautiful," to promote its product line of the same name targeted toward black women. Grey Goose ("Rising Icons"), NASCAR ("Changing Lanes") and Smirnoff ("Master of the Mix") have all since signed up for their own co-branded shows with the network.
Jan. 11, 2011 brings a pair of scripted series, the original "Let's Stay Together" and new episodes of "The Game," a CW sitcom picked up by BET after its cancellation in 2009. Because of the considerable anticipation for both series ("The Game" has more than 2.4 million fans on Facebook), Ms. Rollé will use those series' debuts as an opportunity to debut a new tagline and on-air look for BET, which she says will reflect the network's changing voice.
It's all the latest stepping stone in Ms. Rollé's nearly 20-year career in entertainment marketing. Prior to joining BET in 2007, she headed up programming for AOL's Black Voices and Women's and Lifestyle networks. She also had a five-year stint at MTV Networks overseeing new business opportunities for VH1 and CMT, introducing new brands and franchises such as the VH1 Radio Network, and spent her first nine years in the industry with HBO in various roles, including marketing for the company's home-video division.
Ad Age recently caught up with Ms. Rollé at BET Networks' Times Square headquarters in New York to discuss how the network's five brand pillars are driving its ratings renaissance and why BET is more than just a niche network today.
Ad Age: BET had some branding hurdles to overcome in 2009. How would you characterize where the brand is today under your new five-pronged strategy?
Ms. Rollé: The goal with any brand strategy is to meet your consumer where his priorities lie. And it's a unique opportunity to mean something to your audience. The fact that people can say BET means something to them now is at the core of who we are. Our responsibility is at an even higher level than other brands in our market, so we want to make sure we're always doing the right things before marketing them. We want to be about it before we talk about it.
Ad Age: Your recent ratings growth would suggest that you're now competing with general-market cable networks, and not just among your core audience of 18- to 34-year-old African-Americans. Is BET more than just a niche network these days?
Ms. Rollé: The response I have from our audience has never allowed us to think of ourselves as a niche. African-Americans have never thought of us that way; they've always thought of us as meaningful and vibrant as any market segment. Our responsibility is to be a broad window into African-American culture for other people. And if you look at this year's Census data, it's very difficult to think of African-Americans as niche anymore.
Ad Age: Your audience is more vocal than most on social-media platforms, and often BET shows and personalities will pop up as trending topics on Twitter at random moments. How do you leverage that as a marketer?
Ms. Rollé: It's something we consider incredibly important, and it's an important element of our marketing mix. The question is, does it have a correlation to ratings ? It's interesting as a marketer to try and crack that code. "The Game," for example, already has 2.4 million fans on Facebook from its previous seasons, and we would rather try and engage that audience than try to replace that ourselves. That fan base has more power than I can have as a marketer; we want to see how we can have them join in our conversation.
Ad Age: After 2009's BET Awards were adjusted at the last minute to become a tribute to Michael Jackson just three days after his death, expectations are higher than ever for BET to be up to the minute with its audience. How do you manage those expectations?
Ms. Rollé: Events like that make us ask ourselves, is there anything more we could have done as a brand? For a long time we were criticized for our lack of news presence, but the notion that we could somehow win at that business was challenging. So we brought back Ed Gordon [a longtime BET news anchor who left in 2004] to meet those expectations. When we first started on our brand work, we were trying to be all things to all people. But we settled on being more things to more people. My job is to direct you and help you understand the full array of offerings BET has, no matter what your interests or background may be.