Lori Levin-Hyams did not take the traditional path to becoming a brand builder. But then, what would you expect from a woman who built the brand of Sir Richard Branson, CEO of 350-company-strong Virgin Group, billionaire, aviator, owner of private islands and game parks, and world-record holder?
“I was never a traditional [public-relations] person or executive,” Levin-Hyams says. “I didn't have formal training. I learned as we went, and that's how Virgin and Richard Branson operate.”
Levin-Hyams met Branson when she was a PR executive in the music business. Her agency teamed with Virgin Records on a promotion, and soon she was handling all of his personal PR in the U.S. Unlike public-relations efforts for, say, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner or Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, which largely entail their giving interviews or speaking at conferences, Branson's PR involved him in trying to break the world speed records for crossing the Atlantic in a boat or a hot-air balloon.
“We tried a lot of things that nobody else would try to get media attention,” says Levin-Hyams. “Richard was game for anything.”
That's why, when reality TV became the craze, it made sense to do a TV show featuring Branson and his lavish lifestyle. Challenging, adventurous shows like Survivor and The Apprentice seemed right up the British CEO's alley.
Around that time, Levin-Hyams and Virgin were working with producers Tod Dahlke and Laura Fuest on a show called America's Princess for NBC. Virgin was one of its sponsors, and Branson, who by then had been knighted, appeared in one of the segments.
Levin-Hyams and Branson had discussed his doing a reality show, so she brought the idea to Dahlke and Fuest. They loved it and shopped it to all the broadcast networks. Before they knew it, Fox had bought the idea, named it The Rebel Billionaire and matched the trio up with reality-TV production company Bunim-Murray, which produces such shows as The Simple Life.
“Virgin has always been the type of company that thought fast and moved quickly. I don't think in all my years of working for Richard he ever said no to anything I suggested we do. Actually, the worst thing he could ever say to you was 'I'll leave it to you,'” she jokes.
But Branson knew that leaving it to Levin-Hyams meant the job would get done.
“The joke was always that she was a producer before she ever worked on this show; she just never got credit for the things that she did,” says Dahlke, who owns production company Necessary Evil. “She was the voice of Virgin every step of the way. In every meeting, she was there making sure the brand was being served.”
Production on the show was under way by July 2004, and all 12 episodes of The Rebel Billionaire aired that fall. “The show was basically a 12-episode commercial for the brand,” says Dahlke.
Ratings weren't stellar, but including international airings, Levin-Hyams estimates, the program garnered Virgin $75 million worth of global brand awareness.
Today, Levin-Hyams—who has been married to Ross Hyams for 21 years and has two children—is working on Virgin Galactic, Branson's private space-travel company, and on non-profit foundation Virgin Unites.
Although Virgin now operates much more like a classic corporation, Levin-Hyams says its non-traditional approach helped it succeed: “We never had a formal way of approaching things, and I think that made the brand innovative and fun.”