‘Now Is the Time for Bold Action’: Interview with Educational Track Leader Debra Hughes

Published: June 30, 2021

Debra Hughes

Debra Hughes, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, USA

INTA’s 2021 Annual Meeting Virtual+, from November 15 to 19, will include five educational tracks—one track on each of the five days of the event. The five tracks are: Building a Better Society Through Brands; The Business of Brands; Enforcement and Anticounterfeiting; Innovation and the Future of IP; and Regional Updates.  

Debra Hughes (Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, USA) is the track leader of the first day’s track: Building a Better Society Through Brands. Ms. Hughes, assistant general counsel at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, serves on INTA’s 2021 Presidential Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion  and is co-chair of the Brand Valuation and Evaluation Subcommittee of the Commercialization of Brands Committee. Ms. Hughes is also the treasurer of the INTA Foundation, a charitable organization focused on expanding educational and professional development opportunities in intellectual property (IP) for diverse, underrepresented populations around the world.

In an interview with the INTA Bulletin, she talks about what to expect at the sessions and how companies have been making changes to capture the positive effects of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as sustainability. 

Building a Better Society Through Brands (Monday, November 15) 

A brand represents more than a product or service; it represents a “promise” of how they are made, and/or delivered and who the people are that create and deliver them. More and more, consumer choice is based not only on the quality of the offering but also on what a consumer believes is important—whether that’s social or political values, how a brand owner conducts its business in the marketplace, or how it treats its employees. Consumers want to know how it is made, and what the brand owner did in and for our communities; and how it impacts the environment. Trustworthiness, transparency, sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion are among the core values that today’s consumers expect from the brands that they support. 

As part of their brand strategy and counseling, brand legal practitioners need to address these brand issues in changing times―from how what a brand says and does affects consumer trust, to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the importance and benefit of doing good in society. These issues are not only important because of consumer demand; research shows that diverse and inclusive teams create more innovative products and services, contributes to long-term employee retention, and higher financial performance. Diversity and inclusion should be reflected in all aspects of an organization, including its legal team. 

 How can brands make a difference in society? 
It’s about awareness and being a listener, and because brands have a platform and a voice, brands have opportunities to expand their platform and voice. Brands make a difference in society by recognizing that they are a part of society, and their positive impact helps not only the company but the communities in which they live and work. Brands have marketing and philanthropic spend that can be allocated in meaningful activities that can help their communities. I think if brands look at their voice and their power from that lens, it doesn’t seem unnatural. It should be just a part of what companies do. You’re in a community, you want to help that community. You have consumers, you want to help those consumers. You want those consumers to be thriving and surviving. 


Brands make a difference in society by recognizing that they are a part of society.

Why is the timing right for this track’s focus?
I think the timing is right because after the last 18 months, we’ve all probably learned a lot about our brands and what’s important. We’ve learned what works, what doesn’t work. We’ve learned when to stand up and when to be cautiously engaged. We’ve learned that approaches toward important issues can be executed differently from company to companyand that’s ok. For example, the way one company addresses sustainability may feel very authentic, but for a company that’s never stepped in that place, there may be an opportunity to carefully pivot its brand messaging. Over the last year or so, companies have tested alternative messaging and branding and embraced being members of society in different, and, perhaps, more meaningful ways. This fall will be a good time to reconvene and share what we have learned. We’re hoping that brands and law firms alike will share best practices, share war stories, and feel comfortable in this uncomfortable space. 

How and why should IP practitioners be involved in their brands and their clients’ corporate social responsibility initiatives and efforts to build a better society?
For an IP practitioner, it’s important to be thinking about more than the trademarks in your docket and contentious matters in your litigation portfolio. These conversations are happening globally in C-suites and management committees. More and more, we’re learning that companies are trying to expand their brand to be a voice in this space, this voice of sustainability, this voice of DEI, this voice of giving back. I believe in-house IP practitioners have to be a part of that conversation, not only to show your value to your company, but importantly, to demonstrate that you understand and support the mission and the vision of your company. From a law firm perspective, it is important to note that these topics are top of mind for your clients. Your clients are trying to find their voice and the right mix between traditional consumer advertising and brand positioning and incorporating these new themes. Both in-house and law firm practitioners need to be nimble and thoughtful advisors and understand and support their clients’ corporate social responsibility initiatives. 

Sustainability is part of this track’s offerings. How can brand legal practitioners support sustainability efforts?
Typically, when some think about sustainability, using recycled paper, recycled bottles, and paper cups in offices may come to mind. But for some companies, the concept of sustainability has evolved over the last year as many companies have successfully operated remotely. Personally, I have questioned whether I really need to print documents and whether I can rely on electronic solutions for executing agreements, etc. There are myriad sustainable operational opportunities for in-house legal departments and law firms to consider. Also, many companies may consider other sustainable practices, such as adjusting commuting or return to office requirements and reassessing corporate travel policies. Further, some companies are considering sustainable product packaging and shipping materials.  


This fall will be a good time to reconvene and share what we have learned.

It’s been said that doing good is good for the bottom line. What in your view is the relationship between purpose and profit?
Statistics have shown that having diverse teams results in better outcomes, more thoughtful outcomes, and more innovative outcomes. Data have also shown that thinking outside of your comfort zone as a company and venturing into these areas, may elevate your brand, and can improve consumers’ view of you and trust for your brand. Consumers want brands to be authentic. I think a customized approach, with the correct leaders at the table who understand your industry, can lead to a positive financial impact. Now is the time for bold action, and brands are learning that bold action, when thoughtful and dynamic enough to pivot, if needed throughout the strategy, may lead to positive purpose with positive brand equity and financials. 

DEI will be part of the discussion on this track. A recent study by PwC, the Global Diversity and Inclusion Survey, showed that organizations are investing at unprecedented rates in DEI programs and 76 percent now say it is a value or priority. What are the internal and public-facing benefits, including bottom-line benefits, of this type of investment for brands and law firms?
These programs are an investment in your company’s future and not merely an investment in the individuals or groups that are in the underrepresented communities. Having people welcome at the table and able to participate at the table and feel comfortable at the table being their true selves helps the company overall. It is a challenge to be your best, to perform at your best, when you are not comfortable being whole yourself when you sit at the table. Honestly, this is an area where I struggle, and I make conscious efforts to bring more of “Debbie” to the table every day.  

For me, it’s an easy ask. It’s an easy response. It doesn’t take much, but it takes commitment from the top downfrom the executives, middle managers, and especially people managers. A company can have a broad program around DEI and can set milestones and methods to evaluate the success of its DEI program. And all of that is important and commendable. But for me, what is equally important is what happens each and every day, on every videoconference call, on every phone call, on every instant message, and every time you’re standing by the water cooler (even virtually) and you’re talking about an issue. DEI considerations should become a part of your daily operations, a common conversation, so that it doesn’t feel like you’re unnaturally injecting the topics into the conversation. From my point of view, that’s when you’ve achieved meaningful success—when people are now comfortable talking about previous uncomfortable issues.  

Trustworthiness and transparency are among the core values that today’s consumers expect from the brands that they support. Can you speak about their importance? 
Brands have a reputation to protect and shareholders or stakeholders hold them responsible to be profitable. The challenge in sharing opportunities to improve may reveal perceived or actual weaknesses or challenges within the company’s infrastructure. But consumers understand that companies are not perfect. The more companies are comfortable talking about areas where they have an opportunity to improve, they more they can strengthen their ties to a global community. Being transparent about your DEI efforts and your company’s challenges with sustainability may be hard. But I think consumers appreciate companies that are bold enough to share areas for improvement, providing that transparency is authentic and not transparency for transparency’s sake. 


DEI considerations should become a part of your daily operations, a common conversation.

What do you want registrants to take away from the Building a Better Society Through Brands track?
I expect registrants are going to receive practical insights from a global perspective. The project team is very diverse. Participants can expect to hear discussions and information-sharing about actual strategies and programs implemented and a toolkit that can be shared with their teams. We want the track to be tactical, hands-on, and we want it to be a conversation that is amplified through the participation of our registrants. We are not expecting to speak at you; we want to speak with you. We want to help elevate whatever your brands are already doing, and hopefully we’ll learn from your company as well. 

INTA is revitalizing the INTA Foundation with a new mission around DEI. As treasurer of the INTA Foundation, how will the Foundation’s mission contribute to building a better society through brands?
The new mission of the INTA Foundation is really an opportunity for collaboration and allyship, and to support firms and companies that are really driving DEI efforts. We want to recognize them, support them, and challenge them to do more. What’s most encouraging is that we’re getting a wonderful response. Companies and law firms are stepping up and practitioners are volunteering and donating. 

This new mission is so important because it aligns with what companies are already doing. Companies are recognizing that DEI is mission critical. The Foundation, at this very crucial and important time, is helping with a global perspective on how DEI is viewed and addressed. The Foundation wants to support those who are underrepresented in the legal profession to join the legal profession and support them throughout their career. It’s a wonderful opportunity. The members of the board are dynamic, and we’re really excited and ready to engage with the global community. 

Personally, I’ve really enjoyed volunteering with INTA, beginning when I was a young practitioner working on a committee, to now helping to develop educational programming [at the Annual Meeting] and serving on the board of the INTA Foundation. So, I really encourage all members to sign up for committees, to raise your hand and demonstrate that you want to help, because building a better society starts with you. It starts with your volunteerism. It starts with your commitment to help this profession, and I encourage you to do so through INTA. 

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