Comstock's comeback to GE signals increased digital focus

FAIRFIELD, CT: Beth Comstock has returned to General Electric as SVP and CMO, with the goal of helping the company pursue a more integrated digital strategy.

FAIRFIELD, CT: Beth Comstock has returned to General Electric as SVP and CMO, with the goal of helping the company pursue a more integrated digital strategy.

As CMO, Comstock's main duty will be to assist CEO and chairman Jeff Immelt on growth initiatives in marketing, sales, and communications. Comstock will also develop a network of external partnerships in environmental technologies and cross-business digital platforms.

Comstock was previously NBC Universal president of integrated media. Her new role is effective March 10. She also served as CMO and SVP at GE from 2003 to 2005, though her post is now characterized as an increased role. In the announcement of the appointment, Immelt noted that, because of Comstock's leadership, NBCU will reach its $1 billion goal for digital revenues in 2008, a year ahead of schedule.

In an interview with PRWeek, Comstock highlighted her goals for 2008 and beyond. She expects the global brand to place significant resources behind digital communications and green marketing.

"I'll be taking the digital knowledge that I've gained here [at NBC] and some of the contacts we've made and partnerships we've created, and try to extend that across GE," she said. "[I'll be] looking at opportunities to use digital for cross-business innovation, [which means] teaming two businesses together."

Comstock added that GE would use digital marketing to get closer to its customers, both from a b-to-b and a consumer perspective.

"From a [b-to-b] perspective, this media enables customers to have more efficient access to GE products," she explained. "On the consumer side, we're looking to go deep and vertical. We've already started some of that [with] Ecomagination. I think you can expect that to continue and [for us to] look to do more from a consumer health perspective. We'll roll out those plans as we get closer."

Comstock alluded to the possibility that NBC Universal and GE would broaden their work together.

Presently, NBCU and GE have joined with iVillage's Your Total Health, a Web site that offers comprehensive health information.

GE corporate PR is currently handled by Edelman, while promotions for the digital platforms are planned to be led internally, along with additional outside agency support, said Comstock.

"[PR efforts] start from the position that these platforms are business-development opportunities," said Comstock, "and that the communications support is to make these full-fledged businesses.

"[Digital] will be an interesting new space to open up for GE, as we're looking to create interesting technology partnerships on the environmental front," she added. "These digital platforms will work in tandem with GE's Ecomagination strategy. Part of the company's pledge is to combine growth tactics with environmentally friendly practices and products to raise $20 billion from these in sales by 2010."

GE publicized its interest in environmental CSR with the launch of Ecomagination in May 2005, an initiative and matching Web site, that aims to combat environmental challenges on four fronts: population growth, uncontrolled urbanization, climate change, and the drinking-water supply. GE is seeking to increase its R&D budget to $1.5 billion by 2010, in addition to those profits stated by Comstock through environmentally friendly products.

GE will also be active as a sponsor of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which Comstock said would give the company the chance to highlight its dedication to green technology.

While Comstock was president of integrated media, NBCU and News Corp teamed up to create hulu.com, a video service site, featuring TV shows, feature films, and clips, still in beta test mode. Media reports have characterized Comstock's exit as contentious, related to the race to succeed NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright, but she said such rumors were common currency in the media industry.

"I don't know where [talk about a force-out] is coming from," said Comstock. "The media industry likes to gossip, [so it's] not surprising that there are all kinds of conspiracy theories whenever there's change. But I think I know, and GE knows, I was sent here to get digital started, to help reorganize and refocus our sales and marketing efforts around innovation."

Added reporting by Keith O'Brien.

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