CMO Q&A: Discovery and invention are key to GE's brand storytelling

Linda Boff, General Electric, talks to Steve Barrett on crafting the brand's narrative identity and its "business-to-human" comms approach

With so many different businesses, where does marketing fit into the process at GE?
The company tries to be relevant and contemporary. We think about our brand in terms of people, whether you are a business executive at an airline thinking about buying our engines, an administrator, or a plant manager, you’re still a person. We have a b-to-h (business-to-human) point of view rather than only talking to the people who will order something directly from us.

At 360,000 people, recruiting both our current employee base and the people we hope would consider a career at GE are both super-important audiences.

We’re also a widely held stock among retail investors, hence a desire to talk to the average person, not the institutional investor. And, finally, through things such as GE Ventures, we invest in startups and tech companies, and talking to a broader audience than business executives is really important to us.

Where does paid media fit into your over-all strategy?
The marketing and PR teams do a great deal of work together. It’s less about whether what we’re doing is paid and more "Is the content really good?" whether that be advertising on TV, or a post on Facebook, or something on Instagram, or the series we are doing with National Geographic, called Breakthrough.

If it’s really good, then people will want to consume it, talk about it, and share it. The watermark is great storytelling in a way that is authentically us. We’re all about science, technology, engineering, and increasingly, software, so we want to talk to people who share that passion, more of a psychographic than a demographic if you will.

Can you illustrate this philosophy in action?
We will spend money to create content but we’ll do it in ways that are unexpected, such as GE Podcast Theater, inspired by GE Theater with Ronald Reagan in the 1950s, where we launched a podcast called The Message with Slate’s podcast network Panoply Media that went to number one on iTunes.

The TV commercials we run are good stories [but we will only run them during live events, not on general primetime.] Similarly, our series on National Geographic is six one-hour episodes by A-list directors with Imagine Entertainment (Brian Grazer and Ron Howard) – one about water and one about energy, among others. They’re not about GE, they’re about topics we think are important.

In a world of PESO, are some of these things paid, owned, shared, and earned? Yes. But the model going forward is not to pick one of those lanes, rather to navigate across all of them in an authentic way.

How do you justify your spend on content?
We’re a branded house, not a house of brands, so we pay a lot of attention to upper-funnel metrics such as the overall value and impact of our brand. We’re the number eight brand in the world according to Interbrand, worth about $42 billion.

That matters a lot to our CEO, our board, and our employees. We measure views and shares and that is tracking really well. The other important factor is shouting louder than we spend. Our expenditure is fairly modest for a global multinational company and we squeeze everything we can out of every dollar.

It is part of the reason we’re often one of the first brands to embrace new platforms – it is part of the business’ DNA. We were founded by Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors, so the idea of discovery and invention is part of who we are. There’s more room to experiment and more attention than a company or brand that is 25th [to get onto] a platform.

We’ll often take a bet on a platform that makes sense or the person behind it. For example we met Paul Berry when he was CTO of The Huffington Post so when he started RebelMouse, we were one of his first clients because we believe in him.

We know what will appeal to folks who represent new audiences for GE, who are curious and a little geeky, so we recently launched on a platform called Wattpad for burgeoning writers. We took six original GE comic covers from the ’50s and asked people to write stories that brought them to life.

We were the first brand on Vine, in a very GE way, putting a little experiment out there. On Periscope we did Drone Week, Periscoping what was going on at five GE sites in five days. It’s a formula of showing our technology, how interesting it is, and platforms that allow us to do that. Virtual reality is another example.

How do you ensure marketing and comms aren’t running on parallel lines?
The key word is communication. I have a fantastic relationship with our CCO Deirdre Latour. Our teams not only sit together physically, they work together constantly. There’s no rule; we just exercise good commonsense, try and figure it out, and activate good integrated communications.  We think about who’s on the other end, rather than our organization structure. When you start on the end user and work back, it puts you in a good place.

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