CMO Q&A: Beth Comstock, General Electric

Alexandra Bruell talks to GE's Beth Comstock about the company's healthcare and energy efforts, the Clarient acquisition, and the integrated marketing function

CMO Q&A: Beth Comstock, General Electric
The company recently acquired Clarient. What kind of marketing are you doing around this acquisition and how is it affecting GE's corporate positioning?

It continues to affect the image of GE as this forward-thinking health technology company. It's very much in the sweet spot of our medical diagnostics business, so the ability to talk about more tailored, customized, and personalized healthcare definitely comes into play. We're trying to position the company and work with our customers on it through Healthymagination, which is this rallying cry for better healthcare for more people.  
It seems like you're constantly straddling b-to-b and b-to-c, with the acquisition of Clarient and an expansion of healthcare and energy. Can you talk about what the divide looks like and how it may have shifted?

We're a widely diverse company and certainly we're in b-to-b and consumer marketing, and we're in b-to-c, and there's a whole other set of Bs I can go through as well.

In the past year we've fine-tuned our two big cross-company business platforms. One is Ecomagination, which has been around for five years now and is very much about access to clean technology around the globe. It's targeted to consumers and anyone interested in clean tech. we have a number of business consumers, but businesspeople are consumers too. The best way to reach a wide amount of constituents is through consumer marketing, and the same goes with Healthymagination, which we launched from a consumer perspective in a big way in January, coinciding with the Winter Olympics. We see a big opportunity as patients, primary care providers, and hospitals are all looking for the best way to connect.

It seems like CSR is a passion point for you. Is the company looking, with Ecomagination and Healthymagination, to boost its efforts in that area?

There certainly is that component to both [platforms], but make no mistake, these are business strategies; they are business platforms foremost. By that I mean it's all about funneling our R&D money in a way that's most effective.
It's about driving customer connectivity. We have a very aggressive sales target for both of these platforms, as well as internal commitments we've made, so it's multi-faceted. We've chosen to focus on two of the biggest world problems - the need for cleaner technology and more affordable healthcare.  

You oversee marketing, communications, and sales. Which of these disciplines would you say is playing the greatest role in some of these overall marketing efforts?

They're all interrelated and that's why I think it's so important that we've knitted those functions together, especially at the corporate level. We think it's all about developing a core platform and promise and making sure you have consistent messaging and you can take that and tailor it somewhat to the right audience. If we're dealing with customers versus dealing with governments, there will be different programming or messaging that happens, but it's all built around these core themes of delivering cleaner technology and more affordable healthcare.

Have you invested more so in a particular discipline?

We still do all the traditional outreach in terms of PR and advertising. I feel really excited that we've grown our digital capabilities a lot more in social media with personal pages for our Healthymagination and Ecomagination efforts, and we're now working more on trying to streamline our video and make video storytelling a big part of what we do. I think you'll be seeing more of that from us.

One of the biggest issues in PR is related to who is taking the lead in this battle for the social media and digital business, as so many campaigns are integrated and revolve around interactive marketing. What are your thoughts?

Sometimes you can't tell the difference between advertising and PR. For a company like ours, if that's the case, that's great. I certainly can say that with any of the efforts we do, if one [discipline] doesn't reinforce the other it doesn't work.

Along the spectrum, advertising has a great view on how to work with video, and PR has a great way of working with social media and bloggers. They [each] have expertise, but it's important that they go together. If communicators and marketing people are out there trying to figure out who is more important, they're going to miss it.

How has the imminent sale of NBC to Comcast impacted your focus, marketing strategy, and overall corporate positioning?  

NBC, which has been a part of GE for 20-plus years, did not go to market as GE. So from a brand and positioning perspective, we haven't had to unravel anything or change any of that. We're going to have a big stake in NBC Universal and a partnership with Comcast, and we're still going to expect to work with NBC properties form an advertising and outreach perspective.  

You were in a similar marketing role at GE years ago; you then left for a new role at NBC, and now you're back. What's changed the most over the years, regarding marketing approach, strategy, C-suite attitude, etc.?

You see more connectivity between communications and marketing, especially looking at the fact that we combined communications, marketing, and sales. I do think integrated communications firms are probably getting a bigger share of the business, as opposed to just the very specific narrowly focused agencies. There's always going to be a place for [those separate agencies], but for these big expansive campaigns you really need integrated agencies that understand how to pull the pieces together.

Has that led to a change in the agency mix?

I wouldn't say it's led to a change in the mix. It's forced us to create better processes. The [agencies] get together and have to realize that their value and success is going to be in developing something jointly, which is a change from what we did five years ago.

How do you organize marketing for such a broad industry corporation?

One of the things we look at is whether or not we have the right processes and people. Not every industry needs the same kind of marketing skills. Healthcare has the same focus on the strategic marketing and new market development. In our GE Capital business, we're more focused on sales force effectiveness and customer integration.  

We asked a question two years ago in the depths of the economic crisis: how do we know we're any good? We've invested a lot in both functions, but especially in marketing over past decade. We've doubled the number of marketers to 5,000, and we've got training programs and a number of initiatives with other marketers outside of GE to share best practices.

What's next from GE?

You'll see a lot more from us in the digital media space. It's a tool that connects more with employees and customer stakeholders. It also gives us much better ways to story tell. For Ecomagination, we're doing more with governments from around the world. With Healthymagination, we're doing more with primary care givers such as nurses and doctor assistants. We'll also be doing more in terms of our abilities to connect in the financial services area.

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