The Mechanics of Marketing at GE

GE is one of the most renowned, yet unknown, companies in the world. With Q4 2013 revenues of $40.4 billion across its eight verticals—including appliances and lighting, aviation, energy management, GE Capital, healthcare, oil and gas, power and water, and transportation—GE is a leader in innovation and technology.

But while the general public knows who GE is, the company’s ad tracking and perception research suggests that they don’t really know what GE does.

“There’s a certain brand recognition with GE, but not exactly what [the brand] means,” says Michael Aimette, a senior creative director with BBDO New York. BBDO has been GE’s creative agency partner since 1920.

Andy Goldberg, GE’s global creative director, says that consumers often associate GE with their “past lives,” such as growing up with a GE refrigerator or having GE light bulbs. But the company does far more than manufacturing. In November 2011, for example, GE announced its plan to open a new global software center in San Ramon, CA. This union of hardware and software is designed to enable GE to harness the power of what it coined as the Industrial Internet and achieve machine-to-machine, and, ultimately, machine-to-human, connectivity.

The Industrial Internet uses data and Internet connectivity to create more productive machines and companies, Goldberg explains. GE is able to leverage the Industrial Internet across all of its business segments, and connect them, through “Brilliant Machines.” Brilliant Machines, a term coined by GE and BBDO, are machines that capture data through sensors and then use that information to communicate with people and other machines to drive efficiency, Goldberg says. The data procured by these machines has a direct impact on the public, as well. For example, GE’s Healthcare AgileTrac, a hospital operations management technology, can track 15,000 medical devices in a single hospital. Tracking where patients and medical equipment are at all times through GE’s software can help a hospital reduce its emergency department patient wait time by 68%. And over the course of nine months, a hospital using GE’s software can cut 3,000 patient discharge hours.

To establish itself as the leader in the Industrial Internet space, and show how data acquired by Brilliant Machines is applicable to individuals today, in November 2012 GE debuted nine industrial service technologies at its Minds+Machines conference and launched its Brilliant Machines campaign. But the company knew that complex concepts like the Industrial Internet and Big Data would neither resonate with people nor be easy to digest. So the brand used storytelling to make Big Data and the Industrial Internet more comprehensible from an individual perspective and show how they’re applicable to business decision makers and the general public.

Storytelling, through the dawn of time, has been the way people connect with stuff,” Goldberg says. “Whether it’s caveman drawings, the Bible, or whatever it might be, storytelling is what connects us. Storytelling is what enables us to understand.”

Chapter one: Preparation

Instead of telling a story about how the Industrial Internet would impact people in the future, GE wanted to show how it’s impacting people’s lives today. So the company looked for stories across its eight business verticals to find real cases of how the Industrial Internet and Brilliant Machines are transforming the way businesses work and people live, Goldberg explains. To make the concept more tangible and to win people’s interest, BBDO and GE decided to tell this complex story through characters people were already invested in:

Brilliant Machines—i.e. robots—from past and present pop culture, BBDO’s Aimette says. GE partnered with social analytics solution provider Networked Insights to determine which Brilliant Machines it should use in the campaign. Through Networked Insights’ real-time data analytics platform SocialSense, GE scrutinized thousands of robot-related social conversations across the Internet. This data, which Networked Insights first provided in September 2012, helped GE identify which robots generate the most conversation and which ones would resonate with the brand’s target audience, which for this campaign was broader than usual.

Although GE generally targets business decision makers, the Brilliant Machines campaign also targets tech influencers, young people who want to learn about GE, and the general public, Goldberg points out. “There’s really no B2B [or] B2C, it’s B2people,” Goldberg says. “If I’m a C-level executive at a company, my personality doesn’t drastically change from when I’m at home watching TV or in the office. I have different priorities, but I’m still the same person. You want to resonate with someone emotionally or connect with them intellectually with creative work—no matter where they are. You’re talking to people.”

Chapter two: Execution

The company rolled out the campaign in November 2012 with an introductory 60-second ad called “Journey.” The spot was broadcast on TV and online and featured celebrity robots, including K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, traveling to GE to take part in its connected machines movement, Goldberg explains. That same month GE debuted two spots illustrating GE’s impact on the aviation and locomotive industries, respectively. For example, in its “Flying into the Future” commercial, GE revealed how its GEnx jet engine is able to understand 5,000 data samples per second—and how this data helps GE customer United Airlines’ aircrafts use less fuel and spend less time on the ground. Goldberg says that these stories served as proof points of GE’s effectiveness.

“We attacked [these stories] from a simplistic understanding of ‘there’s data and we’re using it,’” Goldberg says. “This was our purpose going out of the gate.”

GE continued to release sequential ads designed as “chapterized” stories that focused on how the Industrial Internet and Brilliant Machines impacts GE’s specific verticals. For example, in April 2013 GE broadcasted its “Agent of Good: Connected Hospitals” commercial to highlight how the Industrial Internet affects GE’s healthcare segment. In this Matrix-inspired story, Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving), walks through a hospital and shows that by integrating medical hardware with software, GE is able to connect doctors, nurses, patients, and machines through data. This connectivity allows medical staff to treat their patients more effectively and decrease waiting time. The story accumulated more than 1.74 million views on GE’s official YouTube channel alone.

Then in September 2013 GE moved onto its power vertical with its “The Future is Now” spot. The Back to the Future-based ad shows a DeLorean flying onto a rooftop in New York; GE provides 20% of the city’s power. In a voiceover Michael J. Fox explains how 1.21 gigawatts is nothing compared to the power GE generates today. According to GE’s official YouTube channel, the spot earned—ironically— more than 1.21 million views.

Finally, the brand paid homage to its oil and gas division by releasing a Star Trek-themed “Brilliant Enterprise” spot in October 2013. In the commercial Sulu (played by John Cho) faces a crisis as the U.S.S. Enterprise begins to lose power. But Science Officer 0718 (played by Joseph Gatt) saves the day by leveraging GE’s Deep-Sea Fuel Technology—a 50,000-pound Brilliant Machine that leverages data to maximize resources in extreme conditions, according to the spot. The company’s official YouTube page notes that the commercial generated more than 807,000 views.

BBDO’s Aimette says that using these stories’ authentic characters was essential to telling the story effectively. “As fun as the idea is, I think it really hinged on who we could work with and how well they could tell that story,” he says. “We worked hard to make sure that each story and each character that we adopted had a real relevance that we were trying to tell.”

Chapter three: Innovation

In addition to its TV and online spots, GE bolstered its campaign with digital, experiential, event, and social marketing. For instance, GE launched a multichannel campaign in San Francisco centered on airing its Back To the Future-inspired spot during the premier game of the 2013 NFL Football season. GE partnered with car service app Uber and offered San Francisco app users rides in DeLoreans. When users typically order a car, they can check the Uber app map to see how many cars are in their vicinity. GE “took over” the app, so instead of seeing how many black cars were nearby, users could see how many DeLoreans were in the area. Uber also promoted the partnership on its blog, and Goldberg says word about the initiative spread through social. And while riders couldn’t travel through time, they could watch GE’s Brilliant Machine spots on an iPad inside of the automobile.

Along those same lines, GE partnered with TaskRabbit, an online and mobile marketplace that allows people to outsource their errands, to align with its Star Trek–themed “Brilliant Enterprise” commercial. When someone ordered a task, such as dry-cleaning, a trekky completed the order, Aimette explains.

And to promote Brilliant Machines as a whole, GE had Compressorhead, an all-robot heavy metal band, perform a concert in New York. GE also partnered with digital music service Spotify and created Wild Postings, or non-traditional forms of outdoor advertising, in which people could plug in their headphones and listen to two of the band’s tracks. Goldberg says the robot band was such a success that GE plans on bringing it back for an encore at SXSW 2014.

“It’s important as a brand to have fun and connect with people,” Goldberg says. “That’s how you get people to notice you and make an emotional connection.”

Chapter four: The epilogue

Goldberg notes that GE is able to determine whether its messaging is resonating with its audiences through proprietary research data on ad tracking and perception changes. These measures—including familiarity with GE, perception changes, and understanding of message—“continue to rise as we talk about the message,” he says.

And like GE, the Brilliant Machines campaign will continue to evolve. Goldberg says that GE is moving away from the celebrity robot-side of the Brilliant Machines campaign and homing in on how Brilliant Machines are built through advanced manufacturing techniques. When asked what motivates GE to continue this campaign, Goldberg is quick to respond:

“There are always new stories to tell.”

4 Elements of Extraordinary Storytelling
Telling stories through data can be challenging, especially when it involves making intricate and complex concepts easily understandable. 

Andy Goldberg (left), global creative director for GE, understands the value of a good story. “People loved Shakespeare because of the way he wrote a story,” he explains. “And in today’s world [of] advertising and content production and development, storytelling is what gets people engrossed and engaged to understand what something might be.”

But telling stories through data can be challenging, especially when it involves making intricate and complex concepts—like the Industrial Internet—easily understandable. Here are four ways Goldberg says marketers can evolve their storytelling to ensure that their brands live happily ever after.

Don’t just tell, storytell: [Our work] really captured people’s imagination….Back to the Future is 30 years old, but it stills creates a memory and creates a connection point. It gets people excited about something; same with Agent Smith. People have a passion about this. And when you tap into those passions, it gets people to talk about it and it gets people excited. You need to harness those emotions more and…storytell, you don’t want to just tell; great movies and great books…storytell. They lead you along. They pull you in. They engage you, [and] they enthrall you.

Carry your story throughout: Everything has to complement each other, [and] everything has to work together to enrapture someone. Someone might just engage with our Instagram feed and then all of a sudden they see some of the other stuff that we’re doing—whether it’s a blog, or GE Reports, or our Twitter feed. Now, they have multiple touchpoints. It’s getting them engaged in one piece of our communications flow and then trying to get them excited about some other things that we’re doing.

Let data enhance your story: You can use data to enhance that story and make it better by finding out what’s going to resonate more, what important points you want to touch on, and what you want to tap into.

Constantly optimize: You can have the Big Data talk. But if you’re not applying it and using it in ways that are going to change how the system is working or what the data is providing, then it’s just data and it’s not doing anything for you. Also, you have to build on the data. You have to go where the latest data is, as well. You have to continue to evolve. You can’t just rest on data from a year ago and say, “That’s what I learned.” You have to find out what the new data is providing and continue to optimize.

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