The newly formed GE understood that its success depended on convincing consumers of their need for electricity—not an easy task since many potential customers did not know what electricity was. GE recognized that its advertising needed to both sell products and educate the public, as seen in an ad from 1899: "Electricity lights our city. Electricity runs our streetcars. Electricity causes wagons without horses to go. Electricity permits us to talk great distances. Electricity will do our cooking and heating. Electricity will soon do everything."
The company also recognized the importance of a full-scale marketing approach to sell its new technology. For example, at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, GE sponsored an exhibit that included the world's largest direct-current generator, with 2,000 horsepower. GE also gained tremendous publicity at the fair with its Intramural Railway—an electric elevated railroad that circled the fairgrounds—and its futuristic motor-driven sidewalk.
For the next 100 years, even after customers had come to take electricity for granted, much of GE's advertising focused on introducing new products that would fill a need the consumer did not even know existed. For example, an ad introducing the electric iron in 1905 read, "An introduction to a modern household and its demonstrator." A 1908 ad introduced the vacuum cleaner as the "invincible electric renovator."
GE emerged in the 1920s as the dominant manufacturer in the electric lamp (i.e., lightbulb) market, but the company still had to invest in advertising to convince the public of the role that electricity was destined to occupy. One reason the company was able to command the electric light market was because it established the Incandescent Lamp Manufacturers Association in 1897, which allowed GE to fix prices and control the market. Executives realized, though, that price fixing would hold only for so long.
In addition, although GE had a rather large ad budget (nearly $2 million in 1922), it had not established a solid base of consumer loyalty to the GE name. The company sold products under a variety of brand names, such as Mazda electric bulbs and Hotpoint appliances. It was time for a more aggressive—and cohesive—advertising strategy.
Creating an enduring image
In 1922, GE hired its first agency, Barton, Durstine & Osborne. Agency executive Bruce Barton developed an image campaign for GE with the slogan "A symbol of service, the initials of a friend" to build awareness and goodwill for the company and its logo.
Mr. Barton insisted that all GE ads prominently display the logo, which had emerged in ads as early as 1907, but had not been used consistently. Over the years, the logo became so closely connected with the company that insiders affectionately call it the "meatball" because of its rounded shape.
Within just a few years, GE's entire account was housed at the agency, which became Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn in 1928, and the majority of the account has remained at BBDO ever since.
During the 1920s, GE ads appeared in all of the top consumer magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan. Clearly targeting the housewife, GE's ads helped to redefine the role of homemaker from drudge to family caretaker. With the help of BBDO, GE was able to quickly enter and dominate the refrigeration market between 1927 and 1930. GE spent millions to market the new refrigerator.
By the Great Depression, GE had a product line that included electric mixers, clothes washers, dishwashers, air conditioners and food disposers—products that a family with an unemployed breadwinner could not justify adding to its budget. GE's advertising slogan during this time was "More goods for more people at less cost," a slogan that captured both the poverty of the times as well as hopes for future prosperity.
During this time, GE took innovative steps to expand its advertising to include other industries that would benefit from improved lighting technology. A spread in The Saturday Evening Post in 1939 illustrates this. The ad introduced GE's new sealed-beam headlight system. The subhead reads: "Brought about through the united efforts of the automobile manufacturers, the makers of headlighting equipment and safety and state authorities." The only prominent logo in the ad, however, was the ubiquitous GE symbol.
GE remained a minor presence in network radio. For much of the 1930s, it did not even place among the top 100 advertisers. By 1939, it ranked No. 53 with a budget of $367,000. Toward the end of the '30s, GE assigned its electronics department advertising to Maxon Inc., which handled GE TV and radio receivers as well as the Hotpoint division into the 1950s.
After the Depression, GE looked to BBDO once again to boost the company's image. This time, it was necessary to convince frugal Americans to use more electric power, provided by GE. BBDO's new campaign was built around the slogan "Better light for better sight."
During World War II, GE provided much of the technology that helped fuel the war effort. Like other companies, GE faced the predicament of having to convince consumers not to use its products, but to remember them again after the war. It chose to emphasize patriotism: "When victory was won, you may expect even better GE electric servants."
In the postwar period, pent-up consumer demand for appliances and other electrical products gave GE the opportunity to capture a major segment of an expanding market. The company's new slogan, "You can put your confidence in General Electric," helped convince consumers to purchase GE's new automatic clothes washers and combination refrigerator-freezers. The slogan appeared in ads as late as 1953.
GE was one of the first companies to recognize the potential of TV as an ad medium. In 1948, BBDO produced the TV show "Carnival" for GE, and from 1953 to 1962, the company sponsored the CBS anthology series "General Electric Theater," hosted by actor Ronald Reagan. The slogan carrying GE through the postwar boom, "Progress is our most important product," was actually the pay-off line from the introduction of the program: "In engineering, in research, in manufacturing skill, in the values that bring a better, more satisfying life, at General Electric, progress is our most important product."
Mr. Reagan and his wife, Nancy, served as the consummate electricity-consuming couple. GE provided the Reagans with every imaginable electrical gadget for their home (including a dishwasher with a built-in garbage disposal) and posed the couple in ads with captions such as: "Ronald and Nancy Reagan, circa 1954, relax in the living room of their GE all-electric home."
Still lighting the way
Legendary GE Chairman-CEO Jack Welch pursued innovative advertising approaches in the 1970s. He decided that consumer products ought to be developed according to the demands of customers, so he used ads that asked customers to help him develop GE products. The company continued to explore non-traditional advertising to promote its products. For example, on June 17, 1976, GE sponsored the CBS special presentation "The Bolshoi Ballet: Romeo & Juliet" to commemorate the Bolshoi's 200th year.
In 1979, GE inaugurated the slogan "We bring good things to life," still in use in the 21st century.
In some controversial management decisions in the 1980s, GE invested heavily in computerization and factory automation. But while earnings were high—$2 billion in 1983—profits from sales increased marginally. To jump-start the company, Mr. Welch sold off 118 businesses by 1983 and used the revenue to invest in products designed to enhance manufacturing. During this decade, GE also increased its corporate advertising budget and placed more emphasis on GE as a brand.
At the end of the 20th century, GE's advertising continued to play a significant role in educating consumers about new technologies, and the company remained willing to invest significant money in advertising. For example, it spent more than $12 million to advertise during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Nonetheless, GE remained relatively conservative in its ad expenditures compared to other large companies. Although it typically ranks among the top three companies in market value (depending on stock market fluctuation), as of 2002 it ranked No. 55 in total U.S. advertising expenditures, at $579 million, down 22.4% from 2001.
GE, a multifaceted technology, services, and manufacturing company, was poised for further growth in the 21st century. The company's long-term commitment to BBDO and its tremendous brand recognition remained intact.
Jeffrey R. Immelt, GE's ninth CEO in more than 100 years, has not had an easy time. The economic nosedive of the early 21st century and a crisis of confidence in corporate America arguably gave him a tougher task than his predecessor. His mandate has been to make GE the pre-eminent growth company of the 21st century.
By 2004, the company had 11 business units, including GE Advance Materials, Consumer Finance, Energy, Transportation and NBC among them. As of May 2004, GE was spinning off most of its insurance business in the shape of Genworth. The company also signed on to be a sponsor of the Olympic Games from 2005 to 2012, supplementing NBC’s rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S. In addition, GE was preparing to wrap up NBC's merger with Vivendi Universal Entertainment to create NBC Universal, giving the network a studio sibling for the first time.
In 2003, GE had moved up to become the No. 13 national adveriser in the U.S., spending $1.6 billion, an increase of 25.4% over the previous year, according to Advertising Age.