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ANA/BMA16: How GE Has Reinvented Storytelling

CMO Linda Boff Says 'The Stakes Have Changed' for B-to-B Marketers

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Kicking off the ANA/BMA16: Masters of B2B Marketing Conference, GE's CMO Linda Boff said, "The stakes for all of us have changed. Great consumer experiences -- whether on Amazon or Uber -- are setting a different bar for us as b-to-b marketers."

Linda Boff, CMO at GE
Linda Boff, CMO at GE

In her opening keynote presentation Wednesday, Ms. Boff discussed how GE, a 124-year-old industrial manufacturer, has been reinventing itself as a company and also as a storyteller in the digital economy. She shared four best practices for b-to-b marketers.

1. Know your DNA. "Ours is a DNA that started with our founder, Thomas Edison," Ms. Boff said. "GE is about invention and imagination. As a 124-year-old startup, we are always in motion and we are always reinventing. How do we express that in our marketing?"

To tell this story, GE turned to BBDO, its agency partner for 94 years, which created the memorable TV spot "Childlike Imagination," which tells the story of GE's industrial businesses through the eyes of a child.

"We could have created a story that told about how GE has evolved in aviation, rail, healthcare and energy, but instead, we told the story through the imaginative, innovative eyes of a young girl," Ms. Boff said.

2. Find a passion. "Every business, whether it's GE or Dove with a bar of soap, has something they are passionate about. ... If you can be a print company and create that kind of emotion, then every business has the ability to do that," she said referring to an award-winning video called "The Postcard" by Vistaprint that was shown at the opening of the conference.

She said that at GE, the company is "deeply passionate" about science and technology, so it set out to find partners who could help it tell this story. "We try to find people who are just as passionate about science and technology as we are."

One partnership that has worked well for GE is a segment called "Fallonventions" on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," featuring innovative inventions by kids.

"There's a lot of talk about native content, native advertising, branded content, branded marketing -- I don't like any of those terms," Ms. Boff said. "What we're looking for as storytellers is the best content. The reason this worked is because Jimmy fell in love with this idea. We both have passion about the topic."

3. Know your purpose. Ms. Boff said that the company has moved from one that was heavily invested in financial services to a digital industrial company. "We build things and we connect them. The whole purpose of the company has really pivoted. How do you talk about being a digital industrial company? It does not translate easily."

Ms. Boff shared another campaign called "What's the Matter with Owen?," created by BBDO New York. That campaign shows a young GE programmer trying to tell his friends and family what he does.

"The idea was, we are not the industrial company you think you know. We poked a little bit of fun at ourselves. We did it with humor, and we were a little humble," Ms. Boff said.

She added that while the campaign was not designed specifically as a recruitment campaign, recruiting is up 800% as a result of the campaign.

4. Find the right approach. "This is the secret ingredient," Ms. Boff said. "You can know who you are, you can figure out your passion and your purpose, and you can still screw it up. If you don't get the tone and the approach right, it can fall on its face."

She said that being a 124-year-old company can have benefits, but "we could show up as a conglomerate. We really want to show up as person, not a corporation, on social media and on digital."

GE has been extremely aggressive with its social media and digital strategies -- often being the first brand to try new platforms, such as its foray onto Vine with its "Six-Second Science" video project.

"For every great thing our team has been able to accomplish, we are just as proud of the super-small things as the big, epic moments," Ms. Boff said.