Environment captures GE's imagination

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There's a company that has manufactured refrigerators that emit fluorocarbons, which scientists believe have contributed to the hole in the ozone layer. This company is also a leader in the nuclear power industry. And it also vigorously fought the Environmental Protection Agency to try to avoid cleaning up the PCBs its factory dumped into the Hudson River.

Can that company now claim to be environmentally friendly? General Electric Co. is about to find out.

GE, the company that engaged in all of these ecologically questionable pursuits, last month launched a vast marketing campaign called "Ecomagination" -a play on its "Imagination at work" tagline-to trumpet its ecological bona fides and a new direction in the company's strategy.

"They're saying, `Let's run a campaign to tell them we're not what they think we are,"' said Al Ries, chairman of branding consultancy Ries & Ries. "That doesn't usually work. As a matter of fact it usually hurts more than helps."

Enlisting environmentalists

Nonetheless, the campaign has won backing from some corners of the Green movement. Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, co-wrote an opinion piece with GE Chairman-CEO Jeffrey Immelt in The Washington Post last month that stated, "The lack of a consistent energy policy has, for more than a decade, been a central part of the problem, as we have failed to fully execute the breakthrough blueprints that exist in wind, solar, clean coal, nuclear power and other resources."

At the same time, Brian O'Malley, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, remarked, "It's a lot of imagination and maybe not so much eco."

Certainly, GE's "Ecomagination" is a marketing effort. The campaign, which was created by BBDO, features print, television and online executions. A spread in The New Yorker depicted a drawing of a river scene with a bird sketched in the style of John James Audubon in the foreground and smokestacks in the background. The copy read, "Cleaner coal technology. Just one way ecomagination is creating a better world."

Fashionably clean coal

GE also trumpets its cleaner coal technology on TV in a spot that features fashion models in a coal mine. The voice-over says, "Thanks to emission-reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."

Another GE TV spot, featuring an elephant dancing to "Singin' in the Rain" and touting "technology that's right in step with nature," was the most liked new TV spot in May, according to IAG Research.

But GE is pushing hard to show that "Ecomagination" is more than popular advertising spots. In a press release, Immelt said, "We will focus our unique energy, technology, manufacturing and infrastructure capabilities to develop tomorrow's solutions such as solar energy, hybrid locomotives, fuel cells, lower-emission aircraft engines, lighter and stronger materials, efficient lighting and water purification technology."

Beyond this statement, GE made several promises. It pledged to double research and development spending by 2010. It said it will double revenue from clean products and services-such as its wind and photovoltaic energy products, its hybrid locomotive and more fuel efficient jet engines-by 2010. And it said it will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 1% by 2012.

David Hamilton, the Sierra Club's director-global warming and energy programs, acknowledged that GE's pledges are a step in the right direction, saying, "Any company the size of GE which does a major policy turnaround in the direction of what we believe are more environmentally sound answers for the nation must be encouraged, supported and applauded."

At the same time, Hamilton questioned some of GE's claims, such as those regarding its coal technology to reduce emissions. Additionally, he noted he has seen the company battle for its own interests-at the expense of the environment-for too many years.

"A press release and a Web site do not a record make," Hamilton said.

One thing that both the "Ecomagination" approach and GE's previous philosophy share is a focus on the bottom line. The environmentally friendly GE still wants to make money, and it's not difficult to imagine a future world where rising oil prices have made wind, solar and other forms of alternative energy much more profitable.

"Increasingly for business, `green' is green," Immelt said.

Changing perceptions

There is precedent for an environmentally conscious marketing campaign combined with a change of values to effect a change in perception of a global conglomerate. Oil company BP staked out the high ground several years ago with its "Beyond petroleum" tagline.

Among BP's advertising efforts is a series of issue ads. One has the headline, "Oil, solar, natural gas, hydrogen. We think it's important to diversify, too."

The body copy strives to emphasize that BP is more than an oil company, saying, "BP is using solar energy to help produce cleaner, affordable energy. In one California community, BP solar energy has been estimated to cut typical electric bills by up to 60%."

The Sierra Club's Hamilton said the company's advertising and, more important, its commitment to running its business with the environment in mind, have made him a BP customer. "I go to a BP long before I go to an Exxon," he said.

Jim Gregory, president of branding consultancy CoreBrand, was initially skeptical about such efforts from GE, BP or any other corporate behemoth, but he watched a BP spot on television make an impact right before his eyes. "When the commercial came on, my wife said, `I think it's time. I'm going to change to BP.' "

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