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GE campaign brings 'good things' to an end

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Mention GE and people think light bulbs and refrigerators. But the first TV spots in Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric Co.’s new $100 million advertising campaign feature jet engines, plastics and medical systems—products from three key b-to-b divisions of the industrial behemoth.

The spots, which debuted in January, feature the tagline "Imagination at work." Gone is the long-familiar "We bring good things to life."

"One of the reasons that we picked these operating units is that we wanted to get the message out about the diversity of the units, the diversity of the products and services that we have at GE," said Judy Hu, GE’s general manager-corporate advertising and marketing communications. "We did a lot of consumer research, and most people today—investors and customers—only think of GE in terms of lighting and appliances. It was really important to tell them this is a new GE."

Additionally, these three divisions—GE Aircraft Engines, GE Plastics and GE Medical Systems—had the best stories to tell about innovation, Hu said, and that is the primary message of current chairman-CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

"The new positioning is more about innovation, discovery, those sorts of attributes," agreed Jim Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, Stamford, Conn., a branding consultancy.

One of the campaign’s spots features GE Aircraft Engines and the message that GE products "have helped Orville and Wilbur Wright’s invention to heights they themselves might never have imagined." The message is underscored with a comic visual that shows a modern jet engine strapped to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk. The engine propels the rickety aircraft above the clouds as Johnny Cash’s voice is heard in the background crooning, "We’ll visit the man in the moon."

Humor a departure

Hu said the humor in the campaign was a departure for GE, and it helped drive home the campaign’s theme. "I think people respond well to humorous ads," she said. "We’ve seen that as a trend throughout advertising in the past decade. It was also a really wonderful message because it sent the message that we are human at GE."

BBDO Worldwide, New York, created the campaign. The TV spots are appearing on many NBC programs, such as "Friends." The campaign includes prints ads, which show a light bulb, wind turbines and a cornucopia of other products pouring from the cranium of GE founder Thomas Edison. The print ads have appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal and People.

The new campaign arrives at a crossroads for GE, following former chairman-CEO Jack Welch’s departure. Welch’s exit was not as triumphant as anticipated after the company’s failed attempt to acquire Honeywell. GE’s share price has stumbled of late, falling almost 45% from its 52-week high last March to $23.14 at the end of January.

With the new marketing campaign, Immelt is looking to place his own stamp on the company, observers said. The campaign attempts to shift GE’s image from a conservative industrial company that hit its profit targets quarter after quarter to a company capable of coming up with revolutionary innovations to boost revenue.

The campaign has three key audiences. First, the ads show employees their directive is to create new products that will foster growth. Second, the campaign attempts to tell Wall Street that GE has the innovative products to remain a vibrant company in the future. And third, "Imagination at work" seeks to persuade customers that GE products will make their businesses or their lives better.

While the corporate campaign spotlights the innovation message, elements have appeared previously in ads for individual business units. GE Aircraft Engines, for instance, ran ads in aviation industry publications that emphasized the unit’s innovative use of X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging technology in quality control, according to Tom Rentschler, executive creative director of HSR Business-to-Business, Cincinnati, the ad agency for the division.

Mixed reviews

So far, the corporate campaign and its new slogan have met with mixed reviews.

Immelt "is saying I’m going to build this company as I see fit, and that’s appropriate," CoreBrand’s Gregory said. "On the other hand, he’s walking away from a lot of wonderful value [in the previous slogan]."

Al Ries, chairman of branding consultancy Ries & Ries Inc., said, "GE is primarily a business-to-business company. Yet it is true ‘We bring goods things to life’ has been interpreted as a consumer idea. But in my opinion, changing a well-known slogan is almost impossible. Nobody is going to relate to ‘Imagination at work.’ It’s not a very imaginative slogan anyway."

Former GE marketing executive Robert Lauterborn, now an advertising professor at the University of North Carolina, applauded the message. "It’s a return to GE’s roots as one of the great innovative and manufacturing companies on earth."

But after two decades of communicating its profitability, GE may have trouble convincing its audiences the company is a model of innovation. While the company has strong stories to tell—it ranked eigth among U.S. corporations in patents awarded in 2002—the difficulty of the communications task was apparent when GE held an "Innovation Day" last month. The day celebrated the Lexan resin’s invention—which took place 50 years ago.

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