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New GE CMO taps ‘imagination’

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On July 15, General Electric Co. named Beth Comstock as chief marketing officer-corporate VP-marketing. She is the first person to hold the CMO title at GE in nearly a decade.

Along with Judy Hu, GE’s general manager-corporate advertising and marketing communications, Comstock was instrumental in launching GE’s "Imagination at work" branding campaign earlier this year.

The appointment of Comstock is viewed as a signal of Fairfield, Conn.-based GE’s renewed commitment to marketing in the wake of Jeffrey Immelt’s taking over the reins as CEO from Jack Welch, whose era was characterized by supreme focus on bottom-line results. The appointment of Comstock is also remarkable because her background is primarily in public relations, not advertising. She was promoted from VP-corporate communications, a position she had held since 1998. Prior to that, she was a communications executive with NBC.

In an interview with BtoB last week, Comstock discussed her plans for "Imagination at work," GE’s commitment to marketing and her background in PR.

BtoB: With your appointment as CMO, should we expect any changes to the "Imagination at work" campaign?

Comstock: No, we’re still in the early days of "Imagination at work." With the success of the rollout so far, we’ve tapped into something that’s very exciting for us. I’d be hard pressed to put a timetable on how long the campaign will run.

GE has been blessed with a great list of campaigns and taglines. From the ‘30s to the ‘50s it was "Live better electrically." From the ‘50s to the ‘70s it was variations on "Progress," including "Progress for people." Then it was "We bring good things to life." We’ve been looking around in the past couple of years at how do we build on "We bring good things to life" and do the following: make GE known more as a global company and give voice to other parts of the company, and by that I mean parts like GE Medical Systems and GE Wind Energy. In the end, we felt that "Imagination at work" did that.

BtoB: What metrics indicate that the campaign is generating results?

Comstock: As you can imagine, we’ve made sure we have a lot of data points. Over the past two years, we’ve done more research than GE has done in a long time. We have a good baseline on various indicators: awareness, lead generation and even actual business that’s been generated in some cases.

BtoB: Where has the campaign resulted in new business?

Comstock: A good one, for example, is wind energy generation, which was included in the campaign. We found a whole host of people who didn’t know we were in that business.

BtoB: Your background is in public relations. Does your appointment as CMO have any significance in showing a preference for PR over advertising at GE?

Comstock: There’s not much significance at all. There are all sorts of debates among advertising and PR insiders about who’s more effective. I would have to say that both sides are misguided. What we have found here is that we are believers in integrated communications. You have to have the ability to leverage your resources to make sure you can get the message out in the right way to reach the right people. Both PR and advertising are effective. It’s a matter of when do you use it.

BtoB: Does your appointment as CMO, a position that was essentially vacant for a decade, signify a renewed focus on marketing at GE?

Comstock: It’s about what Jeffrey Immelt is trying to do in making marketing play a vital role in the company. It’s not about turning GE into a marketing company, but about making sure that marketing has a voice. … It’s probably not by coincidence that Jeff joined GE in Fairfield in the corporate marketing department.

BtoB: What role do you plan to play with the marketing efforts at the individual divisions of GE?

Comstock: Companies like GE constantly dance between centralization and decentralization. We constantly have to manage that at the corporate level so we don’t hold business units back from what they need to do. At the same time, the GE brand is what connects us all and makes us so much better than the parts.

BtoB: Many b-to-b companies are obsessed with lead generation and other marketing return-on-investment metrics. Why has GE embarked on such an ambitious branding campaign this year?

Comstock: I think we’re looking at [ROI], too. The whole metrics and return-on-investment discussion is the Holy Grail. There’s this never-ending belief that there’s going to be one major breakthrough, and we’re going to figure out marketing once and for all, and the world will be a better place. I don’t expect that to be found any time soon.

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