ANA Annual Meeting 2013

GE Tells the Secret of Making Geeky Cool

CMO Beth Comstock Says 'B to B' Does Not Stand For 'Boring to Boring'

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General Electric Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock sought to dispel some myths about business-to-business marketing with her presentation at the Association of National Advertisers meeting in Phoenix.

Beth Comstock
Beth Comstock

"When many people hear 'B-to-B' they think it means boring-to-boring," she said. But "at the end of the day our customers are people too. We are all emotional beings. We want context. We want relevance. We want connection."

GE has been anything but boring lately. From describing the "Industrial Internet" with a fun film called "Datalandia" to conducting six-second science-fairs on Vine, the marketer has generated enough buzz to make even the savviest of consumer marketers jealous. It all came from a single insight: "We have decided we are geeky and we are proud of it," she said.

As the company touts its technical know-how, the marketing department has taken on a greater role. That includes getting involved earlier in the product development cycle, Ms. Comstock said. Marketing, she said, must be an "innovation machine," echoing comments made earlier Friday by Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn.

The 130-year-old company, whose products include everything from aviation systems to healthcare products, wants to "own core moments" around science and technology, Ms. Comstock said. For example, on Sept. 8 GE celebrated "Gravity Day" (a nod to Sir Isaac Newton) by attempting to create the longest user-generated Vine chain ever, which showed users dropping apples from the top of their screen to the bottom. When the videos were merged it looked like a continuous drop.

The company, whose lead agency is BBDO, is also running a broad-based campaign called "Brilliant Machines," which seeks to describe the concept of the "Industrial Internet," which GE says is an "open, global network that connects people, data and machines." Ads reference everything from "Knight Rider" to "Star Trek." The spots use machines from pop culture to "stretch our imagination" and "humanize what's possible," Ms. Comstock said.

GE has also partnered with The Economist with a series called "Look ahead powered by GE," which is described as "a daily look at the innovation that transforms global business." Addressing the debate about native advertising, Ms. Comstock said: "It almost doesn't matter who produces this content, as long as it's good."

The company's goal, she said, is to "shout louder than we spend." (GE spent a modest $50.9 million in measured media in the U.S. in the first five months of this year, according to Kantar Media.) It is "the reality of our budget," she said, but also "a source of pride for us."