If the medium is the message, the marketing department at General Electric Co. has something to say: GE is about what's next.
The maker of everything from jet engines to X-ray machines to refrigerators is regularly one of the first brands to adopt new social platforms such as Vine, Instagram and Pinterest, where it publishes artfully rendered photos of turbines and inspirational quotes from Thomas Edison. It's also been an eager partner to tech startups, such as Quirky, whose community of inventors is offered access to certain GE patents and permission to iterate on them.
By associating with these emerging brands, the company is hoping to put a fresh shine on its image.
"Our goal is to position GE as an innovative technology company," said Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock. "There is an imperative to be seen as technically savvy and to be where people who like technology are going."
GE does so while spending only modestly on advertising -- $50.9 million in measured media in the U.S. in the first five months of this year, according to Kantar Media. Its consolidated net earnings were $6.7 billion in the first six months of 2013, up 8% from the year earlier period. It might seem odd for a maker of largely industrial equipment to focus on consumer-marketing vehicles, but GE doesn't see the world separated so distinctly.
"I'm not sure that the line between B-to-B and B-to-C even exists today," said Linda Boff, executive director of global brand marketing at GE. "For us this has been about a journey to figure out how the DNA of GE's brand can best intersect with people who share our passion."
And, Ms. Comstock points out, consumer marketing can boost GE's image in the eye of shareholders -- 44% of GE's stock is held by retail investors. The company also eyes consumer marketing as a way to boost how it's viewed by its 305,000 global employees and raise brand awareness for its near-constant recruitment needs.
GE's marketing message focuses on how technology is helping customers, Ms. Comstock said. That's the idea behind the long-form "Datalandia" videos that illustrate the data-generating capabilities of GE machines, as well as Hugo Weaving's reprisal of his role in "The Matrix" in a TV spot this spring, where the Agent Smith character is seen in a hospital talking about the convergence of hardware and software.
Meanwhile, GE's most conspicuous consumer-facing business, appliances, accounts for a very small portion of its overall revenue -- though the segment is faring well. GE's "home and business solutions" revenue grew 3% in the first six months of 2013 compared with the same period the previous year, and profit rose 19%.
The company, which ranks third in market share in the household-appliances category, is getting more aggressive in the space with a relatively new TV and digital campaign developed by BBDO, its creative agency since 1920. GE's U.S. media agency is OMD, and it recently retained MEC to support media buying and planning in all international markets.