The Barbarian Group and GE: Marketing for Science

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The Barbarian Group's first project for General Electric isn't a campaign at all. GE Adventure is a blog about science and marketing that aims to tell the massive company's stories, make science cool again and start a conversation with future collaborators in adland--all with the wonder of a science-loving fourth-grader. The CEO/co-founder of Creativity's digital agency of the year Benjamin Palmer and head of planning and strategy Noah Brier take readers inside GE Labs to reveal all the cool stuff the company is doing in the fields of energy, health, transportation and technology. The blog, which went live on Friday, also catalogs the agency's ideas for potential marketing programs for GE and broadcasts them to inspire collaboration with other agencies, directors or partners. Since mid-March, the team has visited GE's global research center and its wind turbines at Jiminy Peak, and a health-related excursion is upcoming. Palmer and Brier call it the agency's discovery process out loud. "It's phase one of marketing something to come," Palmer says. "Phase one of question mark."

Below, Palmer and Brier share their thoughts on the project, collaboration and their ultimate goal to elevate science in America.

How did you come to this marketing journal approach?

Palmer: The short answer is just that we wanted to put our money where our mouth is. We were talking to some of the senior folks at GE casually about working together and were trying to figure out what to do first. Our impression from the outside was that GE must be doing cool stuff, but that they're not really talking about it. I know historically what GE has accomplished, so I'm assuming there's progress going on in its labs that they're not talking about in their marketing. We thought it'd be cool to look at what they're doing and figure out ways to talk about that in an interesting way. We weren't really pitching a campaign or responding to a brief or anything like that. We were starting off with the one thing we knew: GE should really tell people more about what they're up to.

It's not really about transparency; it's more that I think they're shy. GE doesn't have a lot of consumer products. They do stuff that's massive. I don't think they need to do advertising in a competitive sense like Coke and Pepsi. It's not like there's another company that's going to help rebuild the electrical grid in America. GE is such an important part of infrastructure in America and of industry in the world. They don't think about how to talk about themselves so we figured that the best way to set the tone for what we're going to do next is start by telling everyone what they're up to in the first place. For our research, instead of doing presentations and thinking to ourselves, we figured we'd just think out loud because what we see and discuss is probably just as interesting as the campaign.

Brier: This would be part of our process anyway for a project like this. We'd try to figure out which story needs to be told. We'd go see lots of stuff they're doing and judge for ourselves. In this case, we just thought that should be done out loud considering that so much of the project is telling stories. And when we brought that idea up to the folks at GE they were super stoked about it.

Palmer: We're just trying to make this fresh and actually about what we're doing. I'm sure there will be a narrative or some sort of fictionalized campaign, way to tell stories or simulation that comes out of this. But now we're basically trying to start by being like a documentary. What we would have done instead of this is a discovery project and, out of that, a brief. Instead, we turned this into an exploratory project and hopefully we'll find good tangents that we can go off of and do more specific things, in addition to keeping this going as long as it's good. We want people to see it and participant in it, but this isn't the campaign. We're not going for 1 million visitors, we want people who are interested in this type of thing to find it and help us get to the next step.

Who do you want to read this blog?

Palmer: There are a few different groups. One is the thousands of engineers that work at GE. What we're going to do next is figure out how to talk about what they do, so it'd be really great to get them psyched about the rest of the world being interested in their projects. We also want to talk to the creative community; we might be collaborating with different directors or storytellers or other companies later on. We want to brainstorm with future collaborators and other agencies. That's why we're doing this out in the open. We're tiny you know?

We also want to talk to nerds on the internet. What we ultimately want to do is figure out how to make science cooler than it is right now, in general, as the broad umbrella of what GE is up to. Yes, we want to do marketing for GE. Yes we want to tell stories about what they're up to, but what they're really best at is scientific progress. And I think that's really compelling, especially right now in the spirit of rebuilding the country. I really just want to get people really hyped on science. Things going on right now that make you think, "Holy crap I'm really glad someone is working on that," might inspire more people to pay attention to the scientific community to not only help with GE branding, but to encourage kids to go to school for science. Maybe we can help inspire people to invest in science in their countries and communities. I think that's super important because a lot of things we do as a nation involve us getting back on track with the spirit of scientific progress that we might have somewhat lost as a country. That's a loftier goal for the future, but I think we really want to have a pretty ambitious attitude about what we're in it for.

The subtitle of the blog is "A series of field trips through GE." So, you're literally going on field trips?

Palmer: It's totally field trips. We bought five flip cameras and this still camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second. We went to the research center in upstate New York for two days and every hour we went to a different lab and talked to different scientists. We're really trying to get in it as much as we can and do what you do as a kid that really impacts you, like going on field trips, except now we're marketing professionals.

Brier: I don't have a science background so all questions I would ask are probably not more advanced than a nine-year-old would ask a scientist working on some totally insane technology that I'm trying to wrap my head around. We're just going and asking questions and following our noses.
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