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Drew Neisser: Why GE’s Marketing Is More Innovative Than Most

While innovation tends to be slower-paced for larger companies, the CEO of Renegade explains why one company is the exception.

Drew Neisser, Renegade
Drew Neisser, Renegade on November 29, 2013. @DrewNeisser

In the sea of innovation, small brands are speedboats and big brands are typically aircraft carriers. Small brands have to pivot quickly out of necessity, but this also means they can race laps around bigger brands, finding fresh solutions to customer problems with fewer naysayers in the way. Big brands, on the other hand, require the cooperation of a large crew to change course even a few degrees. For them, innovation is a truly triumph over institutional inertia.

As one of the largest corporations in the world, GE should maneuver only as quickly as the ocean’s biggest vessels. But from a marketing perspective, GE has been on the forefront of digital innovations for the last decade, proving itself more agile than many smaller companies. This year, GE has opened its patent portfolio to the online inventor community, launched the highly-engaging #6SecondScience Fair program on Vine and Tumblr and continues to engage consumers young and old with the engineering principles at the company’s core—in fun and fresh ways.

Not surprisingly, Beth Comstock, GE‘s CMO, just won The CMO Award for Leadership, a new honor established by The CMO Club.  I was delighted to be able to catch up with Comstock prior to The CMO Award event and expect you will find what she has to say on everything from experimentation to the evolving role of the CMO particularly enlightening.

For several years now, GE has been ahead of the curve when it comes to experimenting with new channels. What is the strategy behind all of this experimentation? Is the medium essentially the message?

GE’s a leading technology company so we believe it important to be aligned with leading edge technology channels. The other thing to consider is that our audiences expect GE to be where they are – they aren’t going to always come looking for us.  We like to experiment as a way of learning, but our efforts have to align to our goal of connecting with our target audiences, which are largely industrial technologists and enthusiasts. And we’ve adapted our strategy around  being micro-relevant – meaning targeting the right audience in the right way. It doesn’t have to be a big audience, just the right one.

As the CMO, is it a mandate of yours that GE explore all the newest coolest channels and if so, how are you finding them?

We have an awesome media team that identifies themselves as digital explorers.  We also take risks with new ideas and small companies as a way to learn and as a way to augment more traditional plays.  I’m a big believer in  carving out a percentage of your budget to develop new models.

Naysayers struggle to understand how a photo contest on Instagram or a promotion on Pinterest can help you sell GE products like aircraft engines. What do you say to those folks?

Selling a jet engine is a complicated sale.  Many people influence the purchase decision. And since GE is a company that traverses multiple industries, pretty quickly you’re targeting decision makers across a wide range of the economy and functional roles of business, which is why we believe in the importance of building a vibrant umbrella brand.  In addition to those who buy our products, we target enthusiasts, recruits and GE retail shareowners who want to experience GE in various dimensions.  Industrial technology is exciting, yes, even fun… and some of these outlets allow us the opportunity to open up and express ourselves in new ways.  People want to see that you are approachable.

How has your role as CMO evolved over that past decade?  With the advent of “big data,” are you spending more time on analytics that you used to?  

The role of CMO has evolved from defining what marketing can do to delivering it.  I’m a  big believer in marketing’s role as developing markets, and new models. We like to think our contributions are in mindshare, marketshare and margin.  We’ve tried to make marketing a driver of commercial innovation that sits alongside our technical innovators to deliver a range of value to GE customers.  Big data is a perfect space for marketing.  A customer wants to run their business better not just have lots data – those insights help focus the data scientists on analytics that matter most.

GE is primarily a B2B company yet you seem to act a lot more like a B2C company in terms of creating emotionally-rich consumer-friendly communications.  Any thoughts on why that is?

Since when does B2B have to be boring to boring?  Business people are people too. We are emotional beings, we don’t just rely on logic when it comes to business decisions.  Good marketing is about making a connection and delivering perceived value. Period.  In some ways, business marketers have an advantage in that they are closer to their customers and in theory should be more responsive and intuitive.

Content marketing is suddenly a hot buzzword in the industry.   Are you investing more resources in content development?  

We’ve been on a path as a content producer for several years now. We’ve widened our definition of content to include data, experiences and yes, emotional connection and even humor.  Content has to be useful and relevant to be effective.  We’ve invested in a range of skills like data visualization and user interaction design as a way to drive content that is engaging and relevant. The marvels of science, engineering and manufacturing offer good fodder for content, and we’re constantly seeking out storytellers who get as excited about this as we do.

Marketing seems to be getting increasingly complex in terms of ways to spend and ways to monitor. Has it gotten more complex for you and if so, how are you dealing with that complexity?

Yes, it is more complex – we have a multitude of outlets and a range of content types to consider.  You need good partners, room for experimentation and a good dose of curiosity.  Trust me, it’s not about the size of your budget, it’s about the ability to use complexity to amplify your efforts, not stifle them.

Innovation is a sexy word but not as sexy to a CEO as ROI.  Have you been able to link your innovative marketing activities to the kinds of business metrics favored by CEOs?  

Innovation can’t just be about fun ideas or wonky theories.  Innovation means new methods that yield results.  The challenge is often that time, trial and error are required to get to scale.  I’m a big believer in pilot projects to create proof points and staged development to make sure you get results.  Innovation without process is chaos. Trendspotting without translation leaves you empty.

Besides your efforts on Pinterest and Instagram can you speak about another recent innovative program that you are particularly proud of?

I’m especially proud of the work we are doing to help define what the industrial internet can mean to business productivity. It’s a new category for business, not just GE. We’ve put a lot of science and analysis into connecting with our customers and new tech partners in this area.  We’re doing much more in open innovation – meaning using digital communities to drive new methods at GE.  A recent example is a data science challenge with Kaggle that is shaving off minutes and fuel from flight landings – something thought unattainable.  And we’re having fun with Vine, having had a successful #SixSecondScience effort this summer that shows how science can be fun and connects with tech enthusiasts.

How do you stay close to your customers with so many different types of customers in so many countries? 

You have to live with them, analyze them, listen and empathize with them.  This means putting good marketing people on the ground in  markets around the world and more importantly, helping engineers and other business teams understand that marketing skills can be added to their jobs too.

Finally, I’ve heard it said that marketing is everything and everything is marketing especially when it comes to the customer experience. Do you agree with that notion and if so how have you extended the boundaries of your job beyond the normal purview of the CMO?   

I’m a big believer in Peter Drucker’s view that without a customer there is no business.  That is a rallying cry for marketing if I’ve ever heard one. And I think business leaders who believe that marketing is just about advertising and go-to-market communications miss out on all the market-making skills we have to offer.  I do believe the new frontier for marketers is holistic customer experience.  We haven’t cracked it yet but I’m looking forward to seeing how we can – and I think digital technology is taking us there very fast.

Thinking...