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How GE Makes Big Brand Content Feel Up Close and Personal

brand content-GEHow does the third largest company in the world connect with customers? In a recent interview, Linda Boff, GE’s Executive Director of Global Brand Marketing, explained how the brand uses grassroots events and digital owned moments for engineers, technologists, and inventors to create brand content that uncovers the “maker” in all of us. 

Michael Weiss: GE is a massive company, and yet the brand content you’re producing feels very accessible. Is that intentional?

Linda Boff: It’s extremely deliberate. The more people know about us, the more interested they are in partnering with us, investing with us, and coming to work with us. So being accessible — being human and approachable — was a huge goal for us from day one. It’s not something we stumbled upon.

We are blessed with the most enlightened CMO on the planet, Beth Comstock. She doesn’t just support us, she eggs us on. When I returned to GE after three years as CMO at iVillage, I was all charged up by the power of community. was still a walled garden. Building communities of passionate stakeholders became a burning platform for me. How do we engage? How do we show people in the world who love science, tech, and invention who we really are?

The culture of GE is unbelievably strong. People who work here have a passion for what they do. And we have the great privilege to market things like renewable energy and affordable health care. We are solving tough problems, and to be able to share that passion with people who are excited about the space we are in is very intoxicating.

Weiss: GE is such a household name. Some may think you don’t really have to sell the brand name.

Boff: Ten years ago if you surveyed people, they thought of GE as a lighting and appliances company. In the 12 years since Jeff Immelt has been chairman, people increasingly associate GE with health, energy, transportation — which is important since lighting and appliances are a very small percentage of our overall business. Jeff has transformed GE into a new kind of industrial company. Part of our job in marketing is to make sure people know GE is a leader in these exciting high-growth industries like health care and energy.

People can have an awareness of a brand but not familiarity. Familiarity is so important. When you engage with GE on social media, we are increasingly focused on transportation, health care, energy, aviation. And we love the passion these industries evoke!

Weiss: Tell us about GE Garages. Was it hard to get buy-in?

Boff: Let’s say that I pitched it more than once. The truth is we have incredible research centers around the world, but the general public doesn’t get to walk around and see what our scientists are doing. There’s incredible work going on in these places. These are the same labs that go all the way back to Thomas Edison. We wanted to give people a taste of what they would experience in our labs.

We also leaned in to the hardware-meets-software moment. The “maker” community (think: engineers, technologists and tinkerers of all stripes) is so robust. Our Garages give people the opportunity to learn about us, and roll up their sleeves to do welding and 3D printing. We launched GE Garages at South by Southwest. It was incredible. The weather was like a monsoon, but the space was mobbed. One young woman spent hours and hours there. Her father told us the experience changed what she wants to do with her life.

We had an insight, and we matched it with an opportunity. It’s been a great way to make the brand real. Every marketer should get that lucky. And the reaction has been phenomenal.

Weiss: Which content marketing tactics do you use, and which are resonating more?

Boff: I think about that more than anything else. There’s that line we’re all aware of: Where do you place your big bets, and where do you experiment? What we’ve tried to do is be nimble where nimble makes sense. For example, two years ago, I wasn’t sure about Instagram. A young woman on the team said, “I think it would be great to experiment with Instagram and show the beauty of our industry.” I thought, “It’s not going to cost a lot. Let’s try it.” As a result we were a very early brand on Instagram, and we’re very proud of it. It’s not a big-dollar commitment or people commitment, but we’ve been very accessible on Instagram. It feels very up close and personal.

But your question points to an everyday challenge. Where do you experiment? Where are you nimble? Where do we pour consistent resources to ensure we’re telling the great stories around big GE initiatives? It’s a balance.

Weiss: Instagram is an interesting example because I would think those are not your target demographics.

Boff: We evaluate channels by looking at audiences. It’s easy to be GE and say, “We want to talk to anyone.” But in truth the people we want to talk to most are business decision-makers, tech enthusiasts, and potential employees. With that as a lens, it becomes much easier to say, “On Instagram we are hitting tech enthusiasts and would-be employees.

We have increasingly gotten into the software game, partnering with tech companies to do more venture funding. Something like Instagram offers a great, targeted niche audience. All of our content and social efforts are about finding the right audience, not the biggest audience. On Facebook we are closing in on one million fans. If that’s what it should be, great. I’m not coveting Coca-Cola’s 20 million fans.

Of course our CMO sees our video view counts and asks, “OK, but what’s Psy up to these days?

Weiss: You mentioned balance. You’re clearly managing a lot of owned brand content, like in-person events. I know you also do a lot of paid. How do you know how important one type of media is versus another?

Boff: I have been wanting to find or create a formula for what I’m about to tell you: We have gotten really good at spending $10 on paid media and then sprinkling another one dollar of earned/owned amplification. That 10 “paid” plus one “earned and owned” equals about $25 of value. Of course that’s a bogus formula, but you get the idea. Paid alone is yesterday’s game. I know it in my bones. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s dopey to interrupt people. If you get lucky, it’s only wallpaper. If not, it’s really annoying.

Now, whether you can catch fire… you really can’t plan for that. We can take great content and find ways to amplify it through multiple channels. That’s as much as what we can do to spark virality. Because we moved into permission-based marketing, the idea “spray-and-pray” has lost its luster.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine.