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Q&A: GE's Chief Marketing Officer on Storytelling in the New Digital Industrial Era

Linda Boff discusses virtual reality and branded content

Linda Boff says it's GE's "DNA" to adopt new media platforms early. Photo: Alfred Maskeroni

General Electric may be 125 years old, but when it comes to innovative social media campaigns, it's often light-years ahead of most marketers. GE's early adoption of emerging platforms and its willingness to experiment with Snapchat, Vine and Instagram—along with a clear strategy to target an audience interested in innovation and discovery—has positioned the multinational conglomerate as a leading voice in branded content.

Much of GE's success in content marketing can be attributed to Linda Boff, a 12-year company veteran, who in September was promoted to CMO from executive director of global digital marketing. Boff helped broaden GE beyond its science and technology roots to become equal parts industrial and digital.

 

A photo posted by GE (@generalelectric) on

As Boff prepares to address attendees at the 2015 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 16, she spoke with Adweek about her vision for GE and the role of new platforms to help bring good stories to light.

Adweek: How do you see your role as CMO evolving?
Linda Boff: GE has been through a tremendous and exciting portfolio transformation in the time that I've been here. The company has streamlined in terms of our businesses and the focus on energy, health and transportation. [GE chairman, CEO] Jeff [Immelt] has completed this massive portfolio transformation. We come out on the other end as a company that is a digital industrial company. We are not pure digital. We are not pure industrial. We really are that hybrid. I think the journey on the marketing side is, how do you market GE as this so-called digital industrial company. How do you bring that to life? We're a new kind of company for, I'd say, a bit of a new age. The consumer Internet has been something we are all incredibly familiar with. What will the industrial Internet mean? What will it mean for businesses? I think the opportunity, the privilege really, to help to define that is a big part of the charter going forward.

What's the strategy for taking a legacy brand and making it relevant for a digital audience?
For a brand that has the history that we do, staying modern, contemporary and relevant is something we think about every single day. How do we make sure that in a world where everything is digital we are on the right channels and behaving in the way that a company behaves today? Not how a legacy company behaves. That's what takes us frequently to being an early adopter—often the first adopter—of new media platforms. That's our DNA, our heritage: invention and being first.

How are you building a strong brand identity for GE that's consistent on a global scale, but also targeted?
We know ourselves well. We never sit around and say, "How can we make the GE brand cool?" because for those of us who work here, this is the coolest brand in the world. It's about revealing who we are to the right audiences. The other thing we don't do is sit around and say, "How do we reach the most people?" We think about who shares our passion and our interest in science, technology, engineering, and we go after that. Know who you are, drive that fairly relentlessly and be as creative as you possibly can in telling that story. Be unexpected.

Will GE try just about any new platform?
We're very passionate about storytelling and about new platforms. We don't set out to chase the shiny object, but we are very quick to embrace the new. We genuinely believe that you only get one chance to be out front. Once a platform or channel becomes saturated, the opportunity is less interesting.

What's your next branded content play?
We believe in advertising and [specifically] TV advertising. If you create great stories, they are consumed. However, it's increasingly difficult to find an audience that is not skipping over you, or time-shifting. With that in mind, I think the spoils go to the company that finds a way to tell [its] story differently. Doing branded content is a way. We are working with Nat Geo [Channel] and Imagine Entertainment, developing six hours of a series called Breakthrough that will air Sunday nights starting Nov. 1. These are stories of topics we think are incredibly important—things like energy and longevity, and robotics, and the brain.

With GE known as an early adopter, what's exciting right now?
We've been experimenting in virtual reality for a year. Katrina Craigwell, who runs a lot of our content [as director of global content and programming], has been developing some tremendous VR experiences going inside the brain, going down to the ocean floor, looking at a digital power plant. With Wattpad—a social network for stories—we're taking six of GE's classic comic books from the '40s and '50s, comic books called Adventures in Electricity or Power to America, and we are inviting the Wattpad community—which is writers and aspiring writers, a lot of women—to write new science-fiction stories rooted in GE history.

With access to so many cool technologies at GE, any favorite toys?
They don't really let me play around with jet engines, but I would say my favorite thing is the people. We have nearly 4,000 scientists around the world in locations from upstate New York to Bangalore and Shanghai and Rio [de Janeiro]. I never walk away from a conversation with a scientist without being utterly inspired and feeling as though they are here to change the world.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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