General Electric Believes in Storytelling

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Impact, Science of Story October 10, 2016

General Electric Believes in Storytelling

Andy Swindler
Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. I help connect the dots.

In the 1950s General Electric (GE) Theater brought a mixture of drama, comedy and fantasy into American homes every Sunday night. This top-rated TV series was sponsored by GE’s Department of Public Relations and its commercials featured Chicago’s friendly hands-on neighborhood scientist, Don Herbert (TV’s Mr. Wizard). As the show’s “General Electric Progress Reporter,” Herbert showed the audience how GE was helping people to “Live Better Electrically.” Even then, GE was clearly establishing a connection with science, technology and purpose by helping to nurture a generation of budding scientists through the art of storytelling.

Fast forward 60 years and GE is once again using drama to stimulate a passion for science and technology with its science fiction series The Message presented by GE Podcast Theater. The Message was an instant hit and quickly became the No. 1 podcast on iTunes, eventually garnering over 300 million impressions and organically creating an active subreddit thread run by fans of the podcast.

podcastAlthough GE co-produced the show, their intention was not to advertise directly to the show’s more than a million listeners. As Andy Goldberg, chief creative officer at GE explained, “I don’t consider it advertising. It’s a podcast show that just happens to be produced by a brand instead of a network. It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is all about without selling the GE brand.”

And therein lies the difference.

While many companies use storytelling in their brand messaging to engage their audiences, GE isn’t just using stories to sell their products. They are using stories like The Message to make a deeper connection with their customers. It’s the opposite of what’s typically done. At GE stories come first and branding comes second.

 

“Audiences are looking well beyond what you sell. They want to know who you are and what you stand for,” said Linda Boff, CMO at General Electric. “Sometimes that means being the main character in your own play and sometimes it means showing up subtly as to not distract the audience from the enjoyment of the narrative. That is the art of storytelling with branded content, and for GE, navigating that is where the real magic happens.”

It’s not easy for a company to stand out in the clamor of ads and promotions that assault us everywhere we turn. That’s why storytelling can be so effective, and let’s face it — at times seductive. Stories don’t shout at us, intrude on our lives or demand our attention. In fact, we might just bump into a good story in unexpected places. That, by the way, is exactly what Linda Boff hopes will happen. “We are looking for ways to stand out,” she said. Once their story catches someone’s attention, that person makes a choice to engage and the payoff is entertainment.

But companies that want to stand out will have to do more than just tell a great story. They will have to come up with innovative ways to get people to listen to their story. Fortunately, General Electric has been innovating since Thomas Edison co-founded the company more than 125 years ago. These days they’re using that same spirit of invention and experimentation to make sure their branding and marketing are as innovative as their products have always been.

GE is careful where they choose to stand out because they are deliberately getting smaller and shifting away from manufacturing to be a Digital Industrial Company. And they depend on marketing and branding to help people understand that shift. In some ways it’s harder to reinvent a brand than to start fresh because people’s existing familiarity with the brand can get in the way and keep them from taking a second look at the new GE. General Electric is fighting to find ways to be relevant, modern and relatable. That’s where innovation in marketing and branding comes in.

jet engineWhat better way to show (not tell) their audience that GE has changed than to throw out old ways of doing things and experiment with new ways of brand marketing, digital marketing and first-of-their-kind media partnerships? Even better if you can tie it in with science and technology. This can be risky, but as Linda Boff explains, “We don’t take risks with jet engines, those are tested until they are perfect. And we don’t risk our reputation, but branding is a different matter. We can afford to take risks and dare to push a little. How do you stay in motion if you’re not trying things?”

Their goal is to make marketing as inspiring as their products and that means they have to get out there and find out what works and what doesn’t. One of the ways GE is experimenting with marketing is to innovate ways for their audience to participate in their stories. From wearing “moon boot” sneakers that GE created because their silicones were in the original boots worn on the moon, to submitting a science experiment in the Six Second Science Fair on Vine, to listening to The Message podcast and checking out GE’s spinoff website, GE has found ingenious ways to engage their audience with science and technology. A bit of playfulness and not taking themselves too seriously helps.

And while marketing and branding are taken seriously, there’s a touch of romance about them too. As Boff explains it, “If you love science and technology and innovation and we can find the right way to connect, you’ll fall in love with us.”

But, as with any romance, you have to connect with the right person. Boff went on to say, “For us, it’s always about the right people not the most people. We want to remind people why they should love technology and science. We believe that by telling, by participating and enabling stories that help people remember what is amazing about science, we all win.”