GE: Imagination at Work

Most advertisers can only dream about introducing brand slogans with the staying power to last decades -- slogans that have gone beyond being mere ad campaigns to become fixtures in American life. Not surprisingly then, the tiny handful of brands in that rarified class are in no hurry to change. Think of Kellogg's or Campbell's' soup, each with slogans dating back to World War II or before. You don't fix what's not broken, and you don't change a classic.

So when General Electric, one of the world's premier brands, decided to change its world famous motto "We Bring Good Things To Life," which had been in use since 1979, it was not a move taken lightly.

"'Imagination at Work' began as an internal theme at GE," Tim McCleary, GE's manager of corporate identity, recalls. "When Jeff Immelt took over the company in 2001, he brought the company together and said his goal was to reconnect with GE's roots as a company defined by innovation in all spheres. A metaphor for that process and really for GE's culture," McCleary explains, "was the sketch-board where new ideas, visions and inventions are first worked out." "Within GE," he says, "that image was the unifying thread. What we've tried to do is project that story out beyond the company's borders to the wider public. It's been called re-branding, but we see it more as expressing ourselves in a new way for a new century, with the values we were founded on a century ago."

To get this message out, GE chose New York-based agency BBDO. The resulting "Imagination at Work" campaign was 18 months in the making with an initial budget estimated at over $100 million. It was designed to highlight GE's wide spectrum of innovation in areas ranging from appliances, medical and financial services to aerospace and biotech. In addition to re-inventing GE's message, the company encouraged and challenged BBDO to re-invent its traditional approach to ad media.

"Our initial goals," explains Andreas Combuechen, chief creative officer at BBDO, "were to spark a new association between GE and technological innovation, to reinforce that association for a new generation, and make people aware of the range of that commitment."

The television component of the campaign debuted during the Golden Globe Awards broadcast in January. In the premier ad, the Wright Brothers' Kitty Hawk airplane is strapped with a modern GE engine. The engine roars, and the plane is transformed into a modern jet, as the video image changes from a flickering black and white historical footage of the plane to full color. In another spot, the company's founder, Thomas Edison is featured. The ad gives a glimpse into the fragments of future visions emanating from the inventor's brain, including aircraft engines, high-tech windmills, refrigerators and many other GE products.

Another TV ad touts GE's innovations in automating and digitizing medical information. "Imagine if a patient's records could be retrieved in just seconds," says a narrator's voice as a there is a camera pan of a huge warehouse filled with boxes of paper medical records. The film then shifts to an image of a medical helicopter bringing a patient to the ER of a hospital. By the time the patient arrives, the doctor already has the patient's full medical records in hand. As Combuechen describes them, "The TV spots were created to have a strong narrative quality. We wanted to treat big concepts like scientific genius and technological change with both a sense of humor, and with an emphasis on the fact that GE is an organization of and for people as well as technology."

The TV spots have run on popular prime-time network and cable programs such as Friends and ER, a departure from GE's traditional buying strategy. "We used to focus TV ads on Sunday morning news programs like Meet the Press, and network nightly news," explains McCleary. "With this campaign," he says, "we're adding to that focus a big emphasis on prime-time quality shows that draw an upscale audience, particularly in the 18 to 49 year old age group. The message that GE's quality is unsurpassed remains consistent. It is the same message that's defined the company for a century. What's changed is the tone. Where before it was a bit staid, we've tried to bring some humor and playfulness to our spots."

Print ads have run in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, and other business, news and technology-oriented publications. "With print," says McCleary, "we're able to convey a lot of detailed information not only about where GE has been -- our history -- but where our vision is taking us in specific industries." Among the cutting-edge products featured in the first wave of print ads are GE's Innova 2000, the world's first all digital cardiovascular imaging system, which allows doctors to "By-Pass the By-Pass" by first visually examining the heart to locate any small blockages.

The "Imagination at Work" campaign is also GE's first foray into web advertising, with both HTML banner and rich media Flash ads running on all major portals, including AOL, Yahoo and MSN. One Flash ad for the GE 90-115 B jet engine spells out the sentence "Imagination means taking a powerful idea and teaching it how it fly," as an animated figure of an airplane powered by the GE engine is shown. Another ad for GE's Lexan resin, the plastic material used for professional football helmets, says, "Imagination means tackling your competition and coming up without a scratch."

The signature interactive ad of the campaign, called "The Pen Sketch," does not tout a particular product at all, but rather invites viewers to use their own imagination, declaring that "All big ideas start with a sketch," and asking, "What's Yours?" The frame then allows users to click and drag a pencil to sketch out their own notions, which can then be saved on GE's Imagination at Work mini-site, as well as sent out to friends and colleagues.

"The response to the pen sketch has been tremendous," observes Combuechen. "Hundreds of thousands of people have actually used the sketch tool to develop their own ideas. We encourage them to email them to friends. The process as we envision it, is very viral. We want to see visitors circulate the sketchpad as widely as possible and make their own uses of it. We also encourage Flash designers with their own websites or blogs to download the tool so that their visitors can use it." Over the next several months the company will try to gather and organize all the sketches on their load server to create a special gallery where people can peruse all the sketches. "With the online component," Combuechen says, "we wanted to tap into the actual processes of creativity that the campaign is talking about, and come up with interactive ways to actually demonstrate that experience to people."

In addition to its capacity to involve the public for the first time in a two-way conversation, the Web also, according to McCleary, opens up new possibilities for reaching people outside the home in a way TV does not. "On the Web," he says, "we've wanted to reach the widest audience possible. This includes GE product users, shareholders, and business and home consumers." He continued, "We're particularly interested in reaching them at work, which is something the Web is perfect for." GE is also running extensive banner and Flash advertising on gaming sites to reach games aficionados who frequent them after work.

Though McCleary acknowledges that following in the footsteps of a quarter-century old classic slogan is not easy, early signs are that both the company and the public are finding the transition to "Imagination at Work" invigorating. Though quantitative results for the campaign are not yet available, preliminary feedback, McCleary believes, confirms public enthusiasm for the new direction, increased product awareness and, most important, an increase in positive association with the GE brand. "The use of integrated media is opening up new doors for us to show the unity underlying all the diversity at GE," he says. "It gives us multiple platforms for showing how the powerful impetus of innovation is actually working for people in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of technological areas."

McCleary sees great potential beyond the first wave of ads for a long evolution of the General Electric campaign, hopefully stretching for many years. "Imagination at Work" is a dynamic concept," he reflects, "And the challenging opportunity is to make the campaign as open to continuous invention and surprise as the company itself has always been."

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