Commentary

GE "Stories" More Self-Serving Than Educational

What did corporate monoliths do in the days before they could air their feel-good pablum on the Internet? I ask that question more or less knowing the answer ("they produced brochures that were as glossy as the skies were azure-kissed"). Nonetheless, it's hard to remember self-promotion in the pre-Internet era, before self-told stories about a company's innovationnessitude, charitable mega-munificence and casual-Thursdays-and-beer-pong-Fridays awesomeness as an employer were paired with images of smiling multiethnic worker bees and then broadcast on the company web site.

General Electric likes stories. Why, it has hundreds of them to tell, most of which portray its workers as deities with doctorates (note to self: pitch Jesus, Ph.D as a web short). As part of its "GE Stories" campaign, GE relates four of them, showcasing the company's skill in "moving," "curing," "powering" and "building"… stuff, I guess.

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It's hard to tell for sure, given how fixated the clips are on the notion of teamwork. Speaking as someone who owns many GE products and has a very favorable opinion of the brand, I could care less if GE's factory peons flash machetes as a conversation deterrent or besmirch the character of each other's maternal forebears on Facebook. Yet if this campaign is any indication, GE is as proud of its globe-spanning teamwork and harmony and la la la everybody hugging and exchanging pleasantries as it is about its products.

Which is a shame, as each of the four stories on the GE site have elements that even a junior-grade videographer could forge into interesting shorts. The three-minute clip about GE's efforts to build quieter, more energy-efficient aircraft engines is larded with model-U.N.-ish chatter about how "it is very important to have different people working together. No single person is smart enough." The page that hosts the video about creating cleaner gas turbine engines, on the other hand, plays up the "close-knit teams" at the expense of the technology.

It's all self-serving misdirection. The story about the GE factory worker who beat breast cancer tells us plenty about the prominence of GE labels on the diagnostic machines and nothing about the machines themselves. Almost impossibly, the bit on the enormous Jenbacher gas engine generates no excitement, focusing on environmentally sensitive tomato wrangling rather than on rockets and turbowheelies and all the cool stuff it can surely fuel. It's as if GE would rather be perceived as decent and responsible than as innovative.

The videos look pretty smart, with lots of slow pans over and around expensive-looking gear, and feature music that transcends the usual background plinking (cellos = DRAMA). But they're empty, as is the accompanying site material. To that end: at some point, corporate communication managers have to learn that they're doing more harm than good by sharing links to half-assedly-maintained Twitter feeds, which nearly always have an "I'm doing this because my boss' wife heard something on NPR about social media and now wants us to get with the program" feel to them.

So the "GE Stories" campaign ultimately comes across as an aimless exercise in self-gratification. Did I learn anything about how GE works? I did not. Do I care how GE works? I do not. Corporate niceties notwithstanding, I'd just assume the company spend less time extolling the virtues of teamwork and more figuring out how to Wi-Fi-enable my toaster. Get on that.

5 comments about "GE "Stories" More Self-Serving Than Educational".
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  1. Steve Johnson from Freed-Hardeman University, December 20, 2011 at 2:19 p.m.

    Before the internet, big corporations like GE and ATT produced educational films that were "educational" and self-promotional. I saw alot of them as a kid.

  2. Teresa Maslonka from third mind, inc., December 20, 2011 at 2:25 p.m.

    Hi Larry,
    Is it possible that this effort was not about marketing to the consumer or end-user of the product?

    Perhaps this was an internal marketing effort, i.e., GE wants their employees to feel appreciated (and they want to keep those critical Ph.D's...) Or maybe the videos were targeting potential talent for GE, i.e., wouldn't you love to work with a company who values the unique experience of the individual and how they are supported as a team?

    Maybe, at the very least, these angles could be an alternative take-away from a (failed or misguided?) consumer campaign.

    Just food for thought... Thanks for the review! Teresa

  3. Catherine Wachs from Right Brain, December 20, 2011 at 2:31 p.m.

    Corporations typically do "feel good" pieces that have multiple goals: burnishing their reputation (for Wall St.), exciting salespeople and making employees feel good about where they work.

    I wish GE would spend as much on cleaning up the Hudson River, which they fought in court for years with multi-millions of dollars, and are still dragging their feet. So much for "feel good".

  4. Dave O'Mara from Logan Marketing Communications, December 20, 2011 at 2:57 p.m.

    Very well written critique that could generally apply to the corporate communications of many firms but perhaps most of all to the politically partisan GE.

  5. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, December 20, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.

    I agree with Larry Dobrow's comments.

    In a past life (the '90s) I made my share of those videos. At the time, corporate culture and values were getting a fresh look as components of the brand. We often included those elements, but back in the Enron-Arthur Andersen era they often were legitimate differentiators, either for stakeholders in the client's business or for students the client wanted to recruit.

    By now, however, values like environmental awareness and promoting diversity are table stakes for almost any public company. For GE to try to position itself as being (really, REALLY) committed to these values, while its competitors are only (really) committed to them, seems either disingenuous or seriously out of touch.

    I think it's great that GE wants its engines to be kinder to the environment and I'm glad they recruit engineers from around the world. But when a company makes such a big deal about its culture and values that the product becomes secondary, the result can be self-parody.

    The video I want to see is the one in which GE lets Boeing know that its "mission" is something other than building engines that push big airliners around the sky as quickly and inexpensively as possible. "Hello, Rolls Royce?"

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