Earlier this year, PJA Advertising President Mike O’Toole called GE “perhaps the most innovative B2B marketer on the planet.”
That’s in no small part a testament to the company’s DNA. Founded 124 years ago by one of history’s greatest innovators, Thomas Edison, GE continues to pride itself on its disruptive, experimental culture — and that goes as much for its marketing and advertising as for its corporate strategy.
That’s not an easy reputation to live up to, but Linda Boff has more than shown that she has the right stuff since she was named GE’s CMO in September 2015. Indeed, Boff’s tough-act-to-follow predecessor in the CMO role, Beth Comstock — who became GE’s first female vice chair (and Boff’s boss) — has described Boff as “one of the most innovative and forward-thinking marketers in the business.”
A 12-year GE veteran who also continues her responsibilities as
GE’s global digital marketing chief, Boff has taken on the chief marketing role at a historic juncture for GE, as it spins off its consumer appliances and financial services businesses to focus
on being a digital industrial company. Meaning, in GE’s own words, being at the forefront of “machines and solutions that are connected, responsive and predictive.”
GE’s audiences include customers, prospects and the investment community, but also tech-forward potential employees and the whole science/tech enthusiast/influencer base.
Changing the lingering perception of GE as a staid, slow-moving industrial giant to an innovation leader requires “telling a modern Internet story,” Boff said at the AMA’s 2016 annual conference. That seems something of an understatement, given the dizzying pace of pioneering digital campaigns going on under her oversight.
GE has become known as the preeminent content marketer, with a deep understanding of the messages that will resonate with its audiences, and the good sense to allow talented content creators to implement them. At AMA, Boff explained that she has created three in-house labs — devoted to disruption, media and performance marketing — and that she organizes content into tiers: emotional storytelling, information about specific initiatives, and calls to action. All of this is designed to generate content about GE’s tech work that can resonate in a personal way with audiences.
What guides everything the marketing team does is “how do we make sure that the user really is king throughout this experience?,” Boff told Contently. “They’re giving us some time and attention. What are we giving back?”
Boff has also driven GE’s gutsy, brand-pioneering use of new platforms and channels, including Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Periscope, Medium and many others. This is very much a deliberate strategy born of the belief that, given that it’s impossible to know what media will take off or fizzle out, sitting on the sidelines is riskier than jumping in, learning from success or failure, and moving on, she has stressed.
A year ago, GE made techies and non-techies alike sit up and take notice with its collaboration with The New York Times to provide 1 million Sunday paper readers with a Google Cardboard headset, to enable a simple but powerful introduction to the virtual reality experience. The Times’ VR app, which won a Cannes Lions Grand Prix award, showed videos from GE and Mini, as well as a documentary about children displaced by war.
Another major GE coup: “The Message,” a podcast that wove the company’s technology into a fictional story about cryptology that was so compelling that it hit #1 on iTunes. That one won a Gold at Cannes for GE’s longtime AOR, BBDO New York.
In second-half 2015, GE teamed with the National Geographic Channel and Ron Howard’s and Brian Grazer’s production companies to develop “Breakthrough,” a six-part series about scientific breakthroughs and the processes behind them. This effort exemplified both GE’s emphasis on innovative partnerships, and that cutting-edge media philosophy. The series was viewable on National Geographic Channels around the world, the GE Reports site, NatGeoTV.com, and all of the major TV-VOD, TVE, gaming and social media platforms. It was also embedded in banner ads or featured on posts on large sites such as Motherboard, Reddit, Vice and The Daily Beast.
A few of the many other ingenious GE implementations in recent months include Droneweek, which used Periscope and drone footage to tell stories at five GE factories over five days; a crowdsourced “6-Second Science Fair” on Vine; a campaign around using jet-engine materials to package hot sauce; a campaign in which an indestructible “Octobrella” was promoted as protection against a supposedly pending storm of octopi; and a new “Labracadabra” program offering kits and how-to videos to do fun science experiments at home.
A prime example of using storytelling to convey GE’s innovation story was 2016’s “What’s the Matter With Owen?” ad campaign. That series of vignettes about a nerdy but lovable young man who gets a job at GE both underlined GE’s tech leadership and (an unexpected bonus) increased employment applications at GE by a factor of eight.
That was particularly gratifying to Boff, who's known for her dedication to nurturing talent for the digital future. At GE, she's been working to streamline capabilities by developing a common standard of excellence. She has also spent time on college campuses educating and inspiring aspiring marketers, and launched a “CMO Talent Challenge” for the Association of National Advertisers.
Looking at the big picture, Boff has developed a framework for how marketers can help their companies achieve and support growth, built on skills for creating markets, shaping opportunities and capturing demand.
Prior to joining GE in 2003 as global director of marketing communications, Boff helped develop NBC’s iVillage as its CMO, and served in key marketing roles at Citigroup, the American Museum of Natural History and several large media and marketing agencies.