Jeff Immelt, chairman and chief executive of General Electric, is remaking one of the world’s best-known companies into an eco-minded innovator. Judy Hu has to communicate his vision to the world.
If Immelt’s job is making GE hot again — its stock has lagged the broader market over the last five years — then Hu’s is making it cool. Hu is global executive director for advertising and branding for the Connecticut-based conglomerate and overseer of its award-winning “Imagination at Work” and “Ecomagination” ad campaigns. “We’re reinventing a brand and a company,” says Hu, who spoke at the recent 2007 Wharton Marketing Conference. “Jeff decided that we could no longer drive growth through acquisition. We had to focus on R&D and creating new products and services. Our story is about a new vision for GE.”
Since becoming boss in 2001 — just a few days before September 11 — Immelt has aimed to make GE not only an innovator but also an environmental leader. In doing that, he has broken with his predecessor, Jack Welch, but also, in some ways, taken the company back to its roots. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph, started GE in the late 1800s. More recently, under the combative, controversial Welch, it came to be known for operational excellence and a brassy pugnacity.
Welch famously declared that GE would have to be no. 1 or 2 in every line of business in which it competed and would ditch divisions where it wasn’t. And he battled state and federal regulators for years over their order that GE clean up carcinogenic waste that its factories had dumped into New York’s Hudson River. Under Immelt, the company hammered out an agreement to dredge the still-polluted river bottom. “Jeff said, ‘We’re going to fix that and move forward,'” Hu notes.
Hu arrived at GE in 2002. She came to the company from General Motors, where she had been executive director for corporate advertising. She had also worked on GM’s ad campaigns in her previous job at D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, a well-known ad firm that was acquired by Publicis in 2002. A Detroit native, Hu earned her bachelor’s at Harvard and her MBA at Yale.
Shortly after joining GE, Hu undertook a study of peoples’ impressions of the firm. Most of those surveyed associated it with “light bulbs and appliances — or their mother’s kitchen,” she says. Given GE’s history, that sort of image didn’t surprise her. But it overlooked the majority of the company’s current operations. Today, GE makes everything from entertainment — it owns NBC and Universal Studios — to nuclear reactors, jet engines and medical-imaging equipment. It employs 300,000 people worldwide and generates a profit of $20.8 billion a year on $163.4 billion in sales.
Back when Hu started, GE also had a well-known slogan that played off its storied history: “We bring good things to light.” A strong brand — BusinessWeek and Interbrand rate GE’s as No. 4 behind Coca-Cola, Microsoft and IBM — and an iconic slogan are tricky to tinker with. A company doesn’t want to tarnish its brand in, for example, the way that Coca-Cola did in the 1980s when it fumbled the introduction of New Coke. Yet it also must update its image as times and its business change. Hu believed that GE’s slogan was no longer serving its purpose of underscoring the company’s essence. “It conjured up yesterday, not the high-tech or global image of the company today,” she says.
In contrast, “Imagination at Work” evokes the qualities — “curiosity and relentless drive” — that, through a series of internal interviews, Hu came to associate with her new co-workers. “We’re the ultimate members of the ‘Crackberry’ generation at GE,” she says, referring to the nickname for the Blackberry wireless device that connotes its addictive appeal to workaholics. “There’s also a macho element to GE,” she adds. “Even the women tend to be very driven. It’s all about beating the competition and being first.”
To break through the advertising clutter with the new message, Hu spearheaded a campaign of television, print and online ads that was rolled out in 2003. The ads, which frequently use humor and even whimsy, were targeted at business executives — that is, the people who might decide to, say, buy one of GE’s reactors — but designed to appeal to regular people, too. “Executives respond to creative messages as human beings,” Hu notes.
As part of her rebranding effort, Hu also tried to make a change that Immelt found too radical. She proposed redoing the company’s logo, a cursive G and E intertwined against a circular blue background. “We did a huge logo study,” she recalls. “And we found that most people outside of the U.S. couldn’t read that G and E. But Jeff said that changing the monogram might be moving too fast.” So instead, they added 14 new background colors, used according to context.
‘Green Is Green’
The second phase of Hu’s rebranding began two years ago with the introduction of the Ecomagination campaign. Here, Hu wanted to drive home Immelt’s push to make GE a cleaner, greener and more profitable firm. “Jeff took a leadership position in the corporate world,” Hu says. “Before Al Gore did An Inconvenient Truth, before other companies had gone green, he was talking about this stuff. Jeff likes to say that, ‘Green is green.’ What we’re doing isn’t charitable. It’s about increasing revenues in an environmentally friendly way.”
Hu’s staff and GE’s advertising firm decided that most advertising around environmental themes was “too focused on the negative, all about doing more with less and gloom and doom,” she says. “That’s the direct opposite to what we believe at GE.” Innovators are necessarily optimists, she points out. They believe that the future can be better because you can make it better.
One way to escape the usual environmental pessimism was to dream up fun ways to communicate the message, and Hu and her team did that by creating the GeoTerra online game. Web surfers can drop in and play games in which they help the island of GeoTerra go green by harnessing GE technologies, like compact fluorescent light bulbs and wind turbines. “We’ve had players from 130 countries,” Hu says. “Surprisingly, the Vatican City rates way up there in usage.”
Although GE is a worldwide company with an overarching story, it tries to tailor the delivery of its message to the various countries where it operates. Specifically, it tries to show how its expertise might apply to problems that local people care about, and it strives to use words and images that will uniquely resonate with them.
For example, in Hamburg, Germany, a city surrounded by water, GE has stressed its expertise at water purification. “We put a giant straw in the River Alba and had about 200 customers go out and visit it in a boat,” she says. In China, it created a print advertisement that showed goldfish swimming in the ocean. “We test all of our ads,” she notes. “In most places, the ad tested poorly because people said, ‘That’s silly. Goldfish wouldn’t be in the ocean. They’re freshwater fish.’ But in China, goldfish are symbols of good luck, so people liked it.”
Hu uses all sorts of different means to measure the effectiveness of GE’s ads. Her staff, of course, does focus groups and surveys, trying to discern how people perceive the brand’s “image and personality,” she notes. But she also cares about whether the ads win industry awards, even though those would seem to matter little to customers. “That helps our agencies stay motivated,” she says. And occasionally, she uses the quick-and-dirty indicator afforded by a google search. “If you google ‘Ecomagination,’ you’ll get 470,000 results. A word we created has become part of the popular lexicon.”
Hu pointed out that the steps she undertook to reposition GE’s brand are the same ones that a younger company might use to develop its brand. The process can move faster today, thanks to the Internet, but the basic steps haven’t changed as forms of media have multiplied.
First, a company must develop a unique brand essence. It has to figure out who it is and how it differs from competitors. Then it must create a guiding framework for its many forms of communication; different media can stress different parts of the message but they can’t contradict the basic theme. Call it the marketing equivalent of jazz improvisation: Ads can riff on one theme or another, but the melody must remain. And finally, the firm has to deliver the message consistently.
“Consistency is key,” Hu adds. “Jeff likes to say, ‘Our brand is a promise. Imagination at Work is who we are.'”