Inside General Electric’s digital transformation

General Electric (GE) creative chief Andrew Goldberg addressed an audience in New York this week to explain how shifting popular perception of the company was fundamental to its future; one where it eyes itself as a digital behemoth that is equal to, if not more important than the likes of Amazon and Google when it comes to our digital lives.

For a company whose history spans three centuries, and boasts some of the most edificial names in scientific history among its co-founders in Thomas Edison, GE is one of the few companies that can genuinely lay claim to having helped build the US.

However, it’s a company that is more commonly associated with the invention of the light bulb, plus the production of aircraft engines and oil refinery, not those that define the cutting edge of 21st century tech development, and that’s a perception that Andrew Goldberg, GE’s chief creative officer, is trying to change. With the company’s capitalization stretching to the hundreds of billions, GE’s GDP is larger than that of many of the world’s richest nations and with over 300,000 employees, actually equates to the 13th largest software company in the world, according to Goldberg.

Transition

Speaking yesterday (March 1) at the C3 conference hosted by Conductor, Goldberg told attendees while the company was at its heart a B2B brand – a fact that would normally reduce the emphasis to marketing to the wider public – the fact the company was in the midst of transitioning to become a digital- and software-led entity led to a change in GE’s thinking.

Such a shift in thinking was necessary to appear relevant to not only the demands of its selected business verticals in the 21st century, but also the staff necessary to man such an operation.

“When I joined we had capital and appliances and everything was just thrown in together, but you have to ask yourself what a company of the future looks like? And when you’re a company that’s 125 years-old you have to look forward and be thinking about what’s next?,” he said during a one-on-one session.

This train of thought resulted in the company embarking on a strategy that saw it brainstorm as to what would be required of it in the oncoming next phase of the industrial era.

“How do you become an industrial powerhouse (which we were) with jet engines, and turbines, and healthcare, and then overlay that with software… so start there and build out, and it’s been a journey we are in our [figurative] teenage years, and we’ve finally got a hold of it,” he said.

Bridging the gap from one industrial era to another

Among the chief pillars of this transition is GE Digital, a branch of the company that plays a role in some of the most ambitious projects of the age such as connected cities, as well as its Predix platform, which it dubs as “the operating system for the industrial internet”, that then lets partners (such as companies from the enterprise IT, telecoms and systems integrators verticals) build APIs on top of in order to better decide how to run their businesses using data-led insights.

“We’re positioned to bridge that gap, and head into the next era of the industrial revolution… it will involve productivity and advanced analytics driving everything, and if you think about it like a really efficient turbine, which operates at about 60%, then you can make like 80%, and that’s a huge jump, even 1% efficiency [increase] is worth billions of dollars,” said Goldberg.

What this could mean for to the media industry?

Among the numerous outfits GE Digital partners with to make their operations more efficient (in areas as disparate as revenue collection to inventory management during product distributions) is Accenture (whose digital arm bought creative agency Karmarama last year), a telling link that offers an insight into how the seemingly dissimilar worlds of big data analytics and a company such as GE can merge paths with the media and media trading industry.

Given that Accenture (through it systems integrations and management consultancy services) is already a key partner to many advertisers, the proposition of it (as well as its peers) developing such solutions for their marketing purposes is a strong one. In fact many in the industry tip such integrations and implementations as the next big step for the agency landscape and how they employ adtech differently on clients’ accounts. Such a scenario would involve more customized solutions based on specific client needs – not just media buying and then optimizing to then increase their own margin).

Managing change internally, and external perception of GE

Goldberg went on to explain that such a philosophical change involved a change of the head, heart and wallet within the organization itself, as well as the outward perception of the company.

“This involved changing the talent for sure; it’s changing how we think about everything we do, how we communicate to customers, investors, and audiences. You start with the head… we need to figure out digital and where that fits with industrial (which is the last thing you think about with GE), so that’s he head,” he explained.

“The heart is the heart is the hardest thing in my opinion, as it’s about changing the feeling you get from GE, and GE is a B2B brand first and foremost,” said Goldman, while acknowledging that few people think about GE on a daily basis, despite its entrenchment in the very fabric of the US economy.

GE as a ‘business-to-human’ brand

“But the secret is we never really thought of ourselves in this way… people think about Amazon and Google and the impact on their life, but I’m telling you seriously GE impacts your life way more than any of those. You couldn’t even turn your lights on without us,” he went on to claim.

For Goldberg, the strategy he is adopting is to articulate GE in a manner that is “business-to-human” to all tiers of the ecosystem that affects the business, from investors to investors. “That’s something we need to think about as we become a software company, and we get out of our core industrial world, and go with other businesses that might be influenced by the software solutions to work on the heart part,” Goldberg later said.

Part of this attempt to shift perceptions was the creation of lighthearted skits that reminded viewers that GE Digital was a step in a different direction for the company (see video above).

“So we wanted to show that we actually made something that was big and impressive… and we also wanted to speak to the human element,” said Goldberg, adding that the campaign “had a big impact for us”.

This strategy also involved embracing non-traditional marketing channels in a bid to woo “you investors that could be the possible CEO of GE” aimed at recruiting younger elements of the workforce that possess the skills necessary to implement the above vision. Included in this were social media activations, as well as sponsoring relevant podcasts.

He also gave a further insight into how this digital integration, or evolution, played a role in GE’s wider (and more established) industrial services.

“You have to think about how you stay constant [amid all this change], and the thing is the sale of the one jet engine is good, but the margins are made on the back end with the services and endless updates and software. That’s where the storytelling comes in and merges those two together, so when you have that face-to-face meeting they see the breadth and scope of what you do,” concluded Goldberg.

Ronan Shields

I'm the digital editor at The Drum, and cover adtech and martech. Prefer news and analysis, over opinion pieces. Current fascination(s) are blockchain and media futures trading; also curious about transhumanism on a personal basis. NYC-based, but really London Irish.

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