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'General Electric works on big things that matter' says new marketing chief Linda Boff

Last month, Linda Boff was named chief marketing officer of GE after spending more than 10 years at the company in various other marketing roles.

Her new title sees her leading the company’s digital industrial marketing strategy as the 123-year old brand aims to stay relevant in a start-up world.

Ahead of her presentation at the ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando, The Drum caught up with Boff to discuss what she aims to accomplish as CMO, the role virtual reality plays at GE, and how she thinks marketing can change the world.

Now that you’re chief marketing officer, what’s one short-term goal and one long-term goal you hope to achieve in this position?

I’d say short term would be to map out what the journey is today for the GE customer and how we can create a simpler, easier and more frictionless experience. Even though we are largely industrial, I want the experience our customers have to be as seamless and easy as Amazon or Hulu or Uber. Long-term, it is to market GE’s transformation as a digital industrial company, which is how we think of ourselves today - a combination of hardware and software.

Can you discuss the strategy behind GE’s recent ‘What’s the Matter with Owen?’ campaign and what the brand ultimately hopes to achieve from it?

What we’re trying to do here is lean into the fact that GE works on big things that matter. Things that change the world. There’s nothing light or trendy or frivolous about the work that we do. So we thought we’d have a little fun with Owen, our would-be developer, and show how exciting it is to work at GE and what we’re doing now which is a lot of digital work and to contrast that with what people’s old view of the company might be, which is industrial and maybe not as exciting as a startup that makes hats for cats. We work on stuff that matters and we work on solving big problems.

While it is not a direct recruiting ad, what we’ve seen since we started to run it is more people coming to our recruiting site. The numbers are up like 200 per cent. So that’s a really nice outcome.

As a company that has experimented with a lot of social platforms, what’s GE’s strategy when it comes to connecting with and reaching different, younger audiences?

GE as a company has been about invention and innovation from the day that Edison first invented the lightbulb. We’ve taken that DNA and pulled it over to marketing. We do not have the biggest budget but what we can do is drive impact and stand out if we are an early adopter on platforms. It matches our DNA and there is no substitute to being first in terms of learning. So that has been very deliberate and it has led us to platforms like Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, and MikMak.

When a company is 123-years old, staying relevant and contemporary is exceptionally important for us. We’re six times as old as Google. As a company we have always re-invented ourselves on the business side, and as we do that it’s important that younger audiences still understand what GE is and why we matter. There’s an expression that we shout louder than we spend. Part of that shouting is finding platforms that people are discovering and spending their time on.

GE recently partnered with mobile video shopping app MikMak to create branded ‘minimercials.’ What does GE hope to get out of unconventional partnerships like this one?

I’m very intrigued with MikMak. The woman who founded it is someone I’ve known for five or six years so I’m a supporter of her. I think the idea of MikMak, which is sort of comedy versus commerce, or SNL versus Home Shopping Network, is very intriguing. We have a couple of innovative lighting products, one that’s a connected bulb, and we thought we’d give it a try. It’s an experiment for sure but it’s great for brand awareness and we’ll sell a few bulbs by doing it.

How is GE leveraging virtual reality?

We started experimenting with virtual reality about a year ago because we thought it was a fabulous way to tell a story that could put the viewer right in a new environment. We started with a subsea virtual reality experience since we wanted people to understand how we find oil using subsea technology and we’ve done four or five since then. We’ve done one that’s an exploration of the mind.

For starters, we really like the immersive intimacy of the storytelling. The hardware is becoming less expensive and more accessible. I think it will reach a tipping point and to have at this point 12-14 months of experience in terms of how to tell stories puts us ahead of the game.

What would you say is GE’s biggest challenge right now?

GE right now is in such a good place. Our portfolio has really been transformed over the last decade. We’re an industrial company with a strong connection to digital. The world is recognizing that we’re in this great position. I think the challenge of GE, just as it is a challenge of other multinational companies, is to be consistent and relevant around the world. It’s to be global and to be local, to be able to drive the company and big brand yet be very driven by what we are hearing and seeing from customers in 170 countries around the world.

How do you think marketing can change the world?

I think marketing can help drive growth for whole new sectors that the world is seeing for the first time. Whether that’s on-demand shopping, on-demand transportation, or on-demand food. Marketing can shine a light on those things. It does a great job of connecting the dots between what it is that the customer wants and what companies provide.

Marketing also adds some sizzle to great storytelling. We remember great films we’ve seen and sometimes those are produced by folks that are great marketers. Steve Jobs was a great marketer. Great marketers can change the world.

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