Lessons In Relevance From A 130 Year Old Brand

Allen AdamsonJune 27, 202217346 min

GE has been injecting urgency into conversations—and actions— for over 130 years. In our conversation with GE’s chief marketing officer, Linda Boff about the company’s ability to continuously shift gears to stay relevant, she said, “Progress is part of our constant. Progress and solving tough problems for the world. You don’t get to be 130 years old without continually reinventing. Our ongoing pivot points reflect the advantage we can bring our customers. We are continuously defining what a superb customer experience will be for GE customers. Increasingly, our offerings are digital in nature and we want to make sure that the experience we are delivering is simple and frictionless. We want the best possible outcomes for our customers,” Boff said, “be it productivity or efficiency. Our marketing is a reflection of how iterative our business is. It’s reflected in the storytelling. That said, our core is constant. It’s rooted in our DNA. We are and always have been about imagination and reinvention. We know who we are. Our ethos has never changed. I like to say ‘embrace your own interesting-ness.’ How can we be relevant? What moments can be ours?

Iconic companies become iconic for a reason. They change, they adapt, all the while staying true to who they  are.

Boff went on to explain that, unlike having a core mission that is focused on products—the things a company makes—existing to solve problems is an “evergreen idea.” Problem solving requires reimagination according to which specific problems need solving at different points in time, as the marketplace changes. Having purpose, not product, as its laser focus gives GE the freedom to experiment, to take risks. “You have to invent and to market in the year in which you live,” Boff said. “Our DNA doesn’t change. How we bring things to life changes. You have to look in real time at the world you live in. You have to try new things and go outside of your comfort zone. You have to spend time out of the conference rooms to see and assess what changes are coming and how to deal with them. The risk is not in experimenting with new things, but in not experimenting. Our teams are organized to experiment. Embracing your inner geek is something we take pride in.”

There have been many successful pivotal moments that have belonged to GE in its history, all the result of the company’s core DNA and its can-do culture: its built-in ability to shift as the marketplace conditions evolve and a new set of challenges emerge to be solved.

Bringing Good Things To Life

As a crash course in the history of science and GE, 1876 was the year Thomas Alva Edison opened a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he could explore the possibilities of electricity. Out of his tinkering was to come one of the greatest inventions of the age—a successful incandescent lightbulb. By 1890 Edison established the Edison General Electric Company, bringing together its various businesses. This was, in GE’s history, the beginning of its industrial age. It was a company of tinkerers, proud to celebrate its “inner geek” and even prouder to be able to develop and manufacture products that would enhance life for generations of people around the world. They “brought good things to life.”

This worked as an inspiring tagline—and driving force—for the company’s mission until around twenty years ago. As if the pace of change were not fast enough, there was no question that competition was increasing at a “Moore’s Law” pace, most significantly in the technology space. Globalization was no longer a concept hovering on the horizon, but a requisite way of doing business. GE’s business model was shifting year by year in response to these new conditions, yes, encompassing not just the production of lightbulbs and refrigerators, but extending to the areas of transportation, health services, consumer finance, and entertainment, with digital experiences underlying many of these competencies. It was evident that this sweep of newer and newer offerings called for a different rallying cry, a new way to communicate its continued relevance and significance to the world market.

To achieve this, led by then CEO Jeffrey Immelt, GE went back to its genesis, Thomas Edison. From day one, GE had been able to imagine things that other companies couldn’t and make them real. As Immelt put it, they could do things that made people go “wow!” Within this framework, the company rallied its more than 300,000 employees around an idea: “What we can imagine, we can make happen.” Or as the tagline stated, “Imagination at work.”

Imagination continues to be very much at work at GE. Also at work, however, is the ever-quickening pace of change in the world, specifically in the technology realm, from big data to artificial intelligence. The explosion of the “Internet of Things” or the “Industrial Internet,” as it’s sometimes called, has been the stimulus for GE’s latest series of necessary shifts to stay relevantly differentiated: industrial company to imaginative company to digital industrial company. As Boff explained to us, by staying focused on its core mission of invention, GE has been able to stay ahead of others in this category. It realized, before many of its competitors, that the current economy depends on the swift, silent transmission of information. As such, in its work, GE is looking to turn jet engines, locomotives, and other giant machines into data-churning computers. It is putting additional effort into healthcare solutions and on various forms of energy. As a company, GE is at the leading edge of the intersection of the physical and the analytical, a very different portfolio than even just twenty years ago.

As GE says and continues to do in so very many cases, what they can imagine, they can make happen. To repeat what Boff told us, “Our marketing is a reflection of how iterative our business is. How can we be relevant? What moments can be ours?” Well, from Thomas Edison and an incandescent lightbulb to the one billion terabytes of information Predix processes, from your grandmother’s refrigerator to a host of transformational medical technologies, from wind turbines to more energy-efficient airplane engines, GE has had a lot of moments. Its visionary leadership has certainly made this possible, as has its laser focus on using its imagination to solve tough problems for the world and commitment to reflect “the world in which we live.”

Success Is Never Final

Lest you think that we are groundbreaking in our belief that success is never final, we openly admit otherwise. If you look at the Marriott organization’s list of core values, for example, key among them is that “Success is never final.” Bill Marriott, son of the company’s founder, has been quoted as saying:

When my father was alive, we would discuss the progress the company was achieving. With each great success, he would tell me to stop patting myself on the back and would remind me of one of his favorite sayings, “Success is never final,” which I think he read in a book by Winston Churchill. From then on, I realized there are still great hills to climb, new markets to conquer, and more guests to satisfy.

At the risk of being too obvious, no matter the organization, whether public or private, for profit or not, there will always be more “guests” to satisfy. As demographics, markets, technology, and global forces continue to rapidly change, so too will the needs and expectations of these guests. For organizations to meet these needs and expectations, for organizations to maintain their relevance in a fast-changing world, they must possess both the skills and the attitude required to shift ahead.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel. Excerpted from their book Shift Ahead: How The Best Companies Stay Relevant In A Fast Changing World

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