General Electric is ubiquitous.
Created in 1892 as the successor to a company founded by Thomas Edison himself, GE produces the lightbulbs that brighten our living rooms, the refrigerators that keep our food cool, and the microwaves that warm it up. It sells airplane parts, x-ray machines, consumer loans, and practically a million different products for harnessing and distributing electrical power.
With so many different goods and services on the market and a century’s worth of name recognition in the bank, the challenge for GE’s marketing department is not in getting the brand on people’s radar. Instead, the company’s content strategy is devised to surprise people by putting the brand places they weren’t expecting to see it.
In the past several years, GE has met this challenge by building its own free-standing technology publications, partnering with new media outlets for a series of in-depth neuroscience stories, and even creating its very own line of “moon boots” to commemorate its role in producing the shoes Neil Armstrong wore the first time man stepped on the moon.
Indeed, for every General Electric product the average consumer is able to hold in her hands, there are scores of other projects its scientists are working on behind the scenes, a fact that makes it even more important for the brand to put itself face-to-face with the public.
GE's content strategy is about putting the brand where people don't expect it.
“We are thinking about manufacturing more consumer touchpoints, and when we do that, we want to show up as a company that is at the forefront and unexpected, and not as a big, multinational company that is 123 years old,” said GE Global Director of Innovation Sam Olstein. “That is kind our north star in all of our marketing efforts: How do we show up in an unexpected way, in light of the fact that we don’t have that many opportunities to connect with consumers directly?”
For certain, one unexpected place for a 123-year-old multinational to show up is next to a story about suicide. That’s what happened this past fall when GE ran a sponsored story on Mic investigating the neuroscience links between high altitude and depression that bore the headline, "There's a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why."
GE trusted Mic’s branded content team to execute on its own story ideas.
The 2,500-word reported story was just one piece of the GE-sponsored vertical BrainMic, which sought to explore the latest developments in neuroscience and shed light on the work the company’s scientists were doing to develop new diagnostic tools. Whereas other brands might have been uncomfortable putting itself so close to such a sensitive topic, GE trusted Mic’s branded content team to generate and execute its own story ideas. The brand was rewarded for its faith when the story took off on social media and earned nearly 1 million pageviews.
GE was rewarded for its faith with 1 million pageviews.
Though Mic was responsible for the editorial, GE was responsible for designing the look and feel of the vertical. In addition to the suicide story, the program included a number of other neuroscience stories, a personality quiz that explained to people how their brains dictate the way they react to certain situations, and a trivia tournament on the mobile app QuizUp that offered a free chess lesson with top-ranked player Magnus Carlsen as its prize.
The program allowed GE to reach a new generation of potential customers in a way those consumers would find appealing. After the stories were published at Mic.com/brain (the link now leads to Mic’s science vertical), they were distributed on the Mic and GE social accounts, with the social agency VaynerMedia helping GE spread the content across its various owned channels.
The entire campaign achieved Olstein’s goal of generating organic traction and high share rates, and it was recently named 2015’s Best Publishing Innovation in Advertising at the Digiday Publishing Awards.
“We are always trying to change our perception, and the more that we can borrow equity from our partners in a mutually beneficial way, it only does good for us,” Olstein said. “We were really fortunate to be able to work with Mic in a way that let us tell the story of the brain in an authentic manner that was geared in the right way to their audience and hopefully didn’t come off in a way that just smells like advertising.”
The brand created another opportunity to interface with consumers last year when its content marketing efforts pushed beyond native advertising and into the realm of commerce. To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first ever moon landing and GE's role producing the specialized rubber that went into the boots the astronauts wore during the mission, GE created a special “moon boot” to be sold on JackThreads, the menswear ecommerce site owned by Thrillist. The shoes, known as “The Missions” had a space-age design and were made of advanced, GE-produced materials that are also used in wind turbines and jet engines.
Leading up to the day JackThreads put the shoes on sale, Thrillist’s technology and lifestyle site, Supercompressor, ran a series of sponsored stories highlighting all of the material science that goes into the equipment astronauts use and GE’s contributions to the NASA program. The limited-edition, $196.90 shoes sold out in just seven minutes and quickly became a hot ticket on eBay. This summer, they'll be on display at The Brooklyn Museum as part of an exhibit on sneaker culture.
Already, Olstein says the company is planning another experiment in content-as-commerce to help consumers get up close and personal with the brand.
“Every few weeks, I’ll hear about some really great influencer wearing moon boots onstage at TED or CES,” Olstein said. “It’s just a great way to connect with us on a consumer level because we just don’t have that many opportunities to tell our story in that way, and that shoe was a story about material science.”
GE's news site GE Reports has built an audience of more than half a million readers since 2008.
While its partnerships with Thrillist and Mic have been fruitful, GE is also something of a pioneer when it comes to the brand-as-a-publisher model. Its GE Reports news site covers the latest developments in science and technology and GE’s part in pushing things forward, like this story on a new plane the company is working on with the Air Force. According to a piece published earlier this year by The Content Strategist, the site has built an audience of more than half a million readers since being founded in 2008.
While the company will sometimes pay to promote content from its owned channels, the goal is to make the stories people read on GE Reports or the graphics they find on the Tumblr account engaging enough that readers will distribute them on their own and ultimately return to GE for more content in the future.
The ultimate goal is always to show people something unexpected.
“We really believe that our content can sing on its own, and that the stories that we tell are interesting and newsworthy and things that people should care about,” Olstein said. “It’s a long game, for sure, but I think what you see today is that audiences and new audiences form very, very quickly. There are a lot of entrepreneurs and new platforms that are able to harness a new audience in a matter of weeks.”
Of course, whether the content lives on GE’s Snapchat account, or its Tumblr page, or on a sponsored vertical hosted by a media company, the ultimate goal is always to show people something they quite simply did not think they would see from GE.
At the end of the day, the best advice for followers of the company’s social media accounts and websites is to expect the unexpected. When Olstein and company are doing their jobs correctly, you just never know where this 123-year-old multinational will show up next.
“I think it should spark a level of curiosity, like, ‘Oh geez, I didn’t know that GE worked on the Apollo program, I didn’t know that GE is doing all this work in the neuroscience field,’” Olstein said. “It’s just shifting that perception, and the more that we can become a brand that shows up on the radar for a younger generation as they grow up and come into the workforce and think about brands that they love and want to connect with, that’s really what I think we want to do.”