The GE Model for Brand Storytelling

David Aaker
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Signature stories communicate core strategic information about an organization's goals and culture.

So what? Skillful telling of signature stories can be a powerful magnets for consumers and employee recruiting.

Now what? We would all do well to follow GE’s lead in the following nine storytelling areas​, says renowned marketing maestro David Aaker. 

Oct.1, 2016

The science and technology company can teach marketers a thing (or nine) about how to tell a compelling tale

GE is among many companies that are dialing up the use of what I call “signature stories,” stories that communicate core strategic information about the firm and its strategy. Linda Boff the director of global marketing at GE explained how stories helped GE communicate its strategic message during a talk at the June 2016 ANA conference on Masters of B-to-B Marketing.

It all starts with GE’s DNA, which always has been passionate about science and technology, starting with founder Thomas Edison. The GE goal is to be associated with this DNA as reflected by imagination, creativity and always being in motion. The firm is comfortable with geeking-out with people who find science and technology interesting. In fact, a key audience is people who are also into science and technology—those who will relate to GE’s passion and strategy.

What is novel about GE for the past few years is the emphasis placed on stories, authentic narratives that surprise, intrigue and involve the audience while also being informative or entertaining. Several aspects of GE’s approach are worth highlighting:

  • Creativity and experimentation leadto unique ideas that surprise, manyof which are driven, or at least influenced, by a social media vehicle. That means that a variety of peopleand organizational units inside and outside the firm get involved. It isfar different from having anadvertising brief and then developing and running a campaign.

  • The exposure to the stories is often audience-driven. A major basis for stimulating social activity is the GE opt-in set of 4 million members over a variety of social media platforms. Given this serendipity, it is amazing how professional and engaging the final story vehicles are. The presentation is always extremely well done.

  • There are some ad campaigns, but the body of work emphasizes GE content-driven audiences rather than rented media vehicles

We would all do well to followGE’s lead in the following nine storytelling areas:

1. Find and leverage partners, and own the audience driving content.

Partnering with National Geographic and top Hollywood storytellers such as Ron Howard, GE helped put together a six-part documentary TV series about scientific breakthrough stories from the GE labs that have faced enormous unknowns and technical challenges, but have emerged with innovations that have changed lives. The series, featuring stories on pandemics, clean water, human engineering, aging, improving the brain and clean energy, was shown on the National Geographic TV channel and streamed on GE Reports in 2016.

2. Get personal.

Mark Frontera, a lab manager at GE Global Research, saw firsthand the effect his work had on real-world patients when his young son, Adam, was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment Adam received at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute included advanced imaging technology developed at High Energy Physics Lab GE Global Research. Now that Adam has completed his treatments, Mark created a video of his story and the role imaging technology played.

3. Be tangible and connect.

As a maker of advanced materials, GE had a prominent role in the 1969 moon landing. To retell that story on the occasion of the 45th moon landing anniversary, GE introduced on Snapchat aredesign of the original moon boots using advanced GE materials used in jet engines and wind turbines. One hundred boots, termed Missions, went on sale on the exact anniversary day and cost $196.90. Buzz Aldrin helped with the launch by posting a photo of himself on Snapchat wearing a pair of Missions. The shoes are now available on eBay for thousands of dollars.

4. Adapt to the media.

Leverage audience storytellers. GE created a series of six-second videos of scientific experiments. Research showed that 30% of millennials’ time is spent watching user-generated content, so GE encouraged consumers to create and share their own six-second videos tagged with #6SecondScience. Vine, a video app launched by Twitter, was the platform. The #6SecondScience fair was a success, and the project won a Cannes award.

5.Be creative.

Video of a “snowball in hell” involved a snowball encased in a vessel made of the same material used in jet engines. Molten steel at 2,000 degrees was poured into a foundry over the vessel. The snowball survived “hell.” Other topics were “catching lighting in a bottle,” and “talking to a wall.” A competition is on to find the next idiom to test.

6. Adapt to the audience.

GE’s instinct was that their target audience is fascinated by big machines and how they work and, thus, would love to visit factories and see them in action. Six Instagram influencers and six GE superfans were asked to visit a jet engine test site in rural Ohio and record the experience. There have been more than a dozen such experiences filmed, from making a locomotive in Texas to visiting a test facility near the North Pole in Norway. The results were exposed to the GE social media audience members as well as on social medial sites. The first #GEInstWalk got some 200,000 views 48 hours after its posting.

7. Use user-generated content.

GE partnered with The Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon, who is a patent-holder and a lover of science. The result was a segment that aired three times per year called “Fallonventions.” In them, kids would present their inventions, which were always clever and hilarious. One, for example, allowed people to reach Pringle chips low in the package by inserting a door in the package. Another had a hat tied to a back-scratching device that could be activated by a pull chain. GE reinforced the brand’s message that it is a champion of innovation.

8. Employ vivid technologies.

GE is planning to create content using virtual reality. The first effort follows an underwater submersible that mimics GE’s subsea technology used to collect and discover gas and oil deposits in the ocean. People can use an Oculus Rift headset and sit in a vibrating chair while the headset simulates the underwater experience. More experiences are planned.

9. Empathize with the target audience and use humor.

The geek world is celebrated by Owen, who, in an ad series, tries to describe to friends and family his new job at GE writing programs to help trains, hospitals and planes run better. They don’t get it. One tries to clarify—“So you are going to run a train?” In another ad, a friend who is a game programmer sucks the energy out of the air, and Owen cannot be heard. The stories work because they honestly admit the GE geek culture and do it with humor. Owen has become an ongoing symbol of the new GE and appears at conferences. Although it was not at all designed to help recruiting, it did increase inflow of applicants 800%, and a second set of ads shows Owen now on the job.

GE has shown how to capitalize on the realities of the social media age: have clear communication objectives, know your audience, be creative and try things, tailor content to the media and don’t force it, don’t compromise on execution and invest in storytelling that will interest and involve viewers, since simple facts neither communicate nor persuade.

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Author Bio:
David Aaker
David Aaker is vice chairman of San Francisco-based marketing consultancy Prophet and author of Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success.
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