General Electric and the industrial internet of big things

General Electric is one of the interesting brands in the world. Started in 1889 by Thomas Edison and employing over 300,000 people, GE is undergoing one of the most significant transformations in its long history.

As a manufacturing organization, GE is rethinking its entire business through the lens of being a digital company. To General Electric, digital means building industrial equipment with sensors and analyzing vast amounts of time-series data to improve reliability and lower operating costs for customers. GE describes these connected machines as the "industrial internet of things."

As part of the CXOTALK series of conversations with innovators, I spoke with GE's Chief Marketing Officer, Linda Boff, to learn more. Linda explained the company's marketing strategy and its efforts to humanize the iconic GE brand. During our conversation, she explains how GE puts a human face on connected industrial equipment and services, making the brand accessible to ordinary consumers and business people. Linda presents a compelling vision of the connected future.

What does digital transformation mean for GE?

Today, we've got great machines that help power the world, help create renewable energy, which diagnose in hospitals. But, in the world we're imagining, those machines talk to each other.

Imagine a jet engine that can tweet, can tell you it's time to come off-engine, that it's time to be serviced. Imagine what we call a "digital twin." A digital twin is, very simply, you're running a wind turbine farm, and you literally have a digital imprint of that farm. Therefore, you know when the machines are the most productive; when the machines need service. Think about how much more productive you can be.

When we think about digital industrial, we think about the industrial internet. About a world that's more productive; that's more efficient. We think about fuel savings. GE operates in a world of scale, so if you save fuel for a big railroad, it's worth millions and millions of dollars.

As you can tell, we get giddy talking about what a connected ecosystem of machines looks like. We think the industrial internet will be bigger than the consumer internet, so that's a lot to get excited about. Some people call it Industry 4.0, the next big industrial revolution.

How do you humanize and simplify this message so ordinary people will understand it?

Brands need to figure out what they stand for. You have to figure out what your DNA is. If a bar of soap can figure out that they stand for real beauty, everybody can figure out what their DNA is. To me, that's always job one as a marketer; who are you.

Second is how do you want to talk about yourself. It became very clear that science, technology, engineering, and invention were topics that are important to us but also important to the world. We constantly look for this intersection of culture and science and innovation.

We look for moments in which we can have that conversation.

GE has been around for 124 years, and the challenge is, "How are you relevant every day, and how are you relevant to new audiences?" GE makes very big and very important technology and now technology that's being digitized. How do you make what we're doing [relevant] every day? How do you make it relatable? How do you make it tangible?

We try hard to find ways to talk about our technology, what we are doing regarding digital industrial, but frame it in a way that's inherently interesting and has an emotional arc to it.

The first example is something we did rather recently called Impossible Films. We took popular idioms: a snowball's chance in hell, catching lightning in a bottle, talking to a wall. Because we want to solve tough problems, we took those idioms as a challenge to show the world how we solve tough problems. When we think about storytelling, that's an example.

A second one, if you will let me brag a little bit, just won a big award at the Cannes Art Festival, so I am particularly proud of the team and the work they did there.

Back in the 50s, long before you and I were around there was something called GE Theatre that was hosted by Ronald Reagan; this was well before he became president and it was incredibly popular. We took a page out of GE Theatre but brought it all the way into the present. We recreated this idea of GE Theatre, but it was GE Podcast Theatre, and we worked with some talent and created an original podcast series called That Message. It got to number one on iTunes. It did really, really well and won this big award a week or so ago.

If you are a marketer, there are words thrown around like content marketing, branded content, sponsored content. To me, that can mean crummy content. Our standard is great content, not great branded content.