"I'm actually afraid to talk to some of our engineers," Reno Yue, director of branding, advertising and digital marketing at GE China, said with a laugh. "I feel like a kid talking to someone with 20 PhDs. But it's good that we have these people as they are the heart and soul of GE's innovation."
Even if these geniuses who invent things of consequence to the world are associated with a nerdy stigma that's aggravated by the place where they work—the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park located in the middle of the very 'industrial' Pudong New Area in Shanghai.
GE is a diverse company that traverses many different industries. It manufactures medical imaging devices, wind turbines, aircraft engines and heavy-haul railway systems, among other things. At last count, it lists healthcare, aviation, energy, oil and gas, power, water, transportation and lighting as its markets.
"When we tell a story about GE, a technology-infrastructure company as we label ourselves, we want to tell it under a vibrant brand umbrella," Yue said in a frank interview. "No dry reading associated with whitepapers about complicated machinery. So that story is very much a story about innovation."
"As all our customers in China are either very big state-owned companies or companies with close ties to the state, we position ourselves as a partner of choice, not for any industry, but for the whole of China," he continued. "There is little doubt that GE products are for the betterment of the country, whether commercials are done or not." This is especially true in the healthcare category, where advertising regulations restrict what the brand can do. The act of putting a device directly on a patient cannot be shown, for example.
GE's 'Works Everyday' digital campaign, which kicked off earlier this year, is a natural continuation of the 'Imagination At Work' tagline that has been around for more than a decade. "Because innovation has to have relevancy, digital seems like the simplest, most relevant way to deliver impact, and also because traditonal media is becoming increasingly crowded and less efficient in China," Yue observed. In North America, because the brand is a long-established one and the market is mature, GE is able to do things that are more creative than in other markets.
"I really don't like GE to be pigeonholed as a traditional B2B company, because B2B does not equal boring-to-boring," said Yue. "When people say 'You guys are doing really well for a B2B brand', I get very offended. I think it's about making connections with business decision-makers, who are people, who are emotional beings too. So their decision-making process does not rely solely on numbers and data. In order to make that connection, you offer perceived value, which is what advertising and marketing is all about, because neurobiologically, we are wired that way."
Dwayne Koh, group creative director of TBWA’s Digital Arts Network Shanghai, put it differently in an interview earlier this year: “Let's remove the bottom part of B," he said. "It should be P2P—people-to-people." (GE consolidated with BBDO last year, although no BBDO work has debuted in China yet.)
GE has gone through a metamorphosis in China, where it started telling brand stories that support four different pillars/verticals: 'We move', 'We power', 'We cure', 'We build').
"There are overlaps sometimes," Yue said. "A turbine can be to power, or to build. With limited time and limited budget, how can we tell a more holistic story without making separate creatives for the four pillars?"
Yue resists corporate chest-beating, so any 'We're awesome' brand messeges are out of the question.
A 2013 campaign titled 'Ancient Inventions' included a series of animated videos that paid tribute to four world-changing Chinese inventions: paper, silk, wax and porcelain. Digitally seeded short videos with different animation styles based on each invention illustrated how they helped people live better in ancient times.
"It was very well-received by China's SOEs, but at the same time, we also heard feedback that if you do the porcelain treatment for China, and maybe a tapestry treatment for India, you sort of lose the global brand consistency," Yue confessed. A conundrum indeed, but GE questioned itself on that localisation approach that seemed to be touted strongly by other global brands operating in China. "We decided to dial back a little and not make each execution too market-specific."
Koh elaborated: "We wanted to bring out the human element in our GE campaigns. The best way of humanisation is through images of real people and real infrastructure", he said. "At the end of the day, government officials and C-suite executives are also people, subject to bottom-up influences through their wives or kids when they go home after work."
In a 2014 campaign (by TBWA), two interactive videos detail the lives of GE personnel. The first tells the story of GE Telemedicine's technology that provides innovative medical solutions in Gansu province. Geographically, Gansu is a long strip on the map, so it takes folks in the farmlands up to five days to travel from one end to the city area. Some even sell livestock to raise money for their travel expenses.
The first video explains how remote diagnosis using portable ultrasound equipment solves the problem of making a trip to a provincial hospital that is very time-consuming and costly for a villager. "In the old days, a local doctor has to take a picture of the ultrasound, scan it and send it to the provincial doctors, but the whole idea of an ultrasound is you have to see movement for a diagnosis, so a static ultrasound picture defeats the purpose," Koh said.
The second video shows how GE partners with the Beidahuang Group, a national grain producer, in modernizing agriculture in China. Both interactive stories use a time-stamp motif. "We used the clock as a metaphor for GE, to convey to audiences that GE is at work each and every day, every second,” Koh said.
In the campaign microsite, a clock points to clickable 'hotspots' that take viewers to interviews with stakeholders and end-beneficiaries of GE as well as infographics of the technology behind say, remote diagnosis.
Emotional branding is all the rage for consumer-centric brands, but GE has attempted to strike a balance, tough for an information-heavy industry. The main campaign video is beautifully shot with no voiceovers or explanatory text. Koh revealed that he wanted to keep it simple.
"Once you have those, you will lose the emotive elements," Koh said. "The explaining is taken care of by the interviews and infographics. We don't want to blast audiences with too much information. Neither do we want to give them just a bit and have them figure out the rest by themselves." The rationale is, non-targets who are not interested in GE won't be interested, but at least they saw a great commercial that touched them.
GE is continuing consumer tactics by the amplification of print and video assets across relevant digital channels. A competitive pitch for a local social agency is underway to provide content strategy and creation; digital platform operations; blog and social-media management; and influencer engagement in a phased approach until 2015. This is considered progressive for the company and for the industry.
The clock execution will also be extended to internal communications in a content-syndication app that allows GE staff to take on-site photos to upload into an internal media library and ultimately have them shared externally on Chinese social media. "Sometimes people in oil and gas have no idea what engineers in a Xinjiang desert are up to," said Yue.
The most frequently quoted line from Thomas Edison, said Yue, is "I find out what the world needs and proceed to invent it". GE takes it further by proceeding to scale such inventions. Product-wise, the China business doesn't simply take a product from North America and then try to solve a problem that is unique to China's modernisation needs. "In terms of creativity I think it's not just copying something from North America or Europe, but using certain market insights that goes into the creative output," Yue said. "We actually are known for taking a risk when it comes to our communication strategy. In the long run, we like to be innovative, explore first-mover programmes and be recognised by the industry as best-in-class."
Advertising is getting more complex, as are the ways to measure it. "There are people who believe that if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist; if you can't quantify it, you can't qualify it," Yue said. "I don't go to that extreme. Numbers without insights are just numbers. The ability to endure trial and error is important in advertising." Having said that, the listed firm still looks at numbers and hard KPIs like unique visitors and bounce rates but takes them with a large grain of salt. At the end of the day the key metric is “net positive sentiment”.
"We don't know how this [B2B2C strategy] is going to play out," Yue said. "We have our theories and even pontificate based on research, but the thing is, innovation is about learning, and if doesn't work this year we will do something else next year. So we're willing to embrace ambiguity, we're not all-knowing, but we'll find out."