Creative communications agency Imagination, working alongside interior architecture firm M Moser Associates, was tasked by GE to design, develop and build these centres to serve as regional hubs for innovation and brand experience.
The newly renovated GE China Technology Center in Shanghai demonstrates GE's brand pillars—building, powering, moving and curing—through a 1000-square-meter 'showspace' with interactive media displays utilising motion sensors, for example.
The Chengdu Innovation Center, which opened in May this year, was GE's first outside of the United States. The centre aims to show how GE's 'Healthymagination' and 'Ecomagination' programs tackle some of China’s unique environmental and healthcare problems.
The Chengdu centre was quickly followed by the launch of the Xi’an centre in July. Chengdu was chosen as it represents of a typical tier-two city, while Xi'an is a key mining city in the country.
“GE is keen to communicate our brand to the audience in China’s West and Northwest,” said Geoff Li, GE’s director of communications for the Greater China region. The interactive visitor experience at these centres helps GE to build better brand awareness and favourability among critical lighting, aviation and energy sectors, according to the company.
Globally, GE is one of the world’s oldest and most valuable brands with a history of innovation going back over 130 years to founder Thomas Edison. In recent years, the GE brand has been based on articulating sustainability through the strategic vision of ‘solving China's toughest problems’.
The B2B battlefield pits GE against the likes of Siemens and Fisher & Paykel for the favour of Chinese government ministries (at both national and local levels) and state-owned enterprises. As GE operates in such a diverse range of sectors, its competitors are a complex web of global, regional and local players each competing fiercely for tenders, contracts and partnership agreements.
While GE has had some notable successes, overall awareness of the GE brand, its history, capabilities, vision and solutions remained low within key decision makers in all target groups, according to Chris Dobson, strategy director for Asia Pacific at Imagination.
In a highly competitive market, the lack of awareness creates problems for GE in achieving its commercial and brand objectives, he said. In China, GE is often mixed up with GM, and few people know that Airbus engines are sourced from GE, for instance.
Thus, the innovation centres were conceived to build affinity for the GE brand by reinforcing localised R&D to build stronger partnerships with Chinese clients. There are plans to build six innovation centres in total spread across the west, south and north of China.
Imagination's belief was that brand experiences offer engagement beyond traditional communications. "In a market as broad as China, and as specific as energy and healthcare, an experience-based solution was needed in a way that also conveyed commitment and permanence," Dobson said. "That broke down the boundaries between brand and visitor, and promoted co-creation and action to tackle the region's toughest problems."
The onus was on creating a framework that could tell the GE story in an engaging, memorable way, he added. "An existing template did not exist." The overall strategy behind these centres was realised through an approach to create a journey that took visitors through four key imperatives.
- Credibility: Who is GE and why should I care?
- Context: What are China’s 'toughest problems’ / what is GE innovating against?
- Content: Creating meaning and value around a range of industrial and healthcare products
- Immersive experience: The chance to play, explore and learn in your own way
Individual interactive touch-points, each with a clear communication objective that delivers the GE proposition, were combined with intuitive graphics for easy digestion of the vast amount of information associated with GE's work in China.
This year is the fifth year since the formation of GE's 'In China For China' (ICFC) initiative. From 2008 through now, more than US$170 million has been pumped into projects with the purpose of developing products and solutions for Chinese business-to-business customers. Forty products have been launched into the market so far.
“Many successful ICFC projects have been turned into real products to solve challenges for our customers in China," said Xiangli Chen, president of GE China Technology Center. "GE is committed to continuously investing in leading technology locally, to help China grow."
According to China’s 12th five-year plan for building a water-saving society, a 30 per cent cut in water consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) is targeted by 2015. Water treatment technology is one of the research and development focuses at GE, aiming for less energy consumption and a more robust treatment system.
In a recent pilot for a global alcoholic beverage client, GE’s non-thermal brine concentrator technology achieved a recovery rate of more than 99 per cent of the water used in the beverage plant.
In the railway sector, GE Transporation provided all the locomotives used in the Qinghai-TIbet rail service, in collaboration with client China South Locomotive and Rolling Corporation.
According to Dobson, an overt focus on ‘product’ was avoided as far as possible to ensure a relevance in brand building instead of product sales.
Upon arrival at the centres, guests are greeted at reception by a large digital screen featuring a personalised welcome message. The 3D-animated screen displays greetings from GE technology hubs around the world to convey the size and scale of the GE brand, also includes a scrolling news feature with key innovation stories from around the GE network.
Commenting on the Technology Center in Shanghai, Douglas Newkirk, associate director at M Moser Associates, said it was a physical built-in canvas meant to guide visitors intuitively through the symmetrical space. "The design emphasises the natural flow of human traffic as people make their way from one door to another. We call it responsive story-telling," he said.
Multi-touch screens form a sand-box inspired interface, allowing users to manipulate a series of infographics displaying key facts and figures about GE using digital markers. Smart projection walls also have the ability to play branded firms called up from connected iPads to provide a memorable content experience.
Conrad Lim, technical director at Imagination, pointed out to Campaign Asia-Pacific that GE branding placements are consistent in all presentation layouts, be it on the iPads or on wall screens.
The agancy is currently working on converting the brand experiences into a series of online apps and downloads to effectively sync up with GE’s through-the-line campaigns.
Since 2010, GE started to let its scientists and engineers in China take the lead on research projects, rather than just playing a supporting role to its global research headquarters in New York. Rather than follow its historical path of developing products and adapting them for emerging markets, GE is distributing locally invented ones globally.
Its handheld ultrasound scanner is a good example of what the company calls "reverse innovation". In ultrasound technology, GE found that in wealthy countries, performance mattered the most, followed by features.
In China, price mattered most, followed by portability and ease of use especially in rural regions of the country. As a result, a portable scanner was developed for that market—and is marketed in other emerging countries with similar healthcare conditions, such as India.
“It is quite encouraging to see more and more China innovations serving not only the needs of Chinese customers, but also needs of global customers,” said Mark Little, president of GE Global Research.
“Just importing and duplicating overseas technology for China doesn't work anymore. It is only through close integration of local market needs and technology can success be achieved with R&D efforts.”