Innovation Is Marketing’s Job, Too15 May, 2015 / Articles
When I took over as chief marketing officer at GE, the mandate from CEO Jeff Immelt was to make marketing a vital operating function that could drive organic growth. We realized early on that it wouldn’t be enough for marketers just to focus on advertising and external messaging. We were in a unique position to integrate ideas and teams across the company, and to draw insights from the outside world. So we signed up to fight in a bigger way for the market and GE’s place in it.
GE’s best path to organic growth is to continue the world-changing innovation it has always been known for. The ethos of restless invention has driven us since the days of Thomas Edison. In marketing, we resolved to fuel that innovation, and also to make our own efforts as creative and valuable as the products coming out of our R&D labs.
Now, after more than a decade of experimentation, I can share the formula we’ve developed. Tested and proven at GE, it might be similarly effective for other marketers looking to create value and drive innovation in their businesses.
Go to new places. GE’s marketers have to be explorers, seeking out new places and bettering our understanding of what people need in every corner of the globe. We’ve found this to be true across industries, but particularly in health care. It’s wonderful to be trusted to create sophisticated products for highly trained physicians at world-class medical centers. But if we also want to compete in the world’s fastest growing markets, we also need to see that, in many places, power supplies are intermittent and the medical professionals interacting with patients are mainly midwives and practitioners with limited training. Marketers can provide that kind of insight and fight for better outcomes for customers in the markets we serve.
Here’s an example of what can happen when we do: GE now sells ultrasound machines that are portable and durable enough to simply be trekked in to wherever they are needed. Using them is almost as simple as flicking the on/off switch; red and green lights serve as indicators. And therefore, pregnant women in remote locations are better served. For GE, the value doesn’t end there. When marketers are empowered to understand where the world is going, the fresh understanding they deliver of what customers value and how to deliver that value can be scaled across the company.
Shape the market early. The really good innovations – the ones that change the world – need to be explained before they’re accepted. Recently, for example, I’ve been posing this question to our markets: What happens when billions of machines come online and start communicating? As we enter the age of the Industrial Internet (GE’s term for that invisible web connecting all these brilliant machines), it’s up to marketers to define for regular people and business customers how this new reality will drive different outcomes. At the same time, our explanatory powers can push our own company to do its best thinking about the possibilities for connecting industrial technology, analytics, and user experiences.
Because this is the kind of breakthrough innovation that GE excels at, one of our mantras in marketing is “mindshare before market share.” We’ve had to achieve that with ecomagination and, more recently, with GE’s innovations in advanced manufacturing. It has meant becoming a content factory – telling stories across media and methods from data to videos to social media. Through good storytelling and by connecting with others who share interests in getting those stories out, we help shape the markets in which GE’s offerings will be able to deliver value. We anticipate what our customers – future and present – will need, and describe it. Long before customers are clamoring for specific solutions, marketing is setting the stage.
Incubate new businesses and models. Part of marketing’s mandate at GE is to find ways the company has not thought of before to promote ongoing innovation. That can be as simple as creating a “protected class” of ideas that are therefore given more time to prove their value. This kind of treatment gave rise to the Durathon battery, which provides backup power for cell towers in parts of Africa where the electricity supply is intermittent. The technology began life as a project to create a battery for a hybrid locomotive; only later was it adapted for other applications. Another boost to innovation via marketing has been FastWorks, a program designed to integrate startup culture into our DNA. It simplifies development and gets products to market faster.
Invite others in. At GE, we don’t want to solve every problem alone. Partnerships are the path to speed and scale. That’s why we’ve established connections with the data competition site Kaggle, the cloud-based engineering platform GrabCAD, and the invention factory Quirky. We’ve taken to market several creations that came to us through Quirky inventors, including the sleek Aros air conditioner. These opportunities evolved from marketing people asking simple questions: Are we open to creating meaningful new partnerships? Are we experimenting often and in new spaces? Demolishing the barriers between innovators at GE and makers outside the company has expanded our creative territory, and it’s just one more way we’re fighting for the market.
Back when Edison was alive, there were still a few mad scientists around trying to invent a perpetual motion machine. Of course, given the laws of physics, it isn’t possible. But when a marketing department helps to fuel the very innovations it promotes, it can feel like it is. Perpetual-motion marketing – marketing that connects the company’s offerings to markets, and in making those connections generates new energy around invention – is a minor miracle we can achieve. And for a company whose future depends on innovation, it might be the only way to go.