GE CMO Delivers
‘Imagination’ for Growth
July 15, 2005
BY MICHAEL KRAUSS
don’t get any better than Beth Comstock, CMO of Fairfield,
Conn.-based General Electric Co.
I was skeptical when my editor said, “Go say ‘hello’
to Beth and ask her for an interview.” We were standing
in the venerable Chicago Club, a bastion of corporate power that
would intimidate the uninitiated. In just a few minutes, Comstock
was set to join a group of world-class CMOs at Spencer Stuart’s
annual CMO Summit.
Expecting rejection, I made my way to the front of the room. Comstock
couldn’t have been nicer. Then what she said on the panel
blew me away.
The gist is this: After years of focusing on operational effectiveness
and deal-making under retired CEO Jack Welch--who created the
ultimate $152 billion corporate enterprise--GE under CEO Jeff
Immelt is focusing on marketing, innovation and growth. Comstock
is right at the core of the effort.
Listening to her I realized a tectonic shift is under way at GE.
Comstock and her colleagues may be today’s most leading-edge
technology marketers. No, check that: Comstock and her team may
be the most leading-edge marketers of any stripe on today’s
For my money, Comstock has the most exciting challenge a marketer
can face in a professional lifetime. More importantly, Comstock
is the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
Comstock is the first CMO at GE in more than 20 years. Immelt
appointed her two years ago this month, and her programs thus
far have been remarkable, visionary and bold. Comstock is focusing
GE’s reinvigorated marketing function on growth and innovation.
In the process, she’s giving marketing a well-deserved seat
at GE’s management table.
One of Comstock’s core programs is the “Imagination
Breakthrough Initiative.” It’s an organic growth effort
through which marketers throughout GE are charged with identifying
projects that must each yield $50 million to $100 million or more
in incremental revenue. According to Comstock the marketing teams
meet regularly with the CEO.
“We’ve held marketing accountable for delivering some
big growth targets as we reinvigorate marketing,” Comstock
says. “Marketing can’t do it alone, but marketing
owns this initiative to drive double-digit growth.”
To find top-line growth, Comstock has marketing work closely with
the technologists to harness innovation. “That’s a
huge change from what people thought marketing did even two years
ago,” she adds.
Will GE lose its prowess in engineering and become a marketing
company? Not a chance. “We have far to go before we have
to worry about engineers fleeing,” Comstock quips. “We
want to get the balance right.”
Comstock’s team is focused on the marketplace. They’re
acting decisively with imagination and courage. Judging by GE’s
recently launched “Ecomagination” advertising campaign,
the technical expertise of this group is outstanding. It’s
hard to recall a more clever, high-impact, yet strategically focused,
hardworking creative effort. Kudos go to GE’s ad agency,
BBDO New York, for its professionals’ efforts.
What inspired me most about Comstock is her inclusiveness. She’s
bringing together cross-functional teams with diverse backgrounds
to get the job done. When she said as much at the Spencer Stuart
summit, it snapped my head back. Here’s a marketer who can
energize and lead. Here’s a marketer with passion. Comstock
has all the traits necessary to pull off the growth and innovation
The task isn’t going to be easy. Cutting costs and aligning
companies through mergers is a lot easier than identifying new
products and new markets. Successful innovation is hard work.
Taking center stage after Welch led GE to unprecedented glory
is no mean feat.
Immelt and Comstock might have become caretakers. They might have
coasted and basked in Welch’s creation. But that’s
not Immelt, Comstock or GE. Under Comstock, GE stepped away from
its acclaimed and highly recognizable tag line, “We bring
good things to life,” and moved to a new tag line, “Imagination
at work.” Comstock sees the tag line as a key communications
tool. She wants to seize the opportunity to communicate about
growth. She wants to communicate about GE’s future, not
its past. She’s willing to take appropriate risks.
Under Comstock, GE unleashed an impressive branding campaign to
position the company globally and to raise expectations and optimism
about what’s possible through technology and innovation.
Once again, the early returns are favorable.
Consider the strategy behind the “Ecoimagination”
advertising campaign. The ads include dancing elephants and fashion
models in coal mines to point to the need for breakthroughs in
environmentally friendly energy production.
“We understood more of our customers wanted technology that
had environmental benefits,” Comstock says. “Most
people want to do right by the environment, but you also have
responsibilities to make money. We really rallied around the notion
that technology is the answer.”
“The creative has been a lot of fun,” Comstock says.
“It’s built on metaphor, a bit of whimsy, a bit of
a wink. We try to have a sense of humor in most of what we do.”
Comstock leads a corporate team of 70 and is responsible for a
global marketing organization of 5,000 professionals across GE.
Comstock entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg,
Va., she planned to be a doctor. She also had a desire to tell
stories. Instead of medical school, Comstock took a job in broadcasting.
That led her into production work and then public relations. She
soon came to the attention of Bob Wright, CEO of NBC Universal
Inc. in New York, who turned GE’s acquisition of RCA into
a huge moneymaker. Under Wright, Comstock rose to become senior
vice president at NBC.
Comstock credits Wright for teaching her “how to get a better
grip on business realities,” a critical attribute if you’re
going to succeed at GE.
I asked Comstock to share the traits GE is seeking in marketing
“We’ve been focusing on what we call leadership traits
for growth generation,” Comstock says. It comes down to
five key areas.”
- A great
amount of expertise
for marketing professionals who are curious and passionate. “These
are the leadership traits that I was evaluated on as part of my
talent review and what we’re evaluating all of our marketers
on,” she says.
has even assembled a SWAT team. “We were looking to hire
senior marketers who’ve had track records in different industries
to go into an in-house consulting group,” she explains.
Her team includes academics, packaged goods and healthcare veterans,
a biochemical and an aerospace engineer and a classically trained
been fun to see what happens when you bring people with different
backgrounds together. Really great ideas come out,” Comstock
advocates marketing as a career choice for today’s grads.
“Marketing is a great destination because you’re involved
in different projects, industries and emerging trends. If you
love to learn, marketing is a great place to put your energy,”
great marketers in our company are integrators. It’s a great
training ground to become a CEO.”
Could a marketer
run GE? According to Comstock, one already does. She says Immelt
began his career in the group she now heads.
Krauss is a partner with Marion Consulting Partners based in Highland
Park, Ill., and can be reached at Michael.Krauss@Marionpartners.com