GE CMO Delivers ‘Imagination’ for Growth

July 15, 2005

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

Marketers 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 corporate landscape.

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 program.

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.

When 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 professionals.

“We’ve been focusing on what we call leadership traits for growth generation,” Comstock says. It comes down to five key areas.”
They are:

  • External focus
  • Decisive, clear thinking
  • Imagination and courage
  • Inclusive leadership, and
  • A great amount of expertise

Comstock looks 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.

Comstock 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 marketer.

“It’s been fun to see what happens when you bring people with different backgrounds together. Really great ideas come out,” Comstock says.

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,” she says.

“The 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.

Michael Krauss is a partner with Marion Consulting Partners based in Highland Park, Ill., and can be reached at Michael.Krauss@Marionpartners.com or news@ama.org.

 

 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners