20 Lessons from a Century of General Electric Storytelling

Photo by Twenty20.

Unless otherwise noted, all photo credit is to the GE archives.

Over the last 15 years, over 52% of the Fortune 500 companies have gone extinct. A common theme among all of the failures is a lack of attention to storytelling. GE has endured for over 100 years due to it’s storytelling, messaging, and advertisements. The GE brand has outlived empires, two world wars, global Communism, and most of its competitors. The power commanded by the General Electric brand evolved over the span of more than a century. To command a brand for a commendable feat — but a century? Only the best of advertising and marketing can guarantee that kind of dominance.

To fully understand the power and depth of GE, you have to go back to its roots and understand that the GE we know today is an amalgam of different companies and innovations. Like all great ideas, it starts with a light bulb and a good cup of coffee.

A placard showing the use of Edison Electric Light Company (to become GE in 1892) lighting. “The use of Electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep.”

(1) When introducing something entirely new to the marketplace, anticipate consumers’ concerns about health and safety. Never assume that they won’t ask.

“Heated inside without fire, it does perfectly alone what others do with outside head and extra work.”

In 1892, Edison Electric Lighting Company became General Electric, rolling out everything from light bulbs to irons and even train locomotives.

(2) When you have the consumer won over to your new technology, hit them in the pocket first. They’re going to assume something new is going to be pricey because it often is. Don’t be afraid to play up the fact that prices are coming down.

As time progressed, GE positioned itself at the forefront of human progress and optimism. With their technology working its way into every home and even spanning the Panama Canal, they capitalized on massive leaps in human ingenuity at the beginning of the 20th century. (3) Co-opt the Zeitgeist of your time to be associated with the best your era has to offer.

Simultaneously, GE didn’t allow itself to be painted into the corner of cold, unfeeling industry. If the Zeitgeist of the early 20th Century was that of progress and innovation, it was also one of inhuman industry and the growth of mass commercialization over craft production. If there’s one thing that defines the GE brand — even with a name as un-exciting and un-humanized as ‘General Electric’ — it’s humanized technology. Early General Electric adverts place humans front and center with their consumer technology. (4) Sell your experience and paint a picture that is familiar to consumers. Throw them into the marketing.

As technology progresses, consumers discover bumps along the way. A growing kitchen turns out to have few norms or ideas for organization. Replacing the icebox with a refrigerator means that the latter is going to break and somebody has to fix it. Electricity in every home brings with it dangers of electrical fires. In other industries, we see automobiles bringing car accidents, smartphones bringing tunnel-vision screen-binging, and texting killing the art of making a phone call.

A well-crafted brand doesn’t ignore the negative perception of change but instead leverages it to its advantage. Technological dangers and discomforts open up opportunity in the market for superior technology — and superior brands — to fill the void instead of forcing a regress to times before the technology. (5) Capitalize on consumers’ worries and fears to offer a superior product and optimistic vision for technology.

The 1930s thrusted the television set into the American home (powered by GE for the first broadcast!) and made the consumer-facing aspect of GE even more prescient, yet this didn’t stop GE from taking a holistic approach to their brand. (6) If you learn to coopt the positive elements of the Zeitgeist, also learn to fight the negative. 1940 brought with it a world embroiled in war and the dark side of modernization, but GE continued its push for progress. This also parlays well into a recruiting move, which GE continues to play up to this day (more on that later).

The conclusion of the Second World War hastened the Baby Boom and a spike in consumption and mass production. Just as with the first spike in the beginning of the century, GE led the charge in home appliances, lights, televisions, radios, and any easily mass-produced electric system for the consumer. With mass production of consumer goods came with it a radio (and later a TV) in every home. Radios and TVs in every home brought with them the opportunity to delve into entirely new forms of advertising. Like the technology that precipitated its entrance, GE was once again at the fore of this advertising with a well-known movie actor named Ronald Reagan.

GE Radio Theater was one of the first successful examples of branded content leveraging major celebrities. Reagan, who himself was well-known as a movie actor at this point in his career, hosted an anthology of guests that ranged from James Dean to Zsa Zsa Gabor to the Marx Brothers. The show was not an informercial for General Electric products. Far from it, GE Radio and Television Theater focused on plays, short stories, and anthologies with the primary motivation to pull the consumer in and entertain them. Once they were pulled into the show, Reagan would offer updates on GE’s technological research and new products hitting the market.

For the short eight years that the show ran on television and radio, GE Radio Theater offers a plethora of lessons in branded content.

(7) Understand the power of branded content. GE Radio Theater is a major departure from the print advertising that had defined GE until 1954. Before the distinction between branded content and sponsored content was a thing, GE led the charge into both. Doing more than simply offering advertisements at the end of shows, GE Radio Theater made itself distinct from broadcast advertising. Each episode ended with an update on GE’s work that tied back into the entertaining and optimistic Zeitgeist of the postwar boom. This gave listeners a reason to listen in through the broadcast and not turn off the show when the update came. Reagan traveled the country speaking to researchers and workers at GE’s facilities and learned about the new innovations they were working on while simultaneously leading audiences to these revelations. Traditional sponsored content follows a model like this: [ADVERT] CONTENT [ADVERT]. GE’s branded content was a model closer to CONTENT BRAND CONTENT CONTENT — not just reading an ad and instead informing the listener along the way allowed GE to take a huge step towards distinction.

(8) Understand that marketing is not give and take. It’s give-give-give-give-give-wait-take. Marketing is markedly different than sales. Sales can be described as a process of give-and-take. What we learn from iconic campaigns like GE Radio Theater is that marketing is much more than give-and-take. Putting a warm, human face like Ronald Reagan’s at the front of the brand made it possible for GE — a company that made cold, electric devices and employed scientists in far-off cities in unseen laboratories — to build a brand that would transcend different products and inspire an entire category of marketing research to this day. A consumer thinking of purchasing a GE blender or a Westinghouse blender may feel more affinity for GE because of growing up listening to Reagan’s anthologies on the radio, despite those being decades prior. The giving done by GE Radio Theater continues today.

(9) Don’t paint yourself into a corner by being preachy. Entertain, don’t inform. A hamfisted approach to what GE achieved with Radio Theater would be a show interviewing GE scientists and researchers and letting them talk about all of the amazing things that GE is researching and developing. This is the straightforward and the analytical approach. It’s also the wrong approach unless your primary target audience is overwhelmingly straightforward and analytical. This is captured today in podcast interviews with experts on highly technical subjects — these pale in comparison to shows like Welcome to Night Vale, This American Life, and Serial. The GE approach was more roundabout. The primary stakeholders in GE’s marketing were the people in the home. This could be housewives charged with choosing new appliances for the household, children interested in getting a new radio or television set, or the husband looking to buy industrial tools. These people are, for the most part, not looking to be informed about the best technical matters of the newest research. They may be looking to be wowed at the pace of technological progress but that is a separate point and more of the emotional and storytelling sale than the analytical sale. Focus on storytelling — even seemingly irrelevant stories will do more to build rapport with the viewer or listener than preaching.

(10) Dominate new media to capture a specific image. Before a radio was commonplace in every home, GE Radio Theater was already on television. For a company associating itself with progress (so much so that the show opened with “Progress is Our Most Important Product”) being on the most high-tech media paid off at a premium. Whatever your value is that you want consumers to understand, know that the medium is the message. If you want to be associated with technology and progress, dominate drones, virtual and augmented reality, and immersive video. If you want to be associated with nostalgia, dominate podcasts-ala-Radio Theater and blogs-ala-print.

(11) Let your listeners and viewers pickup where they want to. GE Radio Theater was the podcast format before podcasts existed (in fact, as we discuss below, GE has brought back Radio Theater as GE Podcast Theater). One of the reasons podcasts capture the audience they do is because they are modular. You can pick up on episode 115 after stopping at episode 95. The anthological nature of GE Radio Theater made it easy for a listener to pick up an episode in their car and then tune in after missing a few episodes for another several weeks later. This was particularly important in the historical context of the time when streaming and reruns weren’t a thing. If you missed an episode, you’d be out of luck unless you were able to procure a physical recording.

(12) Let your audience guide you. Take a moment to check out the list of all of the guests from GE Radio Theater. Every guest was a massive hit in their time. GE knew that Radio Theater was to sell the average consumer on their products and the association between their products and progress. Rather than put scientists or unknown celebrities on the show, they followed what consumers were already chasing and put them behind and in front of the GE logo at the beginning and end of Radio Theater. Don’t try to lead your audience. Let your audience lead you.

Reagan’s tenure at GE Radio Theater was brought to an early close after he attacked the Tennessee Valley Authority as an example of “big government,” and was fired by General Electric. Radio Theater’s replacement, GE True, only lasted a season and featured another anthological format but fell victim to attempting to combine two then-iconic brands.

(13) Put your brand at the forefront. The quick demise of GE True can be tracked to GE attempting to combine its brand with that of True magazine. While working together to feature GE content in True or to somehow feature True magazine in GE advertising could and does work to this day, taking a new medium like television and attempting to combine two iconic brands together results in both being pushed forward a little. Ultimately, the show ran under the title True after GE killed the first season.

(14) Invoke Nostalgia. The future was better in the past. Nostalgia is your friend, even if the events of the past paint a cloudier picture. Position your brand in such a way that you can issue a challenge and take up the altar of the optimistic future of the past for yourself. For General Electric, this was easy. The company came about during the single largest expansion of capital in human history and was originally founded by a businessman who would become a titan of industry in the American collective consciousness: Thomas Edison.

For the next 40 years, GE continued on its march as a company branded by progress, science, and innovation. At the height of the Cold War, the GE brand could be thought of as the American brand painting an optimistic future for what western capitalism could look like up against far eastern communism. (15) Leverage your unique position against something to be avoided to fully live out the GE lesson in branding from this era.

Fast forward to nearly thirty years since the collapse of the USSR and GE, now an iconic brand at risk of being perceived as “stodgy” and “old-fashioned” has a new challenge it never had to deal with before: don’t let yourself be perceived as the dinosaur in the room that just makes appliances.

GE’s compatriots in the “stodgy, and old-fashioned” category of American industry are defined by their lack of humanness. These large, faceless corporations operate as hubs of work for most Americans but are defined by little more than a stock of consumer-facing products and a stock ticker. This makes everything from sales to recruitment difficult, especially when these companies face attacks from smaller upstarts chipping away at their different verticals and are recruiting heavily from the best talent in the country.

The focus of GE’s contemporary advertising in light of this challenge is to (16) humanize, humanize, humanize. Take the time to look at any number of advertisements on the GE YouTube channel and you’ll notice that they all play up human elements like “What my mom does at GE,” “how many women GE wants to employ,” and how GE can use humor (the most human creative element) to promote their products.

Childlike Imagination video:

Millie Dresselhaus video:

Efficiency hack video:

There’s the added complexity that most of GE’s products are the consequence of long, complex sales. Purchasing jet engines or hospital devices takes a lot longer and has more stakeholders than simply buying a microwave. GE’s campaigns like “Unimpossible Missions” helps speak to stakeholders at every level of the game that GE products are those that will help them get the job done. (17) Speak to stakeholders at every level of the game, not just those at the sale.

Unimpossible Missions:

3 Lessons from GE Podcast Theater

With podcasting coming out of its phase of being a niche product and going mainstream, GE recaptured the style of GE Radio Theater by launching a series of branded content podcasts under the umbrella of GE Podcast Theater. Like its predecessor on TV and the radio, GE Podcast Theater focuses on entertaining, not informing.

(18) Sound nothing like an ad. Most podcasts released by companies (rather than networks) sound like advertisements. If you’ve ever opened up the newspaper to find what looks like an article but reads like an ad, you’re unsurprised to see “Sponsored Content” at the top or the bottom of the page, showing the article is a faux-article and really an advertisement. Modern branded content is decidedly not that. “It’s like GE creating a TV show,” said Andy Goldberg, chief creative officer at GE. “I don’t consider it advertising. It’s a podcast show that just happens to be produced by a brand instead of a network. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go out and buy a jet engine.’ It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is about, without selling the GE brand.”

(19) Modularize your content. The thing that can easily be achieved with podcasts that couldn’t with 1950s advertising is modularization. Listeners can skip a few episodes and return to earlier ones with ease and without losing track or feeling like they lost something from the show. Modularized content allows you to keep repeat viewers/listeners without losing the opportunity to pick up more people as your content goes on.

(20) Capture both continuity and variety. On the broader point of modularized content, the rise of the Season format in podcasting gives content providers with the opportunity to give a theme or set of continuity to a show — entertaining with a specific format or set of guests — without locking themselves into a tired format. Most shows launch as one season, often released all at once like a Netflix show, and then take up a new brand under a new season focusing on new content. For GE Podcast Theater, The Message was the first foray into podcasting with one season and now listeners enjoy LifeAfter, the continuation of The Message under a new set of rules.

The impressive brand developed by GE over a century of advertising gives fodder for CMOs and marketers looking to revitalize an established brand as well as take command and develop rapport as a new, unknown brand. Capitalize on these lessons, validated by more than a century of a commanding brand.

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