GE's Ecoimagination campaign shows a softer, greener side to a corporate giant.
By Ann Cooper
Of all the U.S. companies that have hitched their corporate livery to the "green" bandwagon, GE, the 115-year-old, $360 billion international conglomerate best known for its "We bring good things to life" tagline, as well as light bulbs and appliances, is credited with being the most transparently serious with its messaging and intent, winning over the skeptics along the way.
One of the first to address such issues four years ago, if not quite an affiliate of Greenpeace, then GE certainly seems to be doing everything it can to clean up its own act. And as it changes how it does business and creates products, it's also trying to persuade suppliers and partners to do the same.
The most public sign of all this activity is the company's ad campaigns. First, in January 2003, came "Imagination at work," a corporate philosophy encompassing all disciplines and media. It was also designed to contemporize GE's image, and make it known more for its hi-tech products and services than previously. Two years later came "Ecoimagination," specifically addressing green issues such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and aimed at increasing sales of energy-efficient products. Both were through longtime ad agency BBDO in New York, which had been with General Electric since 1920.
At the helm on the GE side is Judy Hu, global executive director, advertising and branding. When she joined the company from General Motors four-and-a-half years ago, Jeffrey Immelt, GE's dynamic CEO, who succeeded the legendary Jack Welch, had been there just over a year. But Immelt wasted no time in starting to transform the company.
"He had a new vision that he wanted to articulate, and he understood that advertising is one way to communicate that both to the external audience and the internal audience of employees," says Hu. "In the U.S., when asked what GE makes, 98 percent of the population will answer, 'light bulbs and appliances.' Today, that division accounts for maybe 4 percent of our revenue."
But what GE also made were medical instrumentation, security systems, wind-powered turbines, water desalination tools and a whole range of other products that nobody knew about. And globally, the issue was that not many people were aware of GE. Period. The result was the "Imagination at work" initiative. Each ad focused on a different product, ranging from security systems to wind-powered turbines and appliances. They were designed to show how GE could solve some of the world's biggest problems through technology and innovation.
But it wasn't until two years later that GE began tackling environmental issues. "GE realized that a lot of companies were talking the talk about eco-mindedness, but that GE had been walking the walk already for years," says Don Schneider, executive creative director at BBDO.
"They were way into solar and wind power, and their jet and freight engines surpassed the emission restrictions in the industry. They realized that they were an eco-minded company and began insisting that companies that do business with them also be eco-friendly. So, when a company with 350,000 people is doing that, the ripples are huge, and we have a right to talk about it."
To read more about GE, pick up a copy of the spring issue of one. a magazine.