Linda Boff’s job is to teach the public about the stuff General Electric sells. If that sounds a little dull, you probably haven’t heard the song that electronic musician Matthew Dear created using recordings of GE’s most powerful machines, or taken a virtual-reality tour of the company’s undersea oil and gas facilities, or chuckled through a goofy commercial in which an elaborately coiffed Jeff Goldblum hawks lightbulbs. Here’s how she and her team are creating such engaging work.
Fast Company: What is GE’s biggest marketing challenge?
LB: We’ve been around for nearly 140 years, so our challenge is never making people aware that our brand exists. It’s getting them to know us as we really are: a brand that’s been about invention and innovation since day one–that’s human, quirky, and a little bit unexpected. We love science and technology, and wouldn’t trade places with any brand in the world, but we do need to constantly look for ways to surprise people in how we tell that story.
So how do you do that?
One of the things we can do is be as innovative in our marketing as we are in our technology and product development. That’s brought us very early to platforms like Vine and Instagram, and this year some of our experiments have been with Oculus Rift. It’s crowded out there, and we ask ourselves: Where are people spending their time? What are innovative ways we can show up as ourselves on those platforms?
Given how quickly those platforms are changing, what were the most significant lessons you learned in 2014?
The first is that nothing substitutes for great content, so we try superhard to bring together both content and context. We try to figure out how each piece–whether a six-second Vine or a funny infomercial–works the way it should in the medium we’re using. What works on Vine works differently from what works on Snapchat, which is different from Medium. We think about user experience. It sounds a bit trite, but it’s very true that as an industry, we need to remember that there’s someone at the other end we want to reach. And gone are the days where it’s all about the creative. It’s really important, but [you also have to figure out] how, where, and when people have the opportunity to bump into that content.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
I’m a culture junkie, and spend a lot of free time at off-off Broadway shows, museums, films. And I read like crazy. Plus I am very fortunate to have an amazing collection of friends from across media, technology, and startups, and I constantly look to them for inspiration.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
My Twitter feed is first. I follow people and news sources (and a few comedians) who help me wake up every day and figure out what the world is looking like today.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
Probably how scrappy we are at GE. We’re a big, well-known brand, so that carries with it a set of assumptions: big budgets, big staff, delegation to our agencies. None of those things are true! Our spend is shockingly small, we treat every dollar like it’s our own, we obsess–along with our agencies–about how to create unexpected moments for the brand. The team is supersmall: 20 people or so running Global Brand Marketing for GE.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
A long walk with the dog, listening to my favorite Spotify playlist, almost always clears my mind.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most, and why?
I am completely inspired by people who have brought a new perspective to their industries. Zaha Hadid does that with architecture; Tina Fey with comedy; Jhumpa Lahiri with fiction.