When you think of General Electric, what enters your mind? The shine of a lightbulb? The high torque density of laminated salient pole rotors? Or a glowing, hopeful feeling about the ingenuity of the human mind?
If it’s the third option, you’ve been touched by GE’s brand halo. Perhaps a visual even appeared as the halo did its work: pristine wind turbines or young engineers literally catching lightning in a bottle.
Traditionally, the brand halo effect describes how a positive experience with one product can increase purchases of unrelated products from the same brand. Apple is a classic example. The 2005 success of the iPod led to a 27% increase in Apple computer, software, and service sales, despite marketing focusing on the iPod alone.
Here’s the thing: it’s no longer necessary to purchase a product for the brand halo to work its magic, and industrial companies should pay attention. In the price-sensitive and cut-throat markets in which many industrial companies compete, a positive brand halo could be the difference between being a leader and a laggard.
A New Kind of Halo
Content marketing, particularly video content marketing, is expanding the reach of the halo effect.
Content is a product. It’s produced, distributed, and consumed. Video is the most immersive form of content so far, at least until virtual reality gains ground. We can see a growing trend of brands establishing in-house production studios, including L’Oreal, Pepsi, and the snack-food company Kind. Marriott, which opened its own content studio in September 2014, has received serious attention for its short film series Two Bellmen. The two installments have racked up 5 million and 7 million views on YouTube so far. David Beebe, who heads Marriott’s Global Content Studio, explained to the Washington Post, “In all of these stories, the hotel just acts as a character…It’s not about us inserting ourselves in the middle of it.”
While GE has not established an in-house production studio (yet), video content has been a consistent part of the company's strategy. The firm has had a YouTube account since September 2005 and was an early adopter of the video platforms Instagram and Vine.
GE’s videos are about the story of scientific endeavor. Just as Kind tells stories about healthy lifestyles or Red Bull (the granddaddy of in-house video production) celebrates extreme sports, GE’s videos are not about GE’s products so much as humanity’s quest for technical advancement. “We really believe that our content can sing on its own,” said Sam Olstein, GE Global Director of Innovation, in an interview with Native Advertising.
GE's core competency pivot to a “digital industrial” company won't change the company's commitment to producing innovative content. If anything, expect more videos. No longer limited to the physical sciences, GE's latest campaigns highlight the data-rich Industrial Internet and aim to draw software developers away from the likes of Apple and Google.
The viewer attention GE has gained is impressive. GE’s collaboration with the Slow Mo Guys on super hydrophobic surfaces alone has gained 11 million views since being posted in January 2014 (watch the video below!). But a brand halo isn’t about high engagement numbers. It’s about creating a lasting impression that has a downstream effect on buyer decisions.
GE frequent establishes partnerships for content creation, including establishing a Creator-in-Residence program.
Most of the examples named above are straightforward B2C brands, and the GE brand halo has certainly been able to influence consumer purchase decisions of microwaves, washers, and dryers in the past. But that’s not the whole story: home appliances and lighting have constituted a small fraction of GE’s revenue (about 8%) in recent years, far smaller than the company’s aviation and energy segments.
Even more telling, GE confirmed the sale of its home appliance segment to the Chinese appliance maker Haier Group in a deal announced in January 2016.
Let's recap: 1) The purpose of a brand halo is increase sales of products under the same brand. 2) The vast majority of content viewers can’t buy what GE is selling. So what’s the point of creating hours and hours of video footage? Is GE about to cut its content strategy off?
Unlikely. The company has been trying to sell off its appliance segment since at least 2014, quietly deemphasizing focus on its consumer-facing business. Instead, GE has realized for some time that industrial companies have an amazing opportunity to capitalize on public opinion of science.
A 2015 Pew poll found that 79% of U.S. adults say that science has made life easier for people, and a majority believe science has improved the quality of food, health care, and the environment. Many benefits of a “scientific innovation halo” apply to industrial companies that don’t sell directly to consumers at all:
- Connective tissue of the company. Enormous entities such as GE can be incredibly silo-ed. A strong brand can keep geographically and organizationally distinct units aligned.
- The glow is contagious. Well-received content can pave the way for strategic partnerships, as other firms wish to be associated with the brand halo.
- Bolster brand immune system. Let’s face it, industrial companies are susceptible to hazards other industries do not face, from environmental concerns to employee injuries. A halo that keeps the industry’s net benefits to society front and center helps companies recover from negative press/events through increased consumer trust.
- Innovation attracts innovation. After Watson’s viewer-boosting appearance on Jeopardy!, IBM received unsolicited suggestions as to how the cognitive computing system could be applied in numerous fields. By inspiring bright minds, firms can open new avenues of invention and attract talent.
But most importantly:
- Client executives are content consumers too. Remember those laminated salient pole rotors? Competing project bids filled with technical specifications are hardly thrilling reading material. But what if potential clients also happen to be Sci Fi buffs? Remembering satisfying content – say, watching astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the feasibility of a Mad Max world – could tip the scale from loss to win in completely unrelated transactions.
Industrial companies aren’t blind to the potential offered by brand narrative delivered in a video format.
A 2014 survey by the Content Marketing Institute found that manufacturing marketers use videos more frequently than other B2B marketers, and rate YouTube as the most effective social channel they use. The survey notes that while product demos are still the main use of this channel, video storytelling is on the rise, with brand awareness as the #1 priority.
National Geographic and General Electric's documentary television series Breakthrough premiered in November 2015.
Describing the process of co-producing a 6-part documentary mini-series with NatGeo (trailer above), GE vice chair Beth Comstock recalled the initial hesitation about GE’s motivations; no one wanted to release “a thinly disguised infomercial.” GE knew the content had to speak for itself, focusing on upcoming scientific breakthroughs. Comstock acknowledged that some viewers might not even associate the series with the company. “Sure it’s a risk,” she told the New York Times, “good content has to be risky.”
Good content is risky, but creating a brand halo through video content offers competitive advantages for heavy equipment, infrastructure, and energy firms. A strong halo can win contracts and encourage repeat business.
Siemens, Caterpillar, Maersk, and ABB have started to ramp up their video content, following GE’s lead. The brand-as-publisher model is becoming less of a novelty and more of a norm, but compelling video content is resource and time-intensive. ROI is difficult to pin down, especially when evaluating B2B content. Justifying budgets requires accurate assessments of market trends and insight into competitor messaging and digital channel allocation. But, it is hard to argue against investing in this marketing approach if doing so creates a positive perception that could influence sales.