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Beth Comstock

Comstockgreyseat-2The big danger in writing a book that profiles leaders in any field is that they won't be in their current position by the time the book comes out. That's especially true in marketing where the lifespan of the typical CMO is about the same as a fruit fly's.

So I started writing Secrets of the Marketing Masters with some trepidation. Sure enough, by the time the book was published, only one of the six marketers I profiled was still on the job. 

But my book's lonely exception proved my contention that marketing is not about downstream functions like sales or advertising but about satisfying customers' upstream needs, values, and aspirations. It's less about selling something than figuring out what customers need and how to provide it.

Beth Comstock had just become GE's chief marketing officer when I interviewed her more than a decade ago. And that was clearly her philosophy, not only in rhetoric but in practice.

She's not only still at the company, she was just appointed one of four vice chairs reporting to CEO Jeff Immelt.  She's still CMO, but her responsibilities have been broadened to include the entire purview of "Business Innovation." 

This excerpt from Secrets of the Marketing Masters helps explain how it came to be:

In a company with fabled bench strength, [GE CEO Jeff Immelt] made his top public relations executive the company’s first chief marketing officer since Welch had abolished the position 20 years before.  Immelt charged her with driving innovation throughout the company’s ranks. 

At first, her appointment as CMO had people outside the company, as well as some GE lifers, scratching their heads.  The fast-talking 42 year-old had begun her career covering the Virginia state legislature for a local news service, and later moved to GE's NBC, working in media relations in Washington and New York. ... By 1996, Ms. Comstock was NBC's chief spokeswoman, before becoming senior VP-NBC corporate communications. ... About two years later, in August of 1998, perhaps thinking about the imminent launch of his successor, Welch appointed her the company’s vice president of corporate communications.

An autodidact throughout her career, when Immelt broadened Comstock’s responsibilities to include marketing, she gave herself 90 days to figure out what she was supposed to do. She studied best practices at companies from Procter & Gamble to FedEx and 3M. She brought in a raft of marketing gurus and peppered them with questions.  And most importantly, she spent time with the company’s business leaders.

GE’s structure was the other reason people wondered why the company needed a chief marketing officer. Each of the conglomerate’s divisions handled its own marketing and was fiercely independent. Their mantra was “if you tell me what to do, you can also take responsibility for my numbers.”  That’s what had led Welch to eliminate the position in the first place. What would a chief marketing officer do at GE, other than preside over quarterly show-and-tell sessions that led nowhere?  

But Immelt had a little more than that in mind. ... In the fall of 2003, Immelt emerged from a series of long-range strategy sessions with his division leaders and told Comstock he was struck how often the environment and climate change came up in their discussions of emerging trends that would impact their businesses over the next five to ten years.  “I think there’s something there,” he told her, but I don’t know what. See what you can do with it.” 

To Comstock, taking on environmental issues seemed like a big leap for a company that had spent much of the previous decade refusing to excavate toxic chemicals it had dumped into the Hudson River (which was legal when GE did it).  What was widely perceived as the company’s “arrogance” had made it one of the environmental movement’s favorite targets.    

But she dutifully began an 18-month investigation of the issue, bringing in some of GE’s biggest customers for what she billed as “discovery sessions” with the company’s top leaders. In the course of the two-day sessions, 35 customers at a time, in industries such as energy, aviation or water debated market and technology trends with senior GE executives, including Immelt.  In effect, they were asked to imagine life in 2015—and the products they would need from GE.

Comstock and the other GE executives took away a clear message: rising fuel costs, ever tighter environmental regulations and growing consumer expectations will translate into demand for cleaner technologies across all of the company’s infrastructure businesses, which represented nearly 90 percent of revenue. ...

The company’s “ecomagination” campaign grew out of these sessions.  But Comstock hesitated to move too quickly.  Instead she began a year long “listening tour” among employees, customers, investors, activists and public officials. The basic idea had come from customers, but they cautioned the company not to get too far ahead of them, especially in talking to public officials.  Not too surprisingly, the other constituencies were all somewhat skeptical, especially the company’s own employees. 

“Our internal audience was the toughest,” Comstock remembers.  “They were worried it was just a PR campaign, that it wasn’t real. Some doubted we could deliver.  And they were all aware of the company’s very public battle to keep from removing PCBs from the Hudson River.”  To Comstock, this was a make or break issue.  “If employees don’t buy in, customers won’t either,” she says. “Marketing is all about culture — internally and externally. You can’t create something that sticks unless you get into the culture.” 

Skepticism was not limited to lunchbox toting rank-and-file employees.  Immelt told Vanity Fair magazine that by his count eight out of ten of the company’s senior executives “were against the plan” when they first heard about it in December of 2004. Comstock remembers the boardroom presentation as an audience of frowns that got deeper with every PowerPoint slide.  Over the following months, Immelt and Comstock laid out the argument for the program.  The company had already invested in it – as the number one producer of power-plant equipment, airplane engines and locomotives, it had little choice. 

Years of R&D had already given it the most efficient large-scale energy technologies on the market.  ... With the exception of the Hudson River controversy, GE actually has a good record on environmental performance.  Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy gave the company plaudits for setting high standards and for holding managers accountable for meeting them. Finally, clean energy was vital in the overseas markets GE had already targeted for 60 percent of its growth and where major customers were subject to the Kyoto Protocol. 

Immelt summed up his pitch in a slogan that may have sealed the deal internally, as well as among other skeptical constituencies – “Green is green,” he says.  One thing GE employees do understand is the company’s relentless focus on revenue and profit.  “Ecomagination” was not being adopted because it was trendy, or even the moral thing to do.  It was about making money by giving customers what they need.

Immelt himself launched the “ecomagination” campaign in mid-2005, repeating his “green is green” slogan during simultaneous news conferences in Washington, DC, Brussels and Tokyo. Comstock says it resonated even more powerfully than she expected.  There were a few critics who sniffed “greenwash,” but by and large the environmental community took a wait and see attitude.  Immelt’s decision to negotiate an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Hudson River obviously contributed to the cease-fire. 

But the campaign also rang true to most people.  The case histories were modest and believable.  GE salespeople were armed with “score-cards” that told customers in dollars and cents exactly what the lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency of a new GE product meant to them in fuel savings. And, in typical GE fashion, the company integrated the campaign into its business processes ... with targets and metrics to track progress.  Overall, GE set a very public goal to increase revenue from clean energy products from about $10 billion in 2005 to $20 billion in 2010. 

GE beat that goal. By the middle of 2014, the Harvard Business Review was able to declare, "The company has reaped $160 billion from the program since 2005. These revenues grew twice as fast as total company sales, providing a critical crutch in the post-financial-meltdown years (GE gets about half its business from financial services)."

And that is why Beth Comstock was made vice chair of GE. 

By the way, Secrets of the Marketing Masters was just published in Mandarin. Somewhere in China some young marketer is looking at Beth Comstock as a model to imitate. Not a bad idea for us all. 




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