Beth Comstock has held the title of chief marketing officer for General Electric since 2003. But during a recent presentation at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, she used a more colorful label to describe herself.
Appearing at the Harbor East campus in Carey’s Leaders + Legends lecture series, Comstock explained that she sees her role at GE as a promoter and facilitator of the company’s “culture of practical innovation.”
“We look to what the world needs, and we invent it,” she said. “What good is an idea if you can’t use it?”
At GE, members of the marketing department work as “integrators,” bringing together members of other areas such as technology and operations, and helping the entire company anticipate the needs and desires of customers, Comstock stated.
“Marketers at GE, and hopefully everywhere,” she said, “are empowered to understand where the world’s going, and then translate that insight into the practical actions that can make the company valuable – to understand not only what the customer values but how to deliver that value to them and then bring it back to the company as well. We have to work fast, we have to be about simplicity, and we have to be very good about navigating uncertainty. … Our marketing should be as innovative as the products coming from our R&D labs.”
General Electric, co-founded by Thomas Edison in 1892, is one of the world’s best-known companies. For many people in the United States and other countries, Comstock said, the brand has become familiar and welcome over the decades because of GE stoves, refrigerators, televisions, and other household appliances. Appliances still matter, but now, she said, “We’re a high-tech company ever more focused on big industrial infrastructure areas. Think energy, transportation, health care. We solve big problems at scale. Some people dream in color. We dream in scale.”
And those dreams, she noted, are built on “the promise of the industrial and digital revolutions. We’re spending a lot of time trying to combine the hardware and software parts of the world. … It’s a very exciting time for marketing and sales people, to figure out how to take [big] data and make our customers more productive.”
For example, she said, GE is working on a technology that would predict when a jet engine is about to develop a problem. The engine could then receive a relatively quick fix, thus avoiding a more serious breakdown that might ground the plane for a lengthy period.
Being accountable in the consumer’s eyes is “the Holy Grail of marketing,” Comstock said.
“When I took this job in 2003, I was very much motivated by [management consultant Peter Drucker’s] statement that ‘Without a customer, there is no business.’ It really comes down to that,” she said. “ … How do we make it easier for our sales force to connect with our customers? And how do we make it easier for our customers to find the long-term value from GE? We don’t want to do business with them just once; we want them to keep coming back.”
Comstock, who earned a bachelor of science degree in biology at the College of William and Mary, told the Carey audience that she didn’t attend business school but sometimes wishes she had, because of “the great networks that business schools provide. ... That increasingly is where business is moving. It’s about networks, value, taking the connections you make wherever you are and how to connect the value.”
After her 20-minute address, Comstock took questions from the audience for another 20 minutes. The closing question was posed by Carey Dean Bernard T. Ferrari, who asked how a company as large as GE can “protect the small idea” that might not measure up to GE’s typically grand scale.
Small ideas face tough odds in a big corporation, Comstock answered.
“You see so many people in the company who say, ‘I have a great idea,’” she said. “But does it scale? Or can you connect it to another idea that makes it scale?” If not, then it won’t be a good fit for GE. But if someone within the company can demonstrate that a small idea has the potential to grow to GE-level scale, then it will be nurtured.