SO, how do you say “Imagination at Work” in Chinese?
Actually, that is easy enough to answer — just check the Chinese characters next to the General Electric logo in the ads on billboards, in newspapers and in airports throughout Beijing and Shanghai. With its “Imagination at Work” ad campaign into its fifth year, G.E. has the nuances of both the language and the concept down pat.
But now, with sales to emerging economies representing the fastest-growing chunk of the company’s revenues, G.E. is tackling a more complex problem: How can it effectively prove to potential customers and shareholders in the developed world that G.E.’s creativity is translating into big sales in the developing one?
G.E.’s answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to make the biggest splash it can at the Beijing Olympics.
The company is building an imagination center in the middle of the Olympic Green, a two-story building that is half fun house, half museum exhibit. And it is putting the finishing touches on a series of print ads and commercials that put an Olympic spin on its effort to bring desalination technology to the Middle East, X-ray technology to China and heart monitoring gear to India.
“We want to humanize G.E. even as we show worldwide investors that G.E. is a major player in the world,” said Don Schneider, executive creative director at BBDO New York, the Omnicom unit that is G.E.’s longtime advertising agency.
This is not G.E.’s first effort to position itself as a global behemoth. Since most G.E. commercials use voice-overs instead of dialogue, it has always been relatively easy — and relatively cheap — to translate them into French or German or even Chinese, and for several years G.E. has done so.
But lately BBDO has been calling on sister agencies in Shanghai and Europe to help it incorporate actual foreign sensibilities into ads. The Shanghai group, for example, came up with a print ad for desalination techniques that features a school of goldfish swimming in the ocean, with words suggesting that oceans could be reservoirs. Goldfish are ubiquitous in China, and most Chinese know they are freshwater fish and could survive only in salt-free water. “Americans would never get that,” Mr. Schneider said.
The converse is true too, of course. G.E. has been running a commercial in the United States that shows a tree “walking” across a field to embrace a house that uses green technologies. A man watching the incident calls the tree a “house hugger.” Since environmentalists are rarely called tree-huggers in China, the humor would fall flat.
But such cultural segmentation will not wash during the Olympics. It is one of the true international events, as well as one attended by many executives, who often invite their companies’ customers to come along. That means it gives G.E. access not only to the 2,000 people the company itself is bringing in, but to the people its competitors are bringing in.
“On television the Olympics looks like an athletic event, but on location it’s a big business convention,” said Nicholas Donatiello Jr., president of the brand research firm Odyssey.
That is exactly the platform G.E. needs, said James R. Gregory, chief executive of the brand strategy firm CoreBrand. “They don’t have universal brand awareness outside of the United States, and the Olympics gives them the international forum to get it,” he said.
In fact, the company is not waiting for the Olympics. It has developed several new print ads that use decidedly non-Western images and themes. A water purification ad observes: “A camel can go without water for 30 days. A growing economy can’t.” A heart monitor ad notes that: “The nearest heart hospital is three days away. The nearest heart monitor is just up the road.” One solar energy ad in China depicts a flower holding a light bulb; Americans see a tulip, but the Chinese recognize it as a lotus flower.
G.E. has a more serious video on its Web site, describing its desalination projects in Algiers. It also has two lighthearted streaming videos on the sites, using a young actor who tours its research centers in Germany. Those have also run on sites like Yahoo, MSN and AOL.
Judy L. Hu, G.E.’s global executive director for advertising and branding, said that studies showed that viewers of the videos were more likely to see the G.E. brand as “contemporary, dynamic and improving the quality of life.”
Next month G.E. will begin showing two humorous commercials, one highlighting the inexpensive X-ray machine it developed for China, the other featuring the portable cardiac monitor it has built for India. Also in the pipeline is an ad depicting G.E.’s water recycling activities.
The ads are running in Europe and the United States. Although G.E. has not ruled out the possibility of running them in China, that is not on the media schedule right now. Marketing experts understand why.
“Power is concentrated in the hands of a few people in China, and you don’t reach them through commercials,” Mr. Donatiello said. Mr. Schneider said that G.E. executives could always give government officials a private viewing of the commercials, while Ms. Hu said that G.E. was working on Olympic-specific spots to run on Chinese TV.
G.E., as usual, will not disclose any aspect of its marketing budget. It has one built-in financial advantage: its television ads will, for the most part, run on NBC, MSNBC and various other cable stations that G.E. owns. But it is still clearly pushing a big chunk of money at the Olympics. It hopes to put Olympic-specific ads at local airports and on highway billboards. Even taxi riders are not safe: many taxis will come equipped with interactive G.E. games for passengers’ amusement.
The Imagination Center, however, is the most daunting endeavor, particularly considering that the building will be dismantled after the Games.
The exhibits are aimed at adults, with enough just-for-fun features so that a visiting executive need not feel guilty about dragging along the whole family. In the center’s wind energy room, children — or any adult whose inner child is clamoring for attention — can wave their arms to make digital projections of objects sway in the wind they create. In the water purification room, they will walk on a video projection of water, with each step creating ripples.
The only exhibit tied directly to the Games is a digital replica of the Olympics aquatic center, where G.E. is supplying the lighting. The ads and billboards are much more event-specific.
The ads show a field tilled to look like a running track (with the tagline, “Sometimes success is measured in green, not gold”); and windmills arranged in the form of the National Stadium, widely nicknamed the Birdsnest (“May the wind be at your back at the 2008 Beijing Games”) .
On the surface, those print ads, the imagination center and the commercials do not seem to coalesce into an integrated campaign. But Ms. Hu said that the lighthearted approach was the glue. “We are addressing our audience as human beings,” she said. “We’re not just treating them like execs in three-piece suits.”(c) NYT