GE Uses Hot Sauce to Burnish Image With Young Recruits

  • Manufacturer fights to `stay relevant' to younger audiences
  • Marketing prof warns `try too hard to be hip' and you aren't

General Electric Co. is overhauling its business, moving away from finance toward big machines such as gas turbines and jet engines. Now the industrial behemoth has a new product to promote its engineering prowess: hot sauce.

A limited run of the tongue-scorching condiment, created with the help of High River Sauces, was designed to drum up interest in GE’s advanced materials that can withstand high temperatures. The sauce, sporting packaging made of the silicon carbide used in jet engines, went on sale Monday on Thrillist’s website.

It’s the latest in a series of off-kilter marketing efforts by GE to subvert its image as a boring old conglomerate and appeal to a younger generation of engineers.

“They’re intentionally doing a set of things that is inconsistent with the image that younger people have of GE,” said Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor as Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “They’re trying to re-frame what their business is.”

There’s a serious purpose behind the hype: communicating GE’s dramatic transformation to potential new hires, business partners and shareholders. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is selling finance and consumer-focused businesses, while also building a software division to enhance the usefulness of the industrial equipment at GE’s heart. He’s even moving the company to Boston, where he says it will be easier to hire software engineers than in Fairfield, Connecticut.

The marketing approach may backfire if GE turns off the very audience of digitally savvy hipsters and geeks it’s trying to attract.

“If you try too hard to be cool or hip, you absolutely aren’t,” Hennessy said.

GE Comic Books

The company has sponsored “Tonight Show” segments, produced sci-fi podcasts and made GE-branded comic books. It’s all over social media. With Thrillist, it previously sold a line of futuristic silver sneakers designed by luxury footwear maker Android Homme to celebrate GE’s contribution to the moon boots used by NASA astronauts. And a television ad campaign is supposed to help the company compete for Silicon Valley talent against the likes of Google and Facebook.

“We want to be part of that zeitgeist,” said Linda Boff, GE’s chief marketing officer. “How do we stay relevant, how do we stay contemporary, how do we reach new audiences?” The company didn’t disclose the marketing budget.

Data Analytics

GE, which is looking to marry data analytics with industrial equipment such as jet engines and gas turbines, formed a digital division last year as part of Immelt’s goal to create a top-10 software company by 2020. Immelt said in February that GE’s software operations generated $5 billion in sales and are growing 20 percent a year.

To keep up with the growth, GE is hunting for engineering talent, and the company found success with a run of TV commercials focused on the software business. Known internally as the “Owen” ads, they feature a nerdy-but-hip young man who explains to his befuddled friends and family that he’s going to work at GE -- to write code rather than work in a factory.

Since the campaign started late last year, the number of inquiries from prospective new hires to GE’s digital division has increased eightfold, Boff said.

“We are in a fierce hunt for talent,” she said.

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