The Power of an Innovation Junkie: Beth Comstock at Thunderbird

Courtesy: Deepali Ramaiah

One handshake from Ms. Beth Comstock and you know that you are speaking to an extraordinary person. Her career has led her from quiet beginnings in Virginia, to stints at CBS and NBC where she became President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, and onward to GE, where, in 2003, she was appointed the first Chief Marketing Officer in over 20 years. A self-confessed innovation and change junkie, Ms. Comstock elaborated on GE and herself in a speaker session hosted by the Thunderbird Marketing Association and Net Impact, focusing on GE being a “Brand in perpetual motion”.

To begin with, she spoke of the need for marketers and organizations to first understand and articulate what they mean and do for the marketplace. While there is great value in commercializing and scaling, organizations have to pay attention to heeding the call to change and bringing the impact to life. GE has had a lot of experience on this front as they have serve business customers, that are not just B2C but B2B, B2G and beyond. The biggest challenge in terms of existence and marketing at GE has been the importance of being cohesive, despite being in so many multiple industries across the world.

Courtesy: Deepali Ramaiah
Courtesy: Deepali Ramaiah

Ms. Comstock impressed on the need to stress on scale and yet be relevant to the customer, regardless of sector. As marketers, she said, there is a need for intimate, authentic relationship – which GE has, because they know about how businesses work inside and outside. According to her, an issue that has always existed is that customers want you tell them what to do next. When it comes to building brands i.e the bottom line for any marketer is to know that marketing is marketing and people are people. The key to being a good marketer is to appeal to both the emotional and the rational sides of a customer as it is never going to be possible to separate the rational from the emotional. Her message to aspiring marketers in the audience was to “Be true to who you are, strive to be the best and put that best out there” and to never forget to align yourself around your customer. She added that marketers need to understand where the world is going: to be a visionary and make that vision understandable to the organization and being able to see change when others prefer to see the status quo. Additionally, it is not enough just to be a brand builder, but to make sure to get in on the business process very early and making sure to tell the business story well.

Turning to GE, Ms. Comstock spoke of the big trends on the horizon: the combination of technology and the idea of the physical world meeting the information world. This could mean sensing and analyzing data that allow people to know what is going to go wrong before it goes wrong. On both the local and global front, the pressing need is for organizations and its marketeers to scale and adjust at the local level. Increasingly, intellect is coming online and thus the need to go outside the organization to get solutions. She remarked that the problems that are facing businesses today are much bigger than one person to solve. Hence, the customer experience increasingly needs to delight, while customer relationships need to have relevance.

It was a hugely enriching experience for all those that attended her session and she had everyone on the edge of their seats. While it was a tremendous honor for someone of Ms. Comstock’s caliber to grace Thunderbird with her presence, Ms. Comstock, in turn was also impressed by the passion and drive of Thunderbird students, being able to work in any situation, anywhere in the world.

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