In the 1950s, General Electric sponsored General Electric Theater, a primetime television series hosted by Ronald Reagan and starring actors including James Dean, Bette Davis and the Marx Brothers in adaptations of novels, plays and short stories.
Six decades on, the company is reviving the GE Theater brand for a venture in fictional storytelling using podcasting.
GE Podcast Theater’s The Message is a serialised, eight-episode science fiction tale of a cryptologist working to decode a broadcast from outer space, with help from a GE scientist using GE’s real-life ultrasound technology.
The series, a co-production with Panoply, the podcast network owned by digital publisher Slate, is the latest push by GE into content marketing as it looks to grab consumers’ attention beyond traditional advertising methods.
The company is working with the National Geographic Channel on a TV documentary series about science and technology, which will begin airing in November.
Separately, GE is working with Wattpad, a social reading and writing app, to let people create their own versions of a much older kind of branded content: the comics the company produced in the 1950s to stimulate children’s interest in science. GE’s technology played a starring role.
For GE, whose main business is selling big industrial equipment to other companies, the goal is not to urge consumers to buy more GE-branded lightbulbs but to engage with audiences while informing them about what GE does.
“We want you to see GE in light of an interesting story being brought to you by GE,” Andy Goldberg, the company’s global creative director, said.
He said he wanted the listener to think that “GE brought me a great piece of content, and it doesn’t feel like advertising. And if you go deeper, you can learn more about [GE’s work in ultrasound]”.
Panoply has made sponsored audio content for other brands. It worked with HBO to make a companion podcast for a documentary about the illustrator of the Eloise children’s books.
GE has been an early adopter of digital platforms and social media in its marketing efforts. It was among the first brands on Vine, Instagram and Snapchat, and spends 35-40 per cent of its marketing budget on digital media, more than many other big marketers.
Mr Goldberg expects more brands to follow, especially as consumers have more ability to avoid traditional advertising by skipping TV adverts on their DVRs, watching advert-free streaming video and using ad blockers to strip adverts from online articles.
“There will an even bigger mix of what brands do, from the everyday advertising to the more content-based engagement set to building true narratives from brands,” he said.
“Think back to the 40s and 50s, with TV shows sponsored by and brought to you by [brands]. It’s a return to our roots. People want to engage with brands if you’re offering something of value rather than shouting. Ad blocking has been enabled because brands are shouting at you in the digital space.”