The human touch

When it comes to simplicity, ingenutiy and creativity, there's no excuse for B2B communications to lag behind B2C

There’s no such thing as B2B marketing – at least that’s what Neil Siddons, marketing communications leader at GE Aviation, has been telling his leaders for the past five years.

In a business and industry still living in a world of brochures, data sheets and trade shows, Neil spoke to us about how GE now tackles storytelling – from purpose to people – and how B2B communications can be dragged into the 21st century

(Image: Aviation engineers and technicians witnessing their hard work pay off in Seattle for a GE commercial /Photo: GE)

Neil, you have pretty strong opinions about B2B content marketing.

I get frustrated that we think B2B is different to B2C and we try and pretend that we’re these businesses that have to use long words. It frustrates me that we don’t just use normal language like you and I talking right now. Why can’t business talk like that? Why do we have to put it in long words and long language and “solutions” and “customised” and all these buzzwords that just drive me crazy. So I guess my mantra, internally and externally, is let’s talk normally and take our lead from B2C. Because we don’t talk to other businesses, we’re actually talking to humans.

What is it about GE in particular that lends itself so well to telling narratives about itself?

It’s because we have a great history. We can tap into the organisation and look at not just the heritage of our products and our technologies but also fantastic people that have been there for years and who have their own great story. GE is one of those brands that people around the world will either know or have an association with it, albeit they’ve seen the logo or they’ve had the refrigerator or they’ve worked for the company. There are so many different natural, organic stories because GE is so big. So a lot of the content comes from us telling those natural stories, but also the breadth and depth of everything that we’re working on each day.

Do you have a favourite GE story?

I am fascinated by this idea of using celebrity endorsements. In the 1950s we used Ronald Reagan to help tell some of our stories. That’s one for the first examples of celebrity endorsement, the GE Theatre, which was really just telling stories about our business, but we used Ronald Reagan to front that. If someone did that now we would think that it was revolutionary and ground-breaking, and Campari, where we are today, would go back and say the same thing. They’ve got examples where we’ve done great storytelling, using celebrities to tell those stories in the past. And I think we forget that sometimes, that it’s so effective.

What kind of stories are being told about aviation today?

There’s loads of great technology stories. We were bringing out a new engine a few years back and we partnered with our corporate team and did a TV commercial. The commercial was all about the people who had worked on the engine, engineers designing the engine, manufacturing guys building the engine, technicians guys testing the engine. We filmed them at work, at home, doing their hobbies, and then we took them to our customer Boeing in Seattle. We took them right on the runway, as close as safety would allow us, and they watched the engine that they’d been working on for five years take off for the first time. They would never have experienced that if we hadn’t done it for the commercial. Just that raw emotion, that pride in their eyes, of seeing something they’d been working on for five years take off, was fantastic. We made it into a two-minute commercial that we ran in America. They’re the stories I love. We didn’t mention the product, we never mentioned the features and the benefits. We told the story from the eyes of the employees. It was very, very powerful.

GE is at cutting edge of technology: can you tell us what future tools we’ll be using to tell stories?

Instead of looking at your tools you look at your audience. What’s appropriate for your audience? And then try new ways. We try and keep things simple. There’s lots of great apps and channels you can use, we keep it simple and use Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn to get to our audiences, but all roads have to lead somewhere and for us it’s our website. But once you’ve got them to that website it’s about keeping them interested and that’s where we use technology, keeping them entertained and giving them the information they want. You can try new channels and do something different, but your numbers and your attention should always be growing. So if you say “I’m not going to try new channels, I’m ok with what I’ve got”, you better be increasing the number of people that are following you and sharing your content. If not that then your orders and sales should be growing. You’ve got to keep growing. I would challenge brands to really think hard about their audiences. There’s that famous quote of “People at work don’t then go home and look at a different internet, it’s the same internet.” So if you’re trying to get to that audience, where do they go? Where are they online, where are they offline?

Is that more of a pressing challenge for a B2B company?

For sure. My mantra at the moment is challenging B2B to be more like to B2C, or H2H as someone told me a year or so ago – human to human. It’s people talking to people and just being real, honest and simple and trying stuff.

Neil Siddons

Neil Siddons is a senior communications leader with GE Aviation. He leads marketing communications, covering advertising, branding, digital and social media, visual services and mobile communications. After leaving university Neil worked in fashion retail, running sales and training for brands such as United Colors of Benetton, Sisley and Laura Ashley. He joined Smiths Industries in 1999 as a sales and marketing manager. Following GE’s acquisition of Smiths in 2007, Neil become a Six Sigma Master Black Belt for Aviation’s sales and marketing team. He joined GE’s global communications team in 2010.