The Mother of Invention

“Necessity is the mother of invention” – Unknown

Truer words were never uttered; especially for companies termed “Built to Last” by authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras. Eighteen companies made the list including 3M, American Express, Boeing, Citicorp (now Citigroup), Disney, Ford, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Marriott, Merck, Motorola, Nordstrom, Philip Morris (now Altria), Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Wal-Mart.

Collins and Porras contend “visionary companies prosper over long periods of time, through multiple product life cycles and multiple generations of active leaders” (1994, p.2). It’s evident that each of the 18 companies has staying power, but equally important is how they communicate a new life cycle to a new generation of consumers (audience).

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll examine the leadership General Electric (GE) needed to make to continually tell its story of past and future.

Retro: GE’s Live Better Electrically/Medallion Homes Campaign (1950s)

For a family of the 1950s, new advances in technology were becoming available for the modern home. The spot showcased a variety of products available for purchase including, a dishwasher, range and refrigerator/freezer combo, among others. The concept that GE was really selling was time and improved quality of life. Imagine no longer having to actively perform routine tasks manually. That would be a time-saver in itself!

In the 1950s, GE, in partnership with Westinghouse, would “co-sponsor a multi-million dollar nationwide campaign to promote the sales of electric appliances and the benefits of electric power. The campaign, called “Live Better Electrically,” was also endorsed by electric manufacturers and utility companies. The ultimate marker of having these features was to be called a “Gold Medallion Home.”

According to an article published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, certain characteristics were required for the designation:

“To earn a gold medallion, a house had to be solely sourced with electricity for heat, light, and power; have full 150-ampere service with a specified number of outlets

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

and switches per linear foot; and include specific appliances like an electric range, refrigerator, and even air conditioner—customary now, but revolutionary then” (Walsh, 2016, p. 9).

The visual of the Medallion Home was found on house keys, sign posts, doorbells and even embedded in the concrete sidewalk surrounding the home. One sign of the success of the effort: entire planned communities sprang up touting Gold Medallion Homes for sale. If ever there were an opportunity to keep up with the Joneses, this was it.

For a home to have the Gold Medallion was a symbol of modernity of the times. In an article published by the Los Angeles Times, the campaign was deemed successful: “By some estimates, the nationwide goal of about 1 million all-electric homes was achieved, according to the Edison Electric Institute, although data on the actual number built is unavailable” (2001).

Modern: “What’s the Matter with Owen?” Campaign (2015)

In the future, the United States will need “nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade and 2 million of those jobs are likely to go unfilled due a “skills gap,'” according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. Making it more difficult for companies like GE was the idea that millennials with skills in tech-related fields didn’t see a place for themselves in a legacy brand like GE.

Sensing an opportunity, GE embarked on a rebranding effort to lead the way in attracting a new generation of talent. With these 17 words in a tweet, GE ushered in the dawn of a new era for the company:

“Hammer”  is one of a series of “What’s the Matter with Owen?” commercials which has seen heavy rotation. Through the campaign, the company positioned itself as “GE. The digital company. That’s also an industrial company.” The emphasis was no longer on industrial products, but rather digital ones.

This clever campaign was developed in 2015 as a way to recruit the next generation of big thinkers to the company. In order to compete, GE needed programmers and lots of them. The campaign sought to shift public opinion, but as evidenced by the ad, the fictitious character “Owen” struggled to convince his own parents of the company’s transformation.

However, the ingenuity of this spot resonated with job-seekers in a new economy, particularly those with technology-based backgrounds. This campaign showed how a developer could be connected to something larger than him or herself: it was a connection to a storied history.

It should come as no surprise that the effort paid off for GE as company officials told Business Insider visits to GE’s online recruitment site 66% month over month.” Now other companies are forced to play catch up.

Final Thoughts.

The key to being built to last appears to be staying relevant as GE has done with the examples outlined above. According to Forbes, GE held the spot of the world’s 10th most valuable brand of 2016.

Leadership success always starts with vision,” according to John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership. Oftentimes, it is a vision which no one else sees. The housewife in the first GE commercial couldn’t see it over budget concerns; the fictitious parents in the “Owen” commercial were dubious because GE was known for making things one could see and use.

The idea of change can be a difficult one to accept. That’s why in each of the two advertisements, one can see GE trying to ease the cognitive dissonance between the present state and the future state by providing a reasoned explanation of how change can come about. In the Retro example, it is done by the announcer advising the housewife to buy what her budget will afford bit by bit. In the Modern example, it is with “Owen’s” explanation to his parents of how programmers can help with the manufacturing process.

Leadership means selling others on an idea of not just seeing what no one else can, but also creating it and having others adopt the new innovation.


Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last : Successful habits of visionary companies(1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperBuss.

Walsh, P. (2016). Gold medallion homes bespeak decades of energy efficiency. ei, the magazine of the electroindustry, 21 (3), 8-9.


One thought on “The Mother of Invention

  1. Lesley,
    First off, I just have to say I am thoroughly impressed with your blog format. It will definitely challenge me to step up mine. I absolutely agree that in order to stay relevant organizations must sell their vision to their constituents. An organization must continuously be evolving. I work for a Fortune 12 healthcare company and it is an industry that is always changing. Changes can come from different outlets such as advances in medicine, policy reform and changes in manufacturing. We are constantly working on initiatives to anticipate changes 5 years out. In Harvard Business Review’s article “To Lead, Create a Shared Vision” the author discussed how this idea of being a visionary was essential in leadership. And people want to be a part of a vision. As you described in the retro GE ad, consumers were clamoring to be a part of the Medallion Home movement. They wanted to share in the vision. As organizations strive to stay relevant, hopefully they will learn lessons from those organizations that have done so effectively.



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