What Is Thought Leadership For?

Thought leadership is best understood as long-term marketing.

Marketing tactics at their simplest involve a one-to-one relationship between a unit of content and a unit of product. A brand strategy ties together these episodes to create a prevailing mood as consumers and others interact with the brand itself or its products and services.

Thought leadership turns these episodes and mood into a story that extends over time, showing the brand as an actor engaged in the lives of its markets, shaping them and being shaped by them, exploring them and anticipating their needs.

Positive prognosis: Focusing on basics — and durable technology.

GE, for example, has distinguished itself in thought leadership through GE Reports, GE Look ahead, and now Breakthrough. GE sponsors content that is of interest to the company and to its markets, thereby demonstrating the company’s ongoing engagement in the problems and needs of the markets it serves. No one is in any doubt that GE will be engaged in its markets well beyond the lifetime of any one particular product.

In thought leadership, the market is not only customers: it is also the media, governments, partners, suppliers and competitors.

Unilever, for example, became a large company in the 1880s and ‘90s by positioning its soap within the sphere of public and family health: it campaigned to show the public the benefits of regular washing with soap. A century later, it revived the Dove soap brand by engaging the public in a sophisticated, and controversial, content campaign around the question of female beauty and female health (“Real Beauty”). Today it engages governments, media, the public and its competitors around the challenges of sustainability. This doesn’t just win sustainability awards — though it does win lots of those. It also demonstrates to all the players in the market that Unilever’s commitment to their futures is a core part of the company’s purpose.

Do over: Unilever recently had an artist sketch several women based on self-description, and then on description of them by others.

Thought leadership is the evidence of a company’s credibility beyond the product. It shows the company as a thinking actor in the development of the market.

Thought leadership shows that a company is actively investigating the future of its current products and planning for new ones; that it is on top of trends in its rapidly changing field; and that it is always looking for new markets.

Thought leadership is different from being disruptive. Recognizing that the varieties of healthy female beauty are to be celebrated rather than suppressed, or that resource depletion cannot go on indefinitely, or that early childhood nutrition is critical to the development of a thriving society — a central part of Danone’s thought leadership — is not disruptive so much as good common sense that demonstrates a brand’s engagement in the long-term well-being of its consumers.

Thought leadership goes beyond corporate social responsibility. Thought leadership takes responsibility as a premise rather than a goal: any long-term commitment to a market requires that the market continue to exist. This reality becomes clear in the context of globalization, as companies achieve rootedness — whether through sourcing and supply chains or through product delivery and sales — in a very wide variety of markets to which they will need to return again and again. This is why the themes of thought leadership (including public health and sustainability) almost always extend beyond any one nation’s borders.

Thought leadership gives a company solidity that could once be achieved only in a “home market.” Thought leadership makes a company at home in the world — the secret to sustainable growth on a large scale.

Scott Malcomson is director of strategy at Factotum, a boutique content-strategy firm whose clients include GE Look ahead.

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