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What Is Thought Leadership & How Do You Apply It To Your Business?

I met an interesting woman, Natalie Wood (not the deceased actress) who’s focusing her career on the subject of Thought Leadership. I asked her to cover the topic with me in a Q&A.

Read on to learn more about what thought leadership is; why businesses should care; examples of thought leadership in business; and how to leverage thought leadership marketing.

Natalie Wood of The Thought Bank

Natalie Wood of The Thought Bank

Q: What is your definition of Thought Leadership?

We see Thought Leadership as the new paradigm for how businesses market themselves and build brand. Thought leadership evolves through the efforts of both individuals and businesses making the commitment to develop a deeper understanding of the specific forces shaping their industry.

Why is Thought Leadership important?  Gautam Ghosh of Accenture claims that… “Simple, great thought leadership means never having to ‘pitch’ or ‘sell’ for business.” You become a trusted advisor, counselor and partner, not just a vendor.

Today, Thought Leadership is becoming the new standard for how people and companies communicate their value to the world and their customers.  This includes B2B strategy, marketing, product development, customer support and sales. Companies can no longer avoid the impact of Thought Leadership and what it means to their market and to their customers.

Thought Leadership enables companies to build strategic value in their industry that transcends ad campaigns, PR efforts or marketing initiatives. These types of contributions can directly affect a company’s success and brand.

Q: Why should businesses care about Thought Leadership?

Many companies are now taking on thought leadership branding initiatives as a part of their own intellectual branding campaigns. The main reason a business should care about Thought Leadership ties back to how their company is viewed by the marketplace.

Thought Leadership, as defined by… “centers on earning trust and credibility.” Thought Leaders get noticed by offering something different—information, insights, and ideas, for instance. Thought Leadership positions you and your company as an industry authority and resource and trusted advisor by establishing your reputation as a generous contributor to your industry.”

A growing number of companies have started to realize that thought leadership is a core component of becoming a successful market leader.  Most companies aspire to having their brand seen as one of the more knowledgeable and innovative in their field or industry.  And, many may want to be seen as the market leader, but haven’t put together a strategy or resources needed to make this happen.

Thought Leadership has the ability to help you and your company:

  1. Raise Company visibility and credibility to the world
  2. Educate and reach customers
  3. Enlighten the media on your contributions to the market
  4. Inspire customers and partners to connect with you in new and meaningful ways

As the business world changes, thought leadership is playing a greater role in how many of these changes are taking place. People are becoming a part of the new era of brand development. Many product focused brands are also now transitioning to people focused brands through social media, communities and increasingly through thought leadership.

People represent how a product and company are perceived by their customers and the market at large. A company’s credibility, market reach, standards of conduct and recognition are affected by the value and brand of their people. Thought leadership is the new marketing platform for people and the companies they represent.

A key finding from the survey: Engaging Global Executives: Ten Megatrends in B2B Marketing, shows that 56% of companies consider Thought Leadership as their second biggest objective for B2B marketing.  That’s number two behind building new business as the top priority in the next 3-5 year (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008).

Q: What is “Thought Leadership Marketing,” a term I’ve heard used in this area?

Thought Leadership marketing is focused on helping a company position itself as a “thought Leader” in a specific marketplace.  The strategy supports the company’s core initiatives while at the same time promoting its intellectual corporate branding.

Thought Leadership marketing programs are a part of a larger thought leadership strategy and help raise a company’s visibility with their key customer base and market.

Thought Leadership seems a little nebulous until you understand the value it brings companies. According to Dana VanDen Heuvel of the Marketing Savant Group, the value of Thought Leadership marketing includes:

  1. Prospects put themselves further into the sales cycle – shorter sales cycles,
  2. Changes the pattern and terms from how customer buy from you,
  3. Diminishes Price Resistance and
  4. Prospects experience your value before buying.

Another way to define Thought Leadership is “the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers and the broader marketplace in which it operates.” Elise Bauer.

A great way to put Thought Leadership into context is to think of it as the economic impact of ideas and content.  Thought Leadership is both macro and micro.  It helps define and influence the macro forces of markets while shaping micro forces of product innovation, marketing, and resource management of companies.

By understanding the full impact of Thought Leadership companies can align the macro forces shaping their markets with the micro strategies of their company for smarter product and marketing decisions.

As a result Thought Leadership marketing has now emerged as a new and growing standard for how companies leverage this important medium to develop market awareness, reach prospective customers and evolve into smarter, more effective organizations.

Thought leadership marketing programs include the following:

Research and Publications: Thought leadership content through market research, executive surveys and interviews. Client sponsored white papers, executive summaries and advertorials.  These are not company product or service white papers, but rather research regarding specific industry pain points and future trends.

Online Marketing, PR and Lead Generation: Integrated thought leadership marketing campaigns that tie into corporate branding and advertising campaigns with specific thought leadership messaging. Developing recognition and influence through the public dissemination of important industry research and information, incorporating podcasts, webcasts, online polls, social networking and online lead generation tools.

Custom Events: Multi-sponsored or smaller single sponsored thought leadership events that focus on specific topics and bring together various related industry thought leaders to debate and discuss current issues. These types of events help sponsors to gain visibility with senior-level target audiences and can offer invaluable networking opportunities. Event programs are often tied into larger thought leadership marketing programs and provide additional content for marketing campaigns via multi-channels that include online branding, distributed video and research. These type of events range in size from 50 to 300 plus attendees.

Thought Leadership marketing help companies be seen as more knowledgeable and innovative in their industry. These types of marketing programs enable companies to share knowledge with their clients and public, along with delivering programs that speak to the corporate social responsibility needs of their company’s branding initiatives.

Q: Please provide some examples of Thought Leadership in the business world (including the Internet) and the impact it had on each business.

Companies such as Cisco are focused on educating prospects through thought leadership. At Cisco every executive must establish and develop themselves as a Thought Leader through public speaking, blogs, whitepapers, etc.

“Once thought leadership is established, the rest of the industry, the media, academia, government policymakers and the broader business community turn to that company for ideas and for insights into where things are going.” Mark Peshoff, Senior Director of Cisco’s Executive Thought Leadership

Both Cisco and HP have several divisions with resources and programs dedicated to ongoing thought leadership research, marketing and events; many of which tie into their corporate citizenship and thought leadership branding initiatives.

One example is Cisco’s large scale thought leadership program for Cisco’s Global Education Group .

Over the past several years, Cisco’s Global Education Group has partnered with a number of leading corporate, government, educational and endowment groups to help improve education on a global basis.  They put together a 21st Century School Initiative to help improve education, technology infrastructure and the skills needed for employment in the 21st century.

Cisco also created internally a job skills training group called The Cisco Networking Academy which has classes set up in 160 countries to help teach people IT/networking skills.

In January 2008, Cisco, Microsoft and Intel sponsored a “project to research and develop new approaches, methods and technologies for measuring the success of 21st-century teaching and learning in classrooms around the world.

The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) project is focused on defining those skills and developing ways to measure them.”

As a part of this they also created an Education Leaders’ Program and Education 3.0, what they call, “systematic approach towards education transformation.”

Another example of Cisco’s Thought Leadership research on education is a white paper they sponsored entitled, “Global education 20/20: What role for the private sector?

This white paper was developed for a thought leadership event, held by The Economist in 2009 in New York, called Education 20/20: Creating partnerships to educate the global workforce of the future and used specifically for Cisco’s thought leadership education marketing and partner outreach programs.

A 21st century education system is governed and managed with the ultimate goal of maximizing learning outcomes for all students. There are transparent processes in place to communicate and implement decisions, develop and monitor curriculum, sustain the budget, and procure resources.

Additionally, policies and procedures are implemented to enable these education institutions to use data to drive school standards and accountability while stimulating and managing innovation.

Finally, school learning is recognized as embedded within and dependent on an ecosystem of partners that support learning and/or provide other essential children’s services (e.g., health, social services).

The entire system is a learning organization with a supportive culture that promotes ambitious and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Leaders throughout the system champion and model the 21st century educational vision and work with well-trained and -supported teachers.

Emphasis is placed on the recruitment and retention of both principals and teachers through carefully designed outreach efforts and training programs. A 21st century system explicitly promotes a culture of high expectations, respect, collaboration, and shared accountability.

These efforts have helped Cisco become a market leader in the area of education through their thought leadership programs which include research, marketing, events and partnership programs. All of which tie back directly into their corporate citizenship and thought leadership branding initiatives, and which incorporate their company’s main services and product offerings.

Other companies such as Crest Toothpaste, HP, Qualcomm, Coke and other Fortune 500s view Thought Leadership as imperative to their success.  What are some of the ways companies become Thought Leaders?  There are many, but to name a few… whitepapers, blogs, public speaking, cause marketing (Pepsi’s “refresh” program is a great example), PR, events, case studies, and social media.

The list goes on. But what is most important is a company’s vision and the thoughts and ideas of its people.

The ability of a company to harness the collective thoughts, ideas and vision of its people is very powerful and often inspiring.  But without a proper Thought Leadership program these visions and ideas are trapped inside companies.

They don’t see the light of day or they are crafted into PR sound bites that only reveal a fraction of what a person or company is thinking.  That is why many companies are now implementing Thought Leadership programs to help guide and develop their executives to help align their ideas with company vision and innovation.

As I mentioned above, Cisco’s thought leadership programs have been on a much larger scale than most mid-size businesses will ever employ, however, the basic principals still apply. Thought leadership programs can range in size, apply to any industry and be successful if they are part of a company’s core business and branding strategy.

If you want to be seen as a thought leader in your market, it’s important to come up with a thought leadership strategy that will enable your company to develop and deliver expertise over the long run to help your clients and the marketplace improve.

This can produce rewards for your business that can be exponential to both your company and clients along with the marketplace as a whole.  That is why Thought Leadership holds the hope of inspiring something great.

The world is watching for guidance, ideas and suggestions.  Customers and prospects want to know that you understand the pressures and challenges that affect them just as well as you know your own challenges.  And yet, they also want you to inspire them, show them the way to a better tomorrow and to a better future.

Q: If someone wants to get in touch with you, how should they do so?

The Thought Bank is a Thought Leadership Consulting Firm in San Francisco, CA where we help companies and senior executives implement Thought Leadership practices for the benefit of their brand and overall marketing.

We combine our experience in various industries along with capabilities across a wide set of business functions to provide clients with comprehensive thought leadership programs and events that build company market success and brand.

Our mission is to help companies become more effective thought leaders and increase their visibility and client engagement in the world as corporate social citizens.

The Thought Bank is currently doing thought leadership events on The Power of PlayThe evolution of games and their growing impact on business and social communities and The Future Paradigm of Housing Finance in the US. 

For further information, please contact me bu phone at 415-425-7124 or by email at [email protected]