September 2014
7 minutes

How to use thought leadership to gain competitive advantage

Thought leadership is a powerful and proven business and strategy tool which can put businesses on growth track. (Picture: fizkes/shutterstock.com)

What do have companies like IBM, Philips, Unilever (Dove), and McKinsey & Company in common? They are all considered thought leaders within their industries. A position which they have attained over many years through large-scale content management programs and hard, dedicated work. But what exactly is it that distinguishes these few "true" thought leaders from the majority of self-proclaimed and wannabe thought leaders who use various publishing channels to convince potential customers of their skills and know-how?

Definition of thought leadership

Thought Leadership is a unique position that companies earn through the development and dissemination of new, inspiring ideas that change the mindsets and behaviors of customers and other stakeholders on issues that are of particular interest to them. The marketing of products and services is not the primary focus here. "They [thought leaders] see the world differently and are willing to share their unique insights first and foremost and only then see how their products and services can help solve their customers’ issues." (van Halderen et al, n.d.)

IBM, for example, successfully positioned itself as a thought leader regarding the question of how smart technologies like big data can help to make the world a better place. IBM's commitment "to making the planet smarter" is reflected in its business solutions, such as smart energy networks or traffic management systems.

Advantages of thought leadership

Through their novel points of view and progressive thinking, thought leaders are able to differentiate themselves form the competition and gain the attention of the customers. This creates both a push and pull-effect. On one hand, customers are pulled to the company because they trust it as a widely recognized expert in field. On the other hand, by triggering new ways of thinking, thought leaders can change industries, business models, and consumer behavior. To their own favor, of course! Other important advantages are that thought leaders can ask for higher prices for their products and services and tend to enjoy higher customer loyalty, as they are able to regularly present them with new ideas and solutions.

Positive trend for the future

In a recent Forbes article on the subject, Russ Allan Prince stated about the future of thought leadership: "[…] thought leadership remains one of the most effective and commanding business development strategies in existence and all signs indicate that the appeal of this marketing approach will continue to skyrocket in the future."

For the next few years, he identifies four pervasive interconnected trends when it comes to thought leadership:

  • Because of the great business potentials associated with thought leadership, more and more companies will take action to become or expand their positions as thought leaders.
  • However, only few companies will succeed in becoming true thought leaders, while most will not.
  • At the same time, requirements will rise. Companies need to be prepared to walk the walk.
  • In order to meet the challenges and save costs, an increasing number of companies will start collaborating with others, for example regarding the use of publication channels.

Best Practices

What should companies keep in mind when aspiring a thought leadership position?

  • Integration with business strategy: Make sure that the topics you write and talk about are aligned with your company’s core competencies and goals. Otherwise, it won’t create any real value for your customers or your business. If you don‘t have a strategy yet, get one.
  • Originality: As already mentioned, a thought leadership position can be achieved only when presenting truly new ideas that lead to new ways of how to address customer needs. Warming up old concepts won’t cut it. Tell people something they do not know. Be bold and break with old conventions. Talk about things your competitors are not.
  • Relevance and timeliness: The content needs to be meaningful to your customers. Make sure to know the current and potential future needs, priorities, and challenges of your customers. To this end, keep an ongoing and open dialogue with your customers.
  • Trust: Besides originality, trust is one of the most important prerequisites of thought leadership. Trust can be built primarily by backing up insights with data and facts. Professional presentation and the credibility of the spokesperson are important factors in winning people’s trust as well.
  • Sharing information: Be willing to share lots of information with the general public. Don’t filter information too much; otherwise it will lose its value. Spread this information using all the communication channels which are relevant to your specific target audience and which you are proficient in, such as blogs, white papers, books, technical articles, case studies, webinars, infographics, or topic-focused websites.
  • Process: Develop a thought leadership process and follow it through. Set publishing guidelines to ensure quality, relevance, timeliness, and consistency (Who may write about what topic? Which verbal style should be followed? How much data support is needed?). Make a publication schedule, provide sufficient resources, and evaluate the results of your efforts on a regular basis. Active support by top management is a key prerequisite for the well-functioning of such a process.

Thought leadership is more than just a marketing tool. It is a powerful and proven business and strategy tool which can put businesses on growth track. But the path there is long and one needs to be willing to pursue it consistently.


Halderen, M. van, Kettler-Paddock, K., & Badings, C. (n.d.). How to differentiate your company and stand out from the crowd: Thought leadership.

Prince, R.A. (17.06.2014). The future of thought leadership. Forbes Insights.

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