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