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Don’t Forget the Leadership in Thought Leadership

Many brands recognize the critical need for strategic thought leadership content to sit alongside product- and purpose-oriented messaging – content that establishes the brand as an authority in a specialized field or a line of business and deeply engages decision-makers.

However, a gap exists between what brands are doing and what they need to do to achieve authority status, cut through the clutter, and better define their space or special sauce.

Reviewing more than two dozen brands’ thought leadership content, mostly in B2B, three issues reveal themselves that need to be resolved:

  • Brands latch onto a hot topic without something distinctive to say. While influencers and buyers are hungry for credible opinion, content clutter can dilute its impact. An example is the preponderance of thought leadership articles from U.K.-based firms on Brexit and its implications. While it is a concerning topic to many, most brands are simply parroting the same challenges of Brexit and the same implications, without adding a new or unique perspective.
  • Brands say something distinctive on topics covered well elsewhere. Consider who is the best authority for the content and what your brand leaders can bring to the table. Take, for example, the capability of a global bank to advise on a small business expansion overseas. Its content would compete with established and digitally savvy trade and academic publications, which are perceived to be independent. Of course, a global bank with relevant expertise can create the content, the burden is to ensure that its authority can go beyond the existing expert resources.
  • Brands outsource thinking before establishing authority. Partnering with a publisher or media agency to develop and distribute content can be effective, but a brand must earn a badge of authority in the subject matter before doing so. An example of doing this right is Microsoft and Gimlet Creative’s co-production of the “.future” podcast series, with content from Microsoft and partners that’s packaged and distributed by Gimlet Creative.

What’s lacking today is not the thought, it’s the leadership. As you identify a space your brand can own, here are five ways to assume a leadership position:

Find leaders wherever they are

Brands that show true leadership in their content often employ experts from all levels of their organization rather than using a few talking heads again and again. Use expertise wherever it may be in your company, but always put a face to a thought. IBM elevates employee passion projects into a thought leadership context. AXA, a global insurer, puts this into practice by publishing thought leadership pieces authored cross-functionally by both junior and senior employees.

That said, a thought leadership effort that draws beyond a tight group should be centrally managed with training, a playbook, and governance to avoid employees disseminating opinions or content not in line with the broader strategy.

Speak to your brand purpose

Brands that have made continual investment in their corporate social responsibility strategy aligned with their corporate purpose have an advantage in establishing authority. Consider Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles, which lays out its thought leadership in adjusting its business process to limit environmental impact. The content brings its purpose to life through descriptions of how the product manufacturing process has been optimized, discussions with experts in the space, and investments the company is making to combat climate change through science.


If you’re a brand doing activism, or brand standing as trends watcher Rohit Bhargava calls it, connect it with your thought leadership to give it more gravitas and credibility.

Integrate with your other content

Most companies avoid product references in a thought leadership context, believing they will dilute the purity of expertise. Many also keep thought leadership content in a protected bubble. While blatant promotion of products should be avoided, the expertise that sits behind the products and the way they help solve real needs can help reinforce a leadership position. Your products may be demonstrative examples of leadership in action. One example is Zendesk’s Relate platform, a unique hub that connects Zendesk’s software product to a wider business goal of establishing stronger relationships. Through posts, podcasts, papers, videos, and real-life practice opportunities, the brand’s Relate platform hosts thought leadership that is living and breathing – and inherently tied to its solutions.

Evolve creative and channel strategies to meet today’s customer expectations

A combination of content and delivery can make the difference in the success of thought leadership content. Publishers like Bloomberg and brands such as Goldman Sachs have invested in content formats optimized for scrolling, with interactive exhibits and videos designed for mobile and desktop viewing.

According to a CMI study, interactive content, compared to passive content, is more likely to be effective at educating buyers and differentiating from competitors and more likely to be shared frequently. With thought leadership content, this format might be an interactive white paper or the addition of a diagnostic or assessment vehicle at the end of your thought leadership content.

Flex the content to the channel

Knowing that consumers digest content through multiple channels and have discrete preferences, develop content in formats that appeal to a variety. Microsoft and LinkedIn made heavy strides in developing podcast series for their business-oriented audience, and McKinsey has developed long- and short-form versions of its content to appeal to executives on the go. Before defaulting to one obvious content format, understand and even test the preferences of your core audience to stretch the impact of your investment.

Questions to ask about thought leadership

The time is ripe for brands harnessing content as a brand and experience lever to revisit their thought leadership strategies and ask themselves:

  • Are we contributing thoughts that are novel?
  • Are we speaking about topics already well covered by others?
  • Are we taking ownership of our thoughts or relying on outsourced production?
  • Are we developing the content and distributing it to meet our desired audience’s expectations?

Ultimately, the expansion of thought leadership beyond its traditional boundaries is a good thing for brands – a chance to engage customers and prospects in new and exciting ways that position them not only as disseminators of thinking, but leaders and visionaries of their craft.

As my colleague Charlene Li of Altimeter says, “The foundation of leadership is credibility which is built with repetition over time. Thought leadership is no different – you must prove that you are worthy of being followed.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute