Thought leadership: a step-by-step guide
Brands achieve thought leadership on purpose. No brand is too big or too small for it. Thought leadership is a skill that can be improved over time. But it requires solid foundations and a lot of work.
But let's start at the beginning: what is thought leadership, anyway?
What is thought leadership (definition)?
There are a number of definitions of thought leadership. We selected three that we think are most useful to understand the concept:
"Thought leadership is the action of introducing and promoting convention-breaking ideas that cause people to change how they think about marketplace or societal issues"(Van Halderen & Kettler-Paddock, 2011)
"The process of formulating big ideas and insightful points of view on the issues buyers face, capturing those ideas in multiple content vehicles and sharing the ideas with prospects and customers to enlighten them, engage them in a dialogue and position your company as a trusted resource" (Forrester Research, 2011 - a cited in Young, 2013)
"Ideas that educate clients and prospects about important business issues and help them solve those issues - without selling" (The ITSMA - as cited in Young, 2013)
The 6 dimensions of thought leadership
These definitions have these six dimensions in common:
- Thought leadership tackles "big questions" or issues. It requires a solid understanding of the outside world and of the issues that are important to stakeholders. Thought leadership requires brands to be plugged into the Zeitgeist.
- As a response to these "big questions", thought leaders formulate and promote "big ideas". These ideas need to be novel, convention-breaking, original, and at the very least interesting.
- You can't be a thought leader if you don't take a stand. The difference between expertise and thought leadership is that thought leadership starts from subjective point of view or perspective.
- Thought leaders are not satisfied just discussing ideas or sharing knowledge - they want to change people's minds or behavior - to influence, persuade, transform society.
- While it's different from expertise, thought leadership is built on expertise and/or trust. People have to accept the brand or person's authority to speak out on the subject and to try to influence them.
- Clearly, thought leadership is an intentional activity, as you can see in the use of words like "process, mechanism, platform, strategy".
So, what is a thought leadership strategy?
Brands pursue a thought leadership strategy to stand out in crowded marketplaces.
By developing thought leadership, brands are trying to become catalysts and magnets for the conversation around important issues - and by doing that, they are trying to generate more business.
Example: Dove "Real Beauty"
In 2005, Dove launched its "Real Beauty" campaign. It showed consumers how much work goes into turning a woman's face or body into an advertisement for beauty products. It successfully ignited a conversation about beauty ideals, body shaming and empowerment that also had a strong impact on the sales of the brand. Not only did the campaign create a lot of conversation (catalyst), in the years following it, Dove was also spontaneously mentioned and included in many conversations about beauty and beauty ideals (magnet).