Is your company a ‘thought leader’?

If you are a CEO, CFO or CTO, you might have heard one of your marketers justifying a marketing investment on the basis that it establishes “thought leadership.”

But what does that even mean? And how can you measure the return on an investment in thought leadership?

The company as “thought leader”

The original use of the term “thought leader” applied to an individual, and it is still most often used this way in the media. It means someone whose view and opinions will shape trends and influence the opinions and actions of others.

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson make the list pretty much every time someone compiles a ranking of the top individual thought leaders in business.

But it can be a very good strategy to make your company itself a thought leader. The company’s communications, launches, partnerships and corporate initiatives become a source of influence shaping a market sector or market trend.

“But Adam,” you are saying, “the ‘thought leadership companies’ are simply those led by the thought leaders themselves.”

Yes and no.

Of course, the thought leaders I named earlier are recognized as thought leaders because they built such influential enterprises as Apple, Tesla and Virgin.

In many such cases, there really is no meaningful daylight between the leader’s personality and the company’s market presence and influence.

Even before these companies were successful and vastly influential, a huge part of the reason they attracted early notice was because of their leaders’ charisma, vision, drive and boldness.

But the rest of us are not Jobs, Musk or Branson. We don’t have the platform or public persona to attract that kind of white-hot-spotlight attention to our ideas and products, no matter how great.

Yet there are many, many companies that are thought leaders in their individual markets and niches. They get there by adopting marketing strategies that enable them to convey influential ideas to the right audiences.

The Four Ps of Thought Leadership

Everyone knows about the original “Four Ps” of marketing: Product, Price, Placement and Promotion (I’ll be writing a blog post about those Ps soon).

An effective thought leadership marketing strategy has its own Four Ps: Personality, Purpose, Passion, Publish.

Personality: Thought leader companies have a personality, an attractive, engaging sense of who they are as if they were a person.

If your company were your friend, how would you describe him or her? Just like people, companies can be fun, exciting, challenging, laid-back, dull or quirky. Jennifer Aaker’s pioneering work in defining and analyzing Brand Personality applies to how you consider your company’s personality.

People want to be associated with and listen to engaging leaders. Have you chosen the personality traits you want your company to convey? Are they authentic traits, meaning that they flow from your brand, products, services, customer engagement and other elements?

Purpose: What’s the compelling mission that drives your company? Is it bold and will it change the world when you accomplish it? As Guy Kawasaki points out in his amazing book, The Art of the Start, your mission should be about making meaning, and getting money, power and prestige are not making meaning.

In many cases, this means introducing a new product or service category that previously did not exist, driven by your company’s purpose to make meaning and change the world.

You need to be able to articulate the company’s purpose simply and crisply. It should be clear how your products and services support and drive that purpose. See how Elon Musk’s mission is explained in seven simple words in his profile on Forbes: “Redefine transportation on earth and in space.”

Passion: Is everyone stoked by the mission? Can everyone in the company say what the mission is? Most importantly, are you so fired up by the company’s mission that your passion comes out in every conversion inside and out? Thought leader individuals and thought leader companies have a passion for their vision that is contagious.

Publish: Having a handle on the other three Ps will benefit your company in important ways. But making these characteristics public is when you create a platform to become a thought leader. This involves disciplined messaging, a sustained commitment to analyst relations, public relations and content marketing. It demands strategic campaign plans to highlight the company’s mission, convey a contagious passion and let the personality shine through. It requires people who can speak about the company’s purpose with passion.

Measuring success

Good thought leadership campaigns result in clear outcomes. Some of them are:

  • The company is sought out by journalists and analysts for comment on market trends related to your purpose and offerings.
  • Your executives and subject-matter experts speak at conferences to convey their views on market trends.
  • Your customer contacts bring you and your team in for workshops and to discuss trends with their internal teams.
  • Your terminology and labels for new ideas start to be used by industry observers.
  • Competitors start to parrot your messaging and solutions.
  • Customers issue Requests for Information and Requests for Proposals related to your unique areas of expertise, using your terminology and concepts.
  • Customers budget and launch projects for your particular type of new solution and, most importantly, you win these projects and revenue.
  • Customers want to evangelize the trends along with you and join you in webinars and in conferences.

These outcomes can result in a flywheel effect. Evangelizing customers will spark more media interest, more conference presentations, leading to more sales opportunities, and so on. Ultimately the value of your brand will be multiplied as it is associated with leading an important market trend.

None of this happens overnight. But a strategic approach to establishing thought leadership in your market will pay long-term benefits in improving sales and company value.

Prime Product Consulting empowers start-ups and small B2B tech companies to punch far above their weight classes. Learn more: