Thought leadership: why companies are proud to think out loud

Thought leadership is a vital part of the marketing mix for any organisation, big or small. Sophy Buckley looks at how to make it work

Speaking at Davos is the height of thought leadership. The latest global big thinkers from the worlds of literature, politics, science, music, art, business – even royalty – are all at the World Economic Forum’s annual show. And so are the reporters.

The reporters are key because they share what they hear with a wider audience. In this way thought leadership is a virtuous circle. The more famous you are, the more people listen – and the more people listen, the more famous you become.

Go-to experts

Thought leaders are go-to experts, trusted sources who move and inspire others. But they’re not just found at Davos; in fact they are everywhere. Finding them and publishing their ideas raises both their own profile and that of the organisation for which they work.

In a world where it’s hard to get anyone’s attention, having original and well-expressed ideas helps position the organisation at the forefront of its field, as well as find new audiences. Laura Overall, corporate communications manager at CNH Industrial, one of the world’s largest capital goods companies, puts it like this: “We have lots of ideas within the company and if we’re not talking about them to an outside audience it’s like having a dormant seed. Thought leadership enables our seeds to germinate and flourish.”

While her company is quite conservative – “We’re not Tesla” – it does have disruptive technology and plenty of people who think outside the box. “We try to channel both these aspects into our thought leadership,” she says.

Essential part of the marketing mix

It’s a similar story at PwC, the assurance, advisory and tax services firm, where Jeremy Grant is international editor of Strategy + Business, a management magazine published by certain member firms of the PwC network. He says thought leadership burnishes the credentials of the company and of the individuals who work there. As a result it is an essential part of the marketing mix.

“Like any organisation that sells knowledge, we have to recognise we’re in a competitive market. Having great ideas isn’t enough. We need to let the market know how great we are and thought leadership is an essential tool along with marketing and networking,” he says.

So in a noisy, competitive market, how does a company go about creating readable thought leadership? For many, the starting point is to look at areas where it has a natural voice in a particular sector.

Add value

“We choose topics and areas where we can position CNH Industrial at the forefront,” says Overall. “Underlying everything we say is sustainability, because that is so important to us as a company – in our products and our processes. Focusing on perhaps alternative fuels and more sustainable technology such as Powertrain is perfect. Also precision technology in agriculture, helping farmers do more with less. We’re leaders in these fields and the importance of these topics goes far beyond our own strategy into the wider world.”

Part of the reason for sticking to a limited set of topics, she admits, is to ensure that the company’s commentary adds value. “We won’t comment on just anything. We don’t want to be known for being full of hot air,” she says.

At fintech start-up Token, whose technology facilitates frictionless bank direct payments, the marketing department has a very tight focus on what it wants to comment upon: open banking.

“Our thought leadership is strategic,” says Marten Nelson, co-founder and chief marketing officer. “We do have a list of related topics and we are constantly adding to them as we go along. It’s important to try to react to events as they come up.”

The news angle

Being nimble enough to comment on the news agenda is a big bonus – and those that are fleet of foot can find themselves published in some very desirable media with huge and highly valuable readerships. The comment pages of the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Time all take commentary from people with an interesting and informed take on what’s going on. From the less well known, however, they may demand a more robust line of comment than from an established company not looking to rock the boat.

“Our goal [in thought leadership] is always to spur innovation and creativity in the reader’s mind,” says Nelson. “For that we probably need to be a little edgy. We need to stick our neck out a bit. But you do need to strike a balance. Although we’re a start-up we have become a market leader in a short period of time. This means we can make predictions about open banking and people will listen.” Token uses FirstWord to help develop ideas and write the pieces, drawing on the agency’s strong journalistic credentials to create stories that will resonate.

Grant, a former Financial Times journalist himself, is also keen to piggyback on the news agenda, saying it is “unthinkable” for PwC to be silent on the big issues of the day. “While you shouldn’t slavishly follow the news you do need to know when to jump in with a point of view. It takes us to a place where our clients already are. That’s because, quite naturally, they are consuming news in their own sector. So it helps to connect with that,” he says.

Once established as a thought leader in the minds of editors, the requests for comment start to build.

Knock on doors

CNH Industrial launched its corporate website in 2015 and actively started promoting lines of thought leadership. Overall says at first it was hard work to get noticed, but it quickly paid off.

“We did lots of knocking on doors, pitching ideas such as the work we were doing on autonomous tractors because it was cutting-edge,” she says. “Now we have to filter requests. But it does work. For ages we owned the subject of autonomous tractors and whenever anyone wrote about them they always came to us for comment. It was great.”

But thought leadership isn’t all about getting into the premier-division media. It also feeds the marketing machine in terms of company websites, social media, trade titles, speaking slots at conferences, sales collateral and recruitment. Key to maximising its impact is experience and planning.

Relevance, focus and impact

Grant is convinced that having thousands of hours under his belt in a newsroom gives him the edge when it comes to teasing out the right angles for thought leadership. “It helps to have an editorial lens when making those kinds of judgments. Companies are tending to hire experienced journalists because they need that experience. I think that’s why my role has started to exist. That editorial lens is not just helpful but essential to ensure relevance, focus and impact,” he says.

Without strong editorial judgment, it’s easy to end up with copy that simply reflects the views of the most powerful person in the room, which are not necessarily the most interesting. That’s why Grant works on this with the marketing team right from the start.

“You really need that lens at the beginning, when the topic is being teased out,” he says. “Apart from anything else, it helps avoid a situation where you are having to ‘reverse engineer’ changes to a piece of through leadership after the fact, to make it better.”

Often, external writing agencies, including FirstWord, are used to ghost-write pieces because PwC partners trust the value of a ghost-writing agency and may well be time-starved themselves. When they do write, Grant acts as editor.

Marketing support

In this way, creating successful thought leadership requires editorial intelligence, not just editorial services. Having said that, getting thought leadership in front of the right people involves good old-fashioned marketing.

Grant gives as an example a recent thought leadership project involving a written piece and an animated video that Strategy&, PwC’s global strategy house, produced on automated freight matching in trucking.

“It was an excellent piece but I have to admit that its success took me by surprise. It wasn’t linked to the news cycle so it was standalone. We supported it with events and sent it to clients and others who might find it interesting, trying to create a conversation. It really helped that we had the right marketing muscle behind it and almost immediately we got two new clients. That’s the gold standard for what thought leadership can do,” he says.

Beyond the written word

Strategy&’s experience with the trucking thought leadership is impressive and highlights the importance of remembering that it isn’t just about the written word. Grant used animation, too, while podcasts, speeches and film videos are also excellent vehicles.

Overall uses an agency in Turin to produce video, which she leverages via the online portal Askanews. This helps drive traffic. “We often video speeches we’re asked to give. Putting it on the portal will mean a speech gets seen by more people. We will also promote it with social media, tweeting about it before the speech and then again after. It all helps,” she says.

She also uses FirstWord to create some written thought leadership and the rest is produced in-house. “We find using an agency works well for pieces that require more crafting. Although it takes time to brief them properly and there can be a few rounds of editing, the output is professional pieces that often have an external perspective that makes them better stories,” she says.

When it comes to measuring success, there is no single quantum. For Overall, it’s about being part of an ongoing conversation in which the company has a critical interest. At PwC, Grant says the marketing department follows demand for and response to each piece very carefully. “These days there is definitely a halo effect from social media and you can see how many shares, likes and eyeballs a piece has attracted. It’s very trackable.”

Meanwhile, Token’s Nelson attributes the fact that the company receives an increasing number of invitations to speak at conferences partly to the thought leadership it puts out. “I think it’s key to getting the interest of larger organisations. They don’t like taking risks and seeing the quality of our thought leadership reassures, it gives us gravitas,” he says.

Indeed, underlining everything is the need for thought leadership to be quality output. Whether an organisation has the resources and skill in-house to produce it or outsources all or some to an agency, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the result, in Grant’s words, is well crafted, focused, relevant and timely. Achieve that all the time and you might get an invitation to speak at Davos 2020.

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